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#AFTVoices: Kathy Peluso, Para Educator at Chelmsford High School

In Fall 2022, Chelmsford paraprofessionals launched the We’re Worth It campaign. Citing pay gaps and inequitable, unsustainable workloads among paraprofessionals, the Chelmsford Federation of Teachers (CFT) rallied both in and outside the school building to raise awareness and win a just contract for para educators. And win they did. We sat down with Kathy Peluso, a para-educator at Chelmsford High School, to discuss what it felt like to win this new contract and what next steps look like for her team.

“We launched this campaign to improve the working conditions for paraprofessionals. We are an often overlooked part of the education system.” A longtime para-educator and community member, Kathy reflects on her time at Chelmsford High School and how the workload over the years has increased, but the pay has remained low and recognition nearly nonexistent. 

“Paraprofessionals are a catch-all term for the various positions we fill in our schools. It’s important to retain paraprofessionals for the long term, but that’s not going to happen if they aren’t paid what they deserve or continue to be invisible within the larger educational community,” says Kathy. “When we launched our campaign, people were blown away at how little we were making. Such low pay leads to a revolving door, and with such overturn, kids are not receiving the support they need.”

CFT President, Lauren Cochran, stated in a press release that paraprofessionals earn about $17,000 per year, and secretaries earn less than $25,000. “During the pandemic, support personnel went above and beyond to make sure the students of Chelmsford’s needs were met.”

Kathy says this was the impetus for the campaign: fair pay for the labor we provide to staff, students and community members. “When we stepped out into the community to ask for support, they listened, and asked what they could do to help. Even people with no kids in the school system were coming up to us asking us what they could do to support us.” 

Kathy goes on to talk about what it felt like feeling both community and staff support. “When we launched this campaign, we recognized we were underpaid and underappreciated. Then we found the support we wanted to win the contract we needed. We won a 6% increase in salary for year one (6 and 3 and 3 - for a total of 12 percent). Even though we didn’t get the exact dollar amount we wanted, we are pleased that our value is being seen throughout the community and schools where we work. 

When looking ahead, Kathy pauses. She mentions how empowered her and her team felt from this contract fight, but acknowledges the work is not over. “Moving forward, we still need to become a stronger union. We can do that by educating more para-educators about what our union is for, which includes providing resources for us to feel good about our jobs and to know that we are a vital part of the school system.”

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