COLUMBIA — Deann Washington directs the children at Cedar Ridge Elementary School to their seats like a traffic cop.
"You know the rules," she says in a happy but forceful tone as she points a student to the correct lunch table.
Passing through the tables, she hugs the children. Every one of them knows her name and is excited to see her.
Washington, or Miss Deann as the students call her, has worked at Cedar Ridge for four years as a recess and lunchroom supervisor and as a paraprofessional.
Recently she took on a role as a student advocate/parent liaison, a position that didn't exist prior to this year. Her new duties include helping out in the office, dealing with discipline issues and working with families summoned to the school about a problem.
Washington said she is still defining the role.
"I will pretty much be making up this position as I go along," she said.
Washington was a recess and lunchroom supervisor at Cedar Ridge for about two years before passing a test to become a paraprofessional — specialists who work with children who have learning disabilities.
Before starting at the school, she was a home-health professional taking care of home-bound patients. When their health improved, she switched to full-time work at Cedar Ridge.
She works with children who need a little extra help in their classes. Most paraprofessionals work all day with just one child, but because her assigned child doesn't need her that much, she is able to interact with multiple children.
Wearing sneakers, a Cedar Ridge Cardinals T-shirt and a silver stud in her lip, Washington has a big role in making sure the school runs smoothly.
She manages as many as four students in a day, assisting with their lessons and making sure they stay focused in class.
Principal Angie Chandler praises Washington's versatility.
"She'll be helping kids who are struggling in class — not just one child as a paraprofessional, but a bunch of kids,” Chandler said. "She can go to different classrooms. If the teacher needs help with this extra kid, she can do that."
Her responsibilities extend beyond the classroom. If she must be absent, Chandler said she feels better knowing that Washington is there.
"If I'm not here — if I have to be at meetings or something — and I know she's here, I can rest easy wherever I am knowing she's here," Chandler said.
"We think exactly alike when it comes to discipline and supportive discipline for kids."
For Washington, this is more than just a job — it's an opportunity to do something she loves and get paid for it, although money is not the most important thing to her.
Washington said her job requires a devotion to the children.
"First and foremost, you have to have a loving heart for kids," Washington said. "If you don't like kids, I don't think you should be working with them at all."
Washington makes an effort to know each child in the school, introducing herself and telling them they can come to her when they need to. She sees herself as the school problem-solver.
"I just take on a motherly role of the whole school, so I think it's more welcoming to our newcomers," Washington said.
Her son, Deangelo, is a fifth-grader at Cedar Ridge. He said he likes having his mom at school every day. Next year Washington's daughter, Da-Naya, will start kindergarten.
But the school is more than just a place for her children to start their education — it's like her home, Washington said.
"My obligation is to Cedar Ridge. I am Cedar Ridge. That's who I represent, that's who I am," Washington said. "You talk about Cedar Ridge, you’re talking about me."
It's her love for the students and the school that bring her back every day. When asked what her favorite part of her job is, Washington doesn't hesitate.
"The kids," she said. "I love them to death."