Warding Off Privatization, Paraeducators Gain Strength and Influence Through Organizing

Inspired by the tidal wave of creativity pouring out of trainers at a New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) summer leadership conference, paraeducators Nancy Cogland and Barbara Newman have taken NJEA’s grassroots organizing ideas and given them the opportunity to flourish back home with the Old Bridge Education Association (OBEA). The results since August are astonishing.

“We couldn’t wait to get back and start planning a workshop for Old Bridge,” says Newman, director of the para unit of OBEA, a merged local with approximately 1,150 members. “We were fired up! The training helped us understand that we (paraeducators) need to gain recognition and respect for the work we do.”

In September, after a dubious start when only 40 of the 170-member para unit attended a back to school meeting, the group caught fire by launching a community relations campaign, designing a logo, creating a Facebook page, and coordinating an anti-privatization workshop in October with almost 100 paras attending. That was just the beginning.

At the workshop, the paras distributed a 12-question survey from “Making Connections,” a National Education Association publication they worked with during the leadership conference. With more than 130 surveys out of 167 returned by March, the results were electrifying.

“After the survey results came in, I was as surprised as everyone by the vast financial support our paras provide Old Bridge through property tax, sales tax, and other forms of revenue,” says Lisa Rifkin, the unit’s vice president. “Our objective was to show our fellow community members how we impact not only the school but the community.”

For example, the survey showed the following:

  • Almost 90 percent of paras surveyed live in the district where they work. Nationally, 75 percent of education support professionals (ESPs) live and work in the same school district.
  • The majority of paras have lived in Old Bridge more than 24 years, while many attended the same schools where they work.
  • Combined, they pay more than $892,000 a year in property taxes. Two-thirds own homes in the district.
  • About 80 percent have children or grandchildren who are current students or alumni of district schools.
  • They have accumulated more than 11 years of unused sick days.
  • One in four has earned a college degree.

The survey also revealed a high level of political activism, mentoring, and volunteerism through organizations such as the PTA, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Boy Scouts of America, Special Olympics, Habitat for Humanity, youth camps, food banks, and other organizations.

Nancy Cogland, Barbara Newman and Lisa Rifkin carry the “para proud” banner. Photo: I. George Bilyk

“It’s unbelievable what they’ve done and are still doing,” says NJEA ESP field representative Bob Antonelli, one of the trainers at the leadership conference. “They are definitely an up and coming organization.”

In 2011, things were different. The local school board had considered privatizing paraeducator jobs due to budget cuts. Old Bridge paras ultimately retained their jobs but lost family health care benefits (later reinstituted). Still, talk of outsourcing para jobs had caused the group’s mood to sour and blood pressure to rise.

“Since 2011, our morale had been languishing,” says Cogland, the unit’s secretary. “We were devastated by the ever-present possibility of privatization and knew we had to do something but weren’t sure where to start.”

Their light-bulb moment occurred when Cogland and Newman attended a workshop facilitated by Antonelli at the leadership conference. It was the tipping point.

“Bob provided us with a solid plan, a toolbox if you will, that gave us a starting point,” Cogland says. “More importantly, learning about NJEA resources and how staff was so willing to support us built up our confidence.”

With strong support from OBEA President Nicole Saladino, UniServ Representative Thomas Bohnyak and other Association staff, the paras became a group to be reckoned with.

“At NJEA, we promote the concept of family,” says Antonelli. “We help and care for one another.”

After going full steam ahead last fall, Cogland, Newman, and Rifkin attended the NJEA ESP conference in February. By this time, the para unit had received an NJEA PRIDE in Public Education grant, which enabled them to purchase a banner, reusable grocery bags and other promotional items. They later purchased promotional buttons, which along with the banner, sports a blue “para proud” logo designed by Cogland and Newman.

With help from NJEA’s graphics department, the paras produced a “who we are” flier with survey results. The flier was first distributed in March at the school district’s popular Parent University. The annual event attracts parents of students, educators and administrators as well the mayor, superintendent and school board members.

It is an ongoing initiative to help parents and guardians better understand school curriculum and to provide strategies for parents to better support the academic, emotional, and social needs of their children. The OBEA paraeducators set up an information and display table in the cafeteria along with other school and community groups.

“This was our first year participating,” says Cogland.

“We are parents just like them,” Newman adds. “We are all in this together!”

The paras are now planning to participate this fall, says Rifkin, in Old Bridge Day.

“Our number one concern is the welfare of our students,” she says. “The more involved we become with the community, the better equipped we are to advocate for children.”