Leaders from the AFT PSRP division, joined by a cadre of new leaders from the ranks of paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, met at AFT headquarters in Washington, D.C., March 13-15 for the first time since the pandemic began.
Grouped by job classification for an exercise in power-building, one group of new leaders labeled themselves the Do-It-Alls and began with a pandemic mantra: “You want us to do what?”
Yes, it seems that with COVID-19 came the expectation that school and college support staff, on top of being medical specialists and food distributors, would now become, among other things, mental health experts and all-around “fixers.”
Along with breaks in service and staffing shortages, students’ severe behaviors have gotten worse, said special education paraprofessional Jeff Whittle of Michigan, with aggressions like punching, biting, kicking and spitting becoming commonplace. When paras are disrespected, he asked, and verbally and physically abused, how are schools going to attract and retain them?
Participants also noted a need for schools to hire more paras with the physical capacity to chase down kids who run away, and a need for administrators to assign paras to the right students based on the paras’ expertise and abilities. Yet, some administrators have no clue what PSRPs’ jobs are, they said, and it has become increasingly necessary to educate them, as well as legislators and the public.
Whittle recommended setting up biweekly meetings with administrators, even if just for five minutes. He suggested going to local lobby days and coffee hours so that legislators can learn what PSRPs do and what help they need.
School and college support staff all bemoaned the fact that their low wages mean they are easily poached for lower-stress and higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
“This is a job I would like to have my entire life, but how can I afford to help people’s kids without enough pay to live on my own?” asked behavior intervention specialist Chelsea Shotts, a member of the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA). “This is part of why I got involved in the union.”
Respected and supported
After the PSRP program and policy council joined the new leaders, they were greeted by PPC chair Shelvy Abrams from the United Federation of Teachers in New York and AFT President Randi Weingarten, who noted that this school year has been even harder than the last one. Since last April, she has visited almost 100 schools, not counting worksites like bus barns.
Weingarten said she thinks about food service workers and bus drivers in early 2020, “when we didn’t have a freaking idea what was coming. We didn’t know what COVID-19 was. We had no idea.” And yet they figured it out and continued to serve students and their families.
Today, everyone wants to act as though things are back to normal, she said, with all the old micromanagement and disrespect, plus the expectation of everyone being happy to be back in the building but still without safe working conditions. It’s important to have in-person school, Weingarten said. Unfortunately, people are pretending it’s 2019 again. “That’s what makes this so hard.”
Our members must be respected and supported, Weingarten said, especially now as their work is harder than ever, with increased stress, staff shortages, and political interference and attacks.
The way forward is to fight for our aspirations, for the hopes of our members and our communities, she said. We fight for public education, for healthcare as a right, and for democracy, including access to the polls. “The gratitude I have for you knows no bounds. The grit, the grace, the ability to care. There’s no way to describe it.”
The PSRPs liked Weingarten’s positive approach. “I’m going to throw glitter, not shade,” said Sarah Wofford, a community college accounting specialist and OSEA member. “I’m going to bring joy.”
From elsewhere in the room came the voice of a school custodian. “I’m just thinking,” he said. “Glitter is a custodian’s nightmare.”
Not enough hands on deck
A much bigger nightmare is employee shortages, which worsened throughout the pandemic and have hit a national crisis point.
Carl Williams, co-chair of the AFT task force on shortages along with UFT President Michael Mulgrew, said the task force is studying what it’s all about but also why.
“If we have no subs, that means double work for us,” noted Williams, also president of the Lawndale (Calif.) Federation of Classified Employees and an AFT vice president.
The new leaders agreed that their work shouldn’t be undervalued or underpaid—that they must push their institutions to do the right thing and come up with the funding to pay a fair wage. That’s not necessarily $15 an hour, either, but whatever employees need to sustain a family where they live. Mentoring and professional development time should be paid time, just as it is for teachers, faculty and other professionals.
“I want it to be understood that we’re no longer just accepting this poverty wage,” said Shellye Davis, president of the Hartford (Conn.) Federation of Paraprofessionals and executive vice president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.
The PSRPs observed that other industries pay more for the same work. “People say, ‘We’re not in it for the incomes, we’re in it for the outcomes’—but we need to be paid,” Williams said.
Abrams pointed out that compensation also comes in the form of benefits. It took 50 years to get pensions for school support staff in New York state, but they did it. How? Lobbying.
Every year, union members caravanned to the state capital—one lobby day for parents and one for teachers. “We said, ‘Wait a minute, you are leaving out another group: PSRPs.’ So, we had our first lobby day for PSRPs. We told our legislators: ‘We vote for you, but you don’t know who we are.’ Now we’re doing a lobby day for PSRPs via Zoom.”
You can, too, Abrams told the group: “You have the tools in this room. You have the information. All you have to do is go back and institute these ideas. And you have to involve the community. Ministers also. Get them involved. You have the tools. Do it. You can!”
American Rescue Plan solutions
The PSRPs welcomed Maureen Tracey-Mooney, special assistant to the president for education policy on the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Mentioning that President Joe Biden had worked his way through law school as a school bus driver, and that her uncle, Tom Mooney, had been an AFT leader as president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, she thanked PSRPs for their perseverance through an incredibly challenging few years.
She also told them what the AFT means to her: “You are deeply rooted in my heart and soul.”
Even before the pandemic, she said the president knew about problems with school and college staffing because of the longtime funding crisis in public education. “We have a challenge and an emergency for our kids right now,” she said. “That’s critically important for our support staff, who have been underpaid far too long. We’re sabotaging our kids and our country, frankly.”
Biden calls for fully funding Title I. And with the first anniversary this month of the American Rescue Plan, schools have seen major increases in mental health and social services.
Tracey-Mooney asked what issues PSRPs face and what solutions they want to see.
A few of the issues they cited include lack of parent engagement; unsafe driving around school buses; children’s food insecurity; violence; censorship; uncertainties around immigration; inadequate funding for community colleges, tribal colleges and HBCUs; and attacks on LGBTQIA+ children. In some states, they said, there’s an assault on public education itself.
Kathy Chavez of AFT New Mexico spoke passionately about how PSRPs are invisible and overextended at the same time—asked to do lesson plans, IEPs and parent conferences. “It’s not that PSRPs are unqualified because they are qualified,” said Chavez, also an AFT vice president. “But it puts us in a precarious position.”
Solutions included more robust early childhood education, community schools, diversity and inclusion, legal protections for gay and trans kids, and universal school meals. The president’s Build Back Better plan, they said, remains a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain the public services families need.
“Our schools are a mess, all of our schools,” said Karen Arthmann of the Rush-Henrietta Employees’ Association/NYSUT, citing lags in students’ social and emotional growth due to two years of isolation. “We’re a rich country. We need to take care of our kids.”
Tracey-Mooney told the leaders to keep speaking publicly at all levels of government and media, and if they see things that don’t seem right, to notify the U.S. Department of Education. “We need that partnership on the ground,” she said. “Continue to tell your stories. Unless you tell your stories, we’re not going to be able to secure additional funds. That’s why we need you.”
Like Weingarten, AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus came to visit. She briefed the activists on the AFT’s citizenship clinics and about its new literacy campaign, Reading Opens the World.
DeJesus assured them that she has their backs because she grew up defending her siblings and she’s done practically every job in a public school. “I see you. I’ve been you. I walk with you,” she said. When her daughters attended elementary school, “I was such a pain in the butt that the district hired me as a paraprofessional,” a reading specialist in New York City’s Chinatown. “I can identify with you,” she added. “Believe me when I tell you that I get it.”
And then she listened.
“I don’t think we’re valued,” said Jo Ann Sweat of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Educational Support Team. “We’re never called to a school board meeting and given a plaque. I have two members who have 52 years, and I’m trying to get them recognized for their dedication.” This shouldn’t be too much to ask, she said.
Same in California, Williams said. “Nobody ever acknowledges us for cleaning a lunchroom, for lifting a student, for wiping a butt. That’s what we do.” By the same token, “nobody knows our work like us. Nobody can speak to our work like us.” When remote learning began, he said, it was support staff who made sure the technology worked. When people assumed that nobody was educating any students in person? “We did.”
“Respect means that when you see me, you hear me, you respect me and you value me,” said Angelina Rivera, president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Association of Paraprofessionals.
Jillian Zangao of the New Bedford (Mass.) Federation of Paraprofessionals said members there won raises after going years without a contract. In January, with snow on the ground, they picketed holding signs saying RESPECT. “If you don’t fight for it,” she said, “it’s not going to happen.”
DeJesus touted AFT PSRP’s new toolkit on respect, which can help local bargaining teams during negotiations. “Remember: You’re not alone in this fight,” she said. “I wish I’d had this when I was a paraprofessional. And I thank God for the AFT.”