Paraprofessionals, often behind scenes, are heart, soul of schools

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Catherine Mastronardi is the president of the Springfield Federation of Paraprofessionals and her "Guest View" below was published in the Springfield Republican and MassLive.

Paraprofessionals are the unsung heroes of the Springfield Public Schools (SPS). We are the people who assist teachers with classroom instruction, provide individualized support to struggling students and students with disabilities, monitor bus arrival and departure, and help maintain order throughout the school. We also build strong relationships with students, who look to us for social and emotional support. In short, we help make schools tick, often working quietly and behind the scenes.
 
Many paraprofessionals are also Springfield residents, with children or grandchildren in the schools. As such, we are directly invested in the schools and their success. When the bell rings at the end of the school day, we take pride in the fact that we have done our part to build a better community for Springfield families.

SPS officials love to say how much paraprofessionals are appreciated for their hard work and dedication. But we wonder: When will they appreciate us enough to pay us the living wage we deserve?

Paraprofessional wages start around $16/hour and top off around $20/hour, far below the wages these skilled employees can command in the private sector (two years of college or an equivalent skill set is required to be a paraprofessional). The predictable result over the last five years has been rapid turnover and chronic shortages, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic. There are currently more than 40 vacant positions. 

The unwillingness of SPS to invest in its workforce has real-life consequences for paraprofessionals, their families, and Springfield students. Kelly O’Malley, an SPS paraprofessional and single mom who works three jobs to make ends meet, told me: “In addition to working a full day at school, including the late after-school pickup, I wait tables at night and on weekends, and also try to pick up shifts as a server for a local catering company.” A natural in the classroom, Kelly dreams of one day becoming a licensed educator but says she doesn’t have the means or time to pursue that path: “The wages I earn as a paraprofessional do not provide enough to cover basic living expenses, so I need to work my other jobs.”

Evelyn Burgos, a 15-year SPS paraprofessional, expresses similar frustrations: “I am physically and mentally exhausted. I have to work two jobs to pay bills and put food on our table. My daughters get sad every time I go to my second job, and it breaks my heart. They have a mommy who is very tired all the time, and it is unfair to all of us.” 

To rectify these injustices, the Springfield Federation of Paraprofessionals (SFoP) has proposed a restructuring of the salary schedule to bring paraprofessional wages up to a living wage standard, using a tool developed by economists at MIT. This upgrade is long overdue. SPS paraprofessionals haven’t had a cost-of-living adjustment since July 2019, and jobs have been hard or impossible to fill. While many school committee members support the proposal, other SPS officials have shown resistance. Still, we continue to bargain in good faith, and we remain hopeful.

The funds are there to support the SFoP’s proposal. SPS received an increase of $26 million in state Chapter 70 aid this school year and is slated to receive additional significant increases for the next five years, thanks to the Student Opportunity Act. SPS has also received more than $200 million in federal COVID relief aid that can be used for practically any purpose, including to recruit and retain school staff. 

Springfield students deserve experienced paraprofessionals who can afford to stay in the Springfield Public Schools, and who are not chronically exhausted from the physical and emotional toll of working multiple jobs. Likewise, paraprofessionals deserve jobs they can count on to support themselves and their families. And everyone benefits from a robust para-to-teacher pipeline that allows paraprofessionals who aspire to become teachers to realize their dreams.

SPS paraprofessionals are dedicated, hard-working educators. We are also your friends and neighbors. We are asking for the community’s support as we seek a fair wage for the important work we do.