St. Paul schools troubled by shortage of special education aides
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, January 18, 2013 – Alyse Dansby helps with reading assignments, trots beside students in gym class and diffuses tension in the bustling cafeteria.
It’s her job to tell apart the kids set off by touch, the ones who crave it and the child who needs to carry a heavy box of textbooks to feel grounded. It’s her job to spot the “Einstein-smart” kids behind walls of reticence.
Dansby is a veteran aide, or paraprofessional, in the program for students with autism at St. Paul’s Washington Technology Magnet School — and no day goes exactly as planned. This school year, program staffing has thrown many of the wrenches.
A couple of paraprofessional positions stayed vacant for more than a month. A couple of new hires turned up for their first day — and never came back.
With the largest special education program in the state, the St. Paul Public Schools district is having a harder time recruiting and retaining such key support staff, administrators say. Other Twin Cities districts echo the issue, especially in intensive programs like Washington’s that serve children for most or all of the school day.
Recent years have seen a national push to make what once passed for a “mom job” more of a profession, with beefed-up education and training requirements for paraprofessionals. Meanwhile, schools have seen an influx of students with higher needs, and pay has remained modest.
“The job is tough; it’s draining,” said Melissa Schaller, past president of Minnesota Administrators for Special Education, or MASE. “It’s a position you take home with you at the end of the day.“
Lisa Taylor, whose son attends Washington’s autism program, first heard about the staff shortage and turnover at a parent-teacher conference in November. She was alarmed: Her son, like other kids with autism, can struggle with change and thrives on consistent relationships. Staff told Taylor a couple of students had run away from the classroom.
“I am grateful that my son has a program that fits his needs,” she said. “But I am concerned about safety.”
The program serves about 35 students in grades seven through nine this fall, an increase of 11 over last year. It also moved to a different part of the school. Amid the changes, said parent Mark Boeyink, the staffing issues troubled him, as well. He questions if sufficient planning took place over the summer.
Special Education Director Elizabeth Keenan said the district had a hard time lining up enough teachers for the growing program. And it had an even tougher time filling in the aide positions — some of which weren’t advertised until after classes had already begun and educators had a chance to gauge the new arrivals’ needs.
“It’s a huge hurdle getting (paraprofessionals), and it’s a hurdle making sure they’re staying,” Keenan said.
Other districts have run into the same issue, particularly larger districts where programs serve students with multiple, complex special needs, said Schaller of MASE._ _Officials in South Washington County and Anoka-Hennepin said they’ve had a harder time filling positions in those more restrictive programs.
Schaller, the special education director for Intermediate School District 917, said in her hiring and retention improved at the height of the recent recession, when she brought in aides with elementary education and other four-year degrees. ISD 917 offers intensive special education and other services to students from nine districts in the south metro.
But these days, “we’re constantly hiring paraprofessionals,” Schaller said. She now has three unfilled support positions. “Those are jobs that are always posted.”
NEVER A DULL MOMENT
On a recent morning, Dansby accompanied a group of students back to their classroom from the gym. One boy gently slipped his arm in the crook of hers as they walked down the hallway.
But later in reading class, the boy was suddenly restless.
In a tiny pause from firing off questions at a small group of readers, Dansby showed him a card from a deck hanging on a lanyard around her neck. She peered at him for a moment over her glasses, and he nodded. The card had a drawing of a boy with a raised fist and the words “no hitting self.”
“There’s never a dull moment,” Dansby said. “It’s not a sit-behind-a-desk boring job.”
In some ways, the job she loves has grown tougher over the years: Students are coming in with more challenging needs. Many of the students with autism also have cognitive and other disabilities. And staff shortages and turnover make it tougher.
For a time this fall, she skipped lunch daily. “I can’t sit in the break room and have lunch when I hear kids needing me,” she said.
A number of factors might be at play.
The federal No Child Left Behind law required special education aides who work with disadvantaged students to be “highly qualified” by 2006: If they don’t have a two-year college degree or the equivalent in credits, they need to pass a test called ParaPro. Some districts such as St. Paul and Minneapolis require all their special ed aides to be highly qualified.
“Members who had been working for a district for 20 years — probably highly qualified by virtue of their experience — were suddenly told, ‘You can’t work here any more,’” saidChristina Clark, executive director of the Minnesota School Employees Association.
Still, Clark’s union and others welcome the higher standards of the profession: The association successfully lobbied for a new voluntary paraprofessional credential through the Minnesota Board of Teaching.
But, Clark said, compensation and job security have not reflected the higher expectations. According to the union, statewide average compensation for members, most of whom work fewer than 35 hours a week, is about $15,000 a year. In St. Paul, pay for roughly 570 special ed paraprofessionals starts at $11 an hour. Positions are for the school year, and aides can face uncertainty about getting to return in the fall.
Besides, “the job is getting tougher and more exhausting,” said Karen Krussow, a longtime aide in Robbinsdale and the head of that district’s union through Education Minnesota. “You have to be on all day and a step ahead of the kids.”
A 20-year veteran, Krussow works in a middle school classroom where most students have a mix of physical and cognitive disabilities. Her responsibilities range from tube feedings and diaper changes to helping out with school work one-on-one to managing bouts of aggression.
In St. Paul, Keenan said, the district is trying to address the issue by improving training and maintaining a pool of candidates so openings fill faster.
To Dansby, a chance for aides to meet and review students’ special education plans before the start of the school year could help.
To Krussow, the key to boosting retention is more training — both early on so new recruits know what to expect and midcareer, says Krussow, because students’ needs have evolved so much. Districts are required to provide training to new aides, but that often doesn’t happen until weeks into their jobs.
“If you like your job and you stick around,” she said, “the kids really benefit.”