At Rogers High School in Minnesota, Special Ed Students Find a Safe Place in Becky Grupa

Becky Grupa comes from a family of seven brothers and sisters. She grew up outside Minneapolis and remembers riding the bus to school with her sister Victoria, who is autistic.

“She couldn’t speak, so instead she had her crying spells if she was in pain or frustrated, and some kids made fun of us,” she recalls.

The hardest thing about growing up with Victoria, though, Becky says, was “putting myself in her shoes.” The experience would prepare her for a career serving young people in her community.

Becky, a member of AFSCME Local 3331 (Council 65), is a special education paraprofessional at Rogers High School in Rogers, Minnesota, where she serves students with emotional and behavioral disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, anxiety or autism. Many come from troubled homes where they have faced more hardship than any young person ever should. What makes Becky supremely successful at her job, according to co-workers, is her ability to empathize and treat them on their own terms, as individuals.

“She just makes it so easy for kids to learn because she puts them at ease and lets them know that it’s OK if you don’t know something,” says Kristen Scott, also a special education paraprofessional. “Our special education kids are invisible sometimes, or they feel like they are, and so to have somebody see you — not because you’re not doing well or because you’re naughty, but because she sees them and recognizes them, that gives them what they don’t get in other places.”

Laura Ziebarth, a special education teacher, says Becky goes above and beyond in offering support to the students.

“One of the best qualities that Becky portrays is her nonjudgmental nature,” she says. “She is accepting of all students and recognizes that students have unique struggles, but they all need support and understanding. She is willing to sit with students and listen to their stories and offer support. … She never leaves a student without resources or an invitation to come back and talk if they need to.”

Becky has been working in special education for more than 23 years, 15 at the high school. For her service to her community and for being an inspiration to co-workers, she is a winner of AFSCME’s Never Quit Service Award, which recognizes public service workers who go above and beyond the call of duty.

“I love going to work,” Becky says. “Every day is a fresh start for me. The key for me starting my day is to keep my eyes open, to listen and to have an open heart. That is what I pray for, that is my meditation before I come to school every morning.”   

Becky has four children of her own, all of them adults – the youngest graduated high school this year. They went to Rogers, too. She says having children of the same age as the students she serves helped her establish rapport.

“They look at me as just a mother figure,” she says of the special education students. “What I love about my job is getting to know the students, and getting to a point where they trust me, not necessarily that I have to be their friend but that I’m a safe place for them to come to.”

Sometimes a friendship develops, too.

“There have been many students who have made a difference in my life,” Becky says. “There are students who have overcome struggles that were similar to experiences I have gone through, even though I had a beautiful home life. … On a personal level, I let them know that they’re not alone and that the things they’re going through, it’s not their fault. Most importantly, that life goes beyond high school and they have a choice to break the cycle within their own families.”