NEW BEDFORD — Kim Cruz, 52, is supposed to get to school for the 7:30 a.m. bus arrival. Two students with severe disabilities will need her assistance to climb down and make their way into the building. “But I like to get there 45 minutes earlier,” Cruz said. “I don’t get paid for that. I start getting paid at 7:30.”
Cruz, a paraprofessional at Hayden-McFadden Elementary, arrives before sunrise to organize the day’s activities for some of New Bedford’s most vulnerable students. In her classroom, pre-kindergarteners with learning disabilities require support from multiple paraprofessionals.
Cruz and her colleagues are now among the more than 300 paraprofessionals in New Bedford in their sixth month without an updated contract, after December negotiations failed to make inroads. The starting pay in the now-expired contract will fall below the state’s new minimum wage before the next mediation occurs on Jan. 4.
School officials have previously said they would honor the state minimum wage, but low pay has already made it difficult to recruit, as resignations, retirements, and terminations among paraprofessionals have outpaced new hires this year, causing a shortage of nearly 90 paraprofessionals across the district.
The district provided an emailed statement from Heather Emsley, director of human capital services: “We are in mediation and are looking forward to our next session as we are committed to the process and our staff.”
Emsley added that the district has reached out to local colleges and universities, hosted career fairs, and posted job openings on multiple online platforms.
But as the shortage of paraprofessionals continues, New Bedford schools are falling short of their legally obligated support services to students, paraprofessionals say.
Michelle Willis, for example, a paraprofessional at Ashley Elementary, works one-on-one with a student on the autism spectrum, but she has had to leave this student when other kids or less-experienced paraprofessionals need help.
Her own student “can be so sweet and lovable and what I wish every fifth-grader was,” Willis said. But he can occasionally become violent, hitting Willis until she calms him down with “deep squeeze pressure.”
“It’s not a restraint, but he needs the sensory input to help his body to calm back down,” Willis explained. “I have to talk to him softly as he starts to calm down and remind him, ‘I’m here to help.’ And I say things like, ‘I love you, it’s OK, I understand,’ …. What can we do instead of hitting me?”
“I wouldn’t trust just anyone to do that,” she said. Still, when other “heavy hitter” students are in crisis, she has left her student to assist with other interventions. Willis says this a violation of her student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), but that she feels forced into it by the shortage.
Many of the interactions between paraprofessionals and their students with learning disabilities require special certifications and training — including knowing how and when to restrain students. Willis said offering more training would be helpful, but her experience and relationships with students really make the difference.
Speaking on this issue, School Committee member Chris Cotter has praised the “veteran paraprofessionals” who haven’t turned over from the district: “It’s a calling, like teaching.” Cotter said he believes that only newer paraprofessionals are turning over, and that they aren’t leaving for other districts.
Willis, however, said there’s only one way to become a veteran: the district has to attract and keep talent.
New Bedford’s current contract has different pay-grades for instructional and non-instructional paraprofessionals (including lunch aides), and further differentiates for those who have post-secondary degrees (like a bachelor’s or associate). The range of pay starts at $14.34 and tops out at $21.65 per hour, no matter the qualifications or years of experience.
Meanwhile, other districts have awarded relatively large pay increases to paraprofessionals that could, in some cases, see starting pay compete with the top pay grades in New Bedford.
In Malden, the lowest pay grade will now be $27.62 per hour in a newly agreed upon contract, resulting in a yearly take-home of $30,000. Teachers and paraprofessionals went on strike for these increases, meaning students missed a day of school while educators leveraged for higher pay. According to the Boston Globe, paraprofessionals’ pay became a major sticking point in the negotiations that preceded the strike.
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In Brockton, the Massachusetts Teachers Association reported that paraprofessionals won a 40-49% increase in their pay, and starting pay was already higher than in New Bedford. The new contract has not yet been uploaded to Brockton’s or the state education department’s website.
Assistant Superintendent Andrew O’Leary called city’s package is competitive.
“NBPS compensation package is highly competitive and when a new contract is in place will remain the best option in the region for those seeking a career as instructional aide or paraprofessional,” he said.
As the negotiations continue in New Bedford, a report at the last School Committee meeting indicated that the district is on track to have a salary surplus this year. And while pay seems to be the main impasse for both sides, other specifics of the contract will be important to some paraprofessionals.
Larry Genereux, a paraprofessional at New Bedford High School, told the School Committee in a public comment that staffing shortages are pushing more paraprofessionals into situations they’re not trained to handle, including helping high schoolers go to the bathroom.
“I love what I do and where I work,” Genereux told The Light. “It’s just … you wish some things were different.”
About helping his teenage students use the restroom, “I just did it, even though I felt wicked uncomfortable doing it,” Genereux said. “Technically I wasn’t forced, but it feels forced.”
This had become a routine part of his job by Oct. 17, when a fire drill sounded in the middle of one bathroom visit.
Generaux and other paraprofessionals were accompanying several students to the bathroom and, when the lights started flashing, were able to safely navigate out of the building. But Genereux was equally concerned for the classroom teacher who was left with no assistance and 10-15 other students with special needs.
“These kids have to be constantly redirected. And when you’re by yourself that’s a very hard situation,” he said.
These paraprofessionals said they loved their job, but that they needed higher pay to afford basic necessities, like rent and heating.
For Cruz, the Hayden-McFadden paraprofessional who likes arriving early, her hours are already longer than other schools in the district (due to a state-mandated turnaround plan), which has contributed to a teacher retention rate at HayMac significantly lower than the rest of the district.
“It is a very stressful time, especially when we’re doing all this work and we’re getting peanuts for pay,” Cruz said.
To make up for the low pay, Cruz says she has been driving for Uber after school. “That takes a toll, too. You go from working with preschoolers for an extended day to having to drive around for five or six hours,” she said.
Recently she hadn’t been driving for Uber because there was too much work on the contract negotiations; Cruz was one of several educators who wrote and presented a testimonial before the School Committee in November.
“Hopefully [the paraprofessionals] get a little bit more money so they don’t have to do two or three jobs,” Cruz said.
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This story was modified on Jan. 9, 2023, to include additional details from New Bedford Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Andrew O’Leary and to clarify that the paraprofessionals contract is in mediation.