A crowd of paraprofessionals, teachers, students and supporters filled the hallway outside the February 17 school committee meeting, advocating for higher pay for workers they say are integral to the schools’ success. .
Paraprofessionals, sometimes called teacher assistants, work to support special education students in both general and special education classrooms.
But supporters say paraprofessionals go well beyond their written job descriptions, providing social, emotional and academic support to students — whether they are directly assigned to work with those students or not.
The paraprofessional unit of the Wareham Education Association is working on negotiating a new contract, and they are being offered a 2% raise. That’s a smaller raise than what was offered to teachers and other bargaining groups within the school district, according to one commenter.
The school committee heard about 30 minutes of comments on the issue, but chair Joyce Bacchiocchi said members were unable to respond as negotiations are ongoing.
Currently, a first-year paraprofessional earns $23,013, according to the current union contract, which will expire in August. A fifth-year paraprofessional in the district earns $24,909.
A paraprofessional at the meeting said she was single and still needed a second job to make ends meet. Another, a single mother of two, said she was dependent on Medicaid and food stamps.
Michelle Houghton, a special education teacher, said an increase in paraprofessionals would be a cost-saving measure for the district. She said her class was able to teach children who would otherwise have to attend expensive out-of-district schools, thanks in large part to the help of paraprofessionals.
“Without our paras, our programs wouldn’t be as successful,” Houghton said. She said the cost of sending just one child out of the district is equivalent to the salary of two paraprofessionals.
Kevin England, a graduate of Wareham High, said paraprofessionals were integral to his success as an autistic student.
“As well as helping me succeed academically, many of these paraprofessionals would help me with any difficulties I might have had,” England said.
He said the paraprofessionals were good listeners and givers of advice, and he said their work helped him graduate among the top 10 students in his class. He now attends Bristol Community College.
“I don’t think I would have gotten this far without the help of amazing paraprofessionals,” England said, before giving a shoutout to some of the paraprofessionals who have helped him over the years.
Macy Doyle, a second-grade teacher, said the paraprofessionals she works with are integral to her students’ success. A paraprofessional, she said, spends unpaid personal time before school helping two students with their reading homework because the students’ parents don’t speak English.
Jennifer Feeney, a high school paraprofessional, described her job as ‘building a bridge between student and teacher’ making sure students have the support they need to focus on learning . She said having a cohesive and cohesive staff is critical to the success of her students.
“One way to end high turnover in these difficult positions is to pay paraprofessionals at a rate at least consistent with the cost of living,” Feeney said, noting that the country is experiencing record inflation. She said high school paraprofessionals are currently taking additional training after school — unpaid.
Nicole Roberge, a special education teacher who spoke while holding her son on her hip, said it would be impossible to write a full job description for paraprofessionals – and an attempt to do so would mean no one would apply.
“My fear is that if we don’t appreciate them enough, they will leave,” Roberge said, her voice breaking with tears as she spoke. “They can go to a job that will pay more, but they won’t be satisfied. They stay because they are fulfilled working with the children, but the fulfillment does not go further.
She said she’s worried the district is losing “the best people in our schools” and noted that burnt-out, money-stressed paraprofessionals aren’t able to do their best for students.
Indiana Troupe, a high school student, read a letter co-signed by 37 of his peers.
“Paraprofessionals make a difference in the lives of students every day, not just their own students,” Troupe said. “We are proud to be students at Wareham, we are proud of our school and the environment in our building and our community, and losing valuable members of our school community to inadequate pay raises is a way to alienate our students and many others from the school.
“We need to focus not just on keeping students at Wareham, but also on staff members who are equally valuable to our community,” Troupe said.