As a special education teacher at a Washington Heights elementary school for the last three years, I’ve made a number of professional connections that have aided me in getting adjusted to the school and to the contours of my job. One of those connections was the family worker. She assisted me with my questions about my students’ services and how to best work with SESIS, the Department of Education’s unwieldy special education data system. Her remarkable memory supplied me with essential details about every one of my students, their parents, and their Individualized Education Plans. Frankly, she was my biggest support in the special education department.
Last month, she worked her last day at my school.
On Oct. 7, three school aides and the family worker worked their last day at my school, cutting the number of aides at my school from six to three and leaving us without a family worker entirely. Losing our school aides unfortunately was just another cut our school of 700+ students and 50+ staff members has had to endure over last three years of budget cuts, which have also shrunk our teaching staff and caused us to lose intervention teachers. But my colleagues and I have been feeling the loss of our school aides every day since the layoffs.
The aides at my school served many functions throughout the school day. The most visible area where the school aides were the greatest help was in the cafeteria. With four periods of lunch with students ranging from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, the aides were watchful eyes and the go-to people if there were troubles at any of the tables. The school aides also helped make copies for over 50 teachers, phone calls to parents to assist the parent coordinator, and plans for parent workshops and special events.
In addition, the family worker worked to make sure CAP (another special education database system) and SESIS were up-to-date and compliant to state and city requirements. She was also the first welcoming face any new student coming to our school after a placement change would see and interact with, and she provided as smooth of a first day as she could. With over 70 students with IEPs and constant new student influx, this was no small undertaking.
Beyond day-to-day tasks, the school aides in general were members of the community. Parents and students knew who these women are because of their presence around the neighborhood. Because they were from the neighborhood, they earned a lot of respect from parents, students, and teachers alike. The students referred to all the aides by either their first names or nicknames their parents and teachers used.
City officials have been quoted saying that principals made the ultimate decisions about school aide layoffs, but my principal said the layoff decisions were “out of her hands.”
The first few days after the layoffs left my school in a state of confusion. I heard rumors from the staff that the school was waiting for an influx of more senior school aides to fill in positions, but no one new came. Photocopying for teachers was put on hold for a few days while administration delegated the school aides’ responsibilities to other staff members. The parent coordinator has been running around and picking up even more duties that the laid-off aides left.
The cafeteria that was once run by school aides is now run by every out-of-classroom, non-cluster staff member, regardless of position. Both the school psychologist and the school social worker complain about having to cover lunch duty for one period each day, leaving both of them scrambling for time to finish a plethora of new referrals. I’ve seen more of the IEP teacher with my students in the cafeteria than providing IEP support.
Nowadays, our school has adjusted to the loss of the school aides just as we have adjusted to the loss of resources and staff members over the last couple of years. With the loss of any staff member with no replacement, the staff picks up more tasks and our jobs get harder. We lose more time to focus on our teaching practice and helping our students.
My co-teacher, who has worked at my school for eight years, assured me that the laid-off aides were all married and will be “fine” financially. What about the family worker, who came back for a day the week after she was laid off to help the already-overworked special education support staff add her tasks to their own? From what I’ve gathered from her and the other women I interacted with before the layoffs, they were all in good health and supported financially, albeit meagerly.
I can only wish the best in health and finances for her and the rest of the school aides who are out of a job — and for the schools they left behind.