When Support Professionals Are Laid Off: Their Story
By Mary Ellen Flannery
When the cyclone of state funding cuts set down in Illinois’ Southwestern school district this year, it left a wide wake of devastation: More than one out of three education support professionals were laid off, including every single classroom aide.
Terry Hines, president of the Southwestern ESP association and an aide with 26 years in the district, was one of them. “There’s a lot of experience that will be gone… But I’m really feeling sorry for the kids. They’re the ones who are going to pay for it,” Hines said.
They’re not alone.
Kids across the country will be paying for it, unless Congress steps in to support the Education Jobs Fund, which would provide $23 billion in emergency funding to keep more than 300,000 educators in schools. (Learn more at NEA’s EducationVotes.)
Among them are tens of thousands of education support professionals, the hard-working people who feed our children, drive them safely to school, keep their classrooms clean, and germ-free, and also deliver critical one-on-one services to the most needy. Cutting these employees, who are among the lowest-paid and most deserving, is like carving out the backbone of American schools.
“As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said when he addressed the NEA Board of Directors, every adult who works in a school makes a difference in the lives of students,” said NEA Executive Committee member Paula Monroe, an education support professional from Redlands, California. And when any one of those adults is removed, she noted, “it has a negative impact on student learning and the quality of public education.”
In Southwestern, it means a new way of doing business next year – and it’s not one that will profit students. Every one of these men and women does something that makes the lives of students better and teachers brighter. Without Michelle Lucker, for example, the library aide at Brighton North Elementary school, the library will be closed to students except on the one day a week that the district’s sole media specialist can get there.
“The kids love having that open library time when they can come in and check out books – but they won’t have that anymore,” noted Lucker, a 13-year veteran. “No more computer classes. Nobody to help them in the morning.”
Southwestern also has invested in a comprehensive reading-intervention program but without the aides to sit down with individual students, how will it work, she wonders. And who will be covering lunch duty? Recess duty? Bus duty? You might be forgiven for thinking the fifth-graders are going to run the show next year…
Each cut creates ripples in a school community that threaten to swamp students and educators.
Take, for example, the reduction of custodians in Monroe’s district. When jobs and hours were slashed, “it had an impact on every student and employee in our district,” she said. How can three employees do the work previously done by five? They simply can’t.
So classrooms went on an “every other day” schedule, which impacted the learning environment, staff time and morale, and the stress levels of the remaining custodians whose level of commitment and “get it done” attitude kept them persevering to do “all the work!”
A NATIONAL CRISIS
In New Jersey, the story is the same. In at least two districts, every custodian got a pink slip last month.
In others, districts have cut food service. Likely, they’ll be replaced with private employees or temporary employees – but at what cost?
Said one Edison, New Jersey, paraprofessional: “I have crawled under a bathroom stall to get at a student with a meltdown, have rocked a student back to calmness, held his hand while he was afraid, pushed him to soar, wiped his tears when he was teased…How do you replace us with temps? Will the temp care?”
In Winterset, Iowa, 31 of 52 paraprofessionals have been laid off. In Boulder, Colorado, 107 of 500 are gone. And, in Brockton, Massachusetts, the board plans to cut 62 of 350 para positions, as well as 24 custodians and 41 other staff. “We’re adults and we’ll get through it, but the children don’t understand budget cuts,” said Brockton Donna McNair, a 10-year special education assistant.
McNair works directly with a dozen teenagers with autism, Down Syndrome, and varied disabilities. She helps with instruction, guides field trips to workplaces like the local hospital, and prepares her kids for life after school.
It would take the reduction of many ESP jobs to make a dent in any budget shortfall, Executive Committee member Monroe, noted, because none of these support employees make the salaries that they deserve. They’re “the best deal in town,” said Brockton’s para association president Lorraine Niccole. To make ends meet, many work two or three jobs. But still, their school district salaries help pay their rents and feed their families.
In North Carolina, where the state faces the loss of 1,500 teaching assistant jobs – on top of the loss of 5,000-plus jobs last year – unemployment already tops 20 percent in some districts. For Cheryl Virgil, an assistant in Gaston County, the miserly budget might mean a $1,400 pay cut and some really miserable choices. Should she spend her rapidly shrinking dollars on food for her family? Or on medication for her son, who has a disease requiring chemotherapy?
“I can barely afford his $60 co-pay and we can barely afford to eat on the McDonald’s dollar menu,” Virgil said. “I can’t buy a house. I drive the same clunker I’ve had for years. I shop at Goodwill. I do everything I can just to get by. Please, no more cuts!”
THIS IS NO SOLUTION
There are some things that policy-makers should know about education support professionals.
One, they actually live in the communities they serve. They lead Girl Scouts, organize church dinners, coach Little League, and befriend their students and families for generations.
Two, they’re committed to their jobs – on average, each has 11 years with their current employees.
Three, they’re actively engaged in keeping kids safe. Nearly two-thirds say they have witnessed bullying behavior, and almost all stepped in to put an end to it. And finally, without these jobs – and even sometimes with them – they likely will need public assistance to stay afloat. With that in mind, is forcing them out of their jobs really going to improve a state’s financial health?
Back in Southwestern, Illinois, a small rural district with a single high school and a sole middle school, the next town is miles down a quiet state highway and there just aren’t other jobs for the taking. “I guess maybe you could go to McDonald’s?” Hines guessed. “But how are you going to support your family on 20 hours a week without benefits?”
Hines is one of the lucky ones. She, and the only other paraprofessional with more than 30 years of experience, got job offers from the district last month.
But, instead of working as an office aide and sometimes assisting teachers, she’ll be working one-on-one with a medically needy, special education student. Important work, no doubt about that, but Hines is sensibly cautious about the medically invasive procedures she may be expected to perform.
“I don’t yet feel confident or comfortable with all the duties that may be required of me,” she said, and sighed.
“It’s just a mess here.”
Staff writers Alain Jehlen and Cindy Long contributed to this report.
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