Schools under Stress: Low pay, benefits causing greater support staff turnover

  • Elizabeth Meade applies for a paraeducation position at the Weare School District job fair at the Weare Middle School on August 17, 2022. Meade was looking for a job at the school where her children attend. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Elizabeth Meade talks with her son, Alex, 5, as she applies for a paraeducator position at the Weare School District job fair at the Weare Middle School on Aug. 17. Meade was looking for a job at the school where her children attend. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Elizabeth Meade applies for a paraeducation position at the Weare School District job fair at the Weare Middle School on August 17, 2022. Meade was looking for a job at the school where her children attend. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Former John Stark student Julia Swift applies for a paraeducator position at the Weare School District job fair at the Weare Middle School on Aug. 17.

Monitor staff
Published: 8/29/2022 4:49:11 PM

As paraeducator Sharon Gallager packed up her belongings in advance of her retirement from Rundlett Middle School this summer, after 22 years in the district, she came across several old letters she had written to previous principals over the years.

She had expressed concern that the school was short on support staff and she was being assigned more students than she could assist.

“The shortage of paraeducators is not anything new,” Gallager said. “It’s just gotten to extreme crisis situation now.”

Gallager, 61, said she expected to stay in the Concord School District for at least another year, but when it came down to it, the low pay combined with an increasing workload and insufficient staffing numbers made her decide to leave before another school year began.

“I just hit the wall. I burned out,” Gallager said. “I couldn’t picture myself coming back for another year.”

School districts around the region are having a hard time filling paraeducator positions this summer, saying there is a shortage of candidates. As of last week, Concord was looking to hire 39 instruction and education aides. Other districts were facing a similar struggle: 19 paraeducators in Kearsarge, 12 paraeducators in Weare, eight special education aides in Bow, six paraeducators in Franklin, five instructional assistants in Hopkinton, five paraeducators in Merrimack Valley, two paraeducators at John Stark and two paraeducators in Henniker.

Jane Bergeron-Beaulieu, executive director of New Hampshire’s Association of Special Education Administrators, says the paraeducator shortage remains a problem nationwide.

“It’s a significant concern,” Bergeron-Beaulieu said. “It’s really a tough position with not good pay and oftentimes not good benefits, so it’s difficult to attract folks.”

Public school paraeducators, who work with students who are as young as preschool age and as old as 22, have a wide range of responsibilities based on the needs of the students they’re supporting. Some paraeducators work as instructional assistants in general education classrooms. Other paraeducators help special education students integrate into school settings, modifying their academic work in class or accompanying students on the bus.

Many paraeducators receive special training to work with medically fragile students in partnership with school nurses. Paraeducators may help students practice the exercises that are assigned by the school’s physical or occupational therapists. They may also help with personal hygiene, like brushing teeth, and using the restroom. Some paras work with students with mental health challenges and learn to diffuse difficult behavioral situations. They learn to communicate with students with different needs, and learn to use assistive technology.

With older students, they also act as job and life coaches, teaching them how to do laundry, how to cook, how to shop and accompanying them to job sites in preparation for their transition to adult life.

For special education departments, being short on paraeducators means it can be a scramble to fulfill every student’s Individualized Educational Plans, known as IEPs, which are mandated by law.

“Special educators are working hand-in-hand with principals to triage who are the most significant kids, looking at all the IEPs kids have,” Bergeron-Beaulieu said. “That’s what folks are trying to do — triage, working hand-in-hand with families and making sure kids get the care they need. We are extremely shorthanded. But we are doing the best with what we have.”

Paraeducators like Gallager point to their salaries as the reason school districts can’t find anyone to hire.

Concord’s wage for instructional assistants, which starts at $16.56 per hour, is one of the highest in Merrimack County. The average starting wage for paraeducator positions in the region is $14.21, though some, like Franklin’s regular education teacher assistant position, start as low as $11.17 per hour, according to their support staff bargaining agreement. On average, there’s a $4 to $5 difference between the starting salary and top salary paraeducators can earn in Merrimack County. For example in Epsom, teaching assistant positions start at $13.93 and can reach $18.06 with years of experience, according to their bargaining agreement.

At many schools, paraeducator salary varies depending on whether they’re working with special education or general education students, if they have a one-on-one versus several students, and if they’re certified with the state. For example in Allenstown the starting salary is $11.22 per hour for an educational assistant, $11.58 for an educational assistant who is doing a one-on-one, and $13.43 for paraeducators with level 2 state certification, according to their bargaining agreement.

Because they are paid hourly, a starting paraeducator in Concord will make about $20,700 for working seven hours each day for an entire school year. By comparison, that level of pay is $24,000 less than the starting salary for a teacher in the district.

“It seems like the world of special education hasn’t caught up to the other occupations you see, in what the salaries are,” Bergeron-Beaulieu said. “When you look at what an individual might make at Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s you can get full benefits and you compare it to the pay of our special educators who often don’t have benefits.”

Former Concord High School paraeducator Caroline Keane left the job in June. After 16 years in the district, Keane, 57, said she was making $30,000 a year, an income that became unsustainable for her with the rising cost of gas and groceries. Although she loved working with students, Keane said she’s been frustrated over the years by the salary and benefits given to paraeducators, which she says is not enough to retain employees given the challenging nature of the job.

“Paraeducators have been overlooked for way too long, and we’re leaving because we can find better-paying jobs,” Keane said. She has since found a new job as an academic advisor, where she received a 50% pay increase.

It’s not uncommon for paraeducators to experience physical violence at work, from students who become frustrated and are unable to communicate their feelings in other ways. Keane says the injuries paraeducators experience can range from slaps and scratches to being thrown against the wall. Depending on their assignment, paras sometimes carry walkie-talkies with them, in case they need to radio for help. Keane said on days when there weren’t enough radios to go around, she had to make tough decisions about whether to bring her students into a general education classroom where they’d have a more enriching experience, knowing they may other students at risk if she couldn’t quickly call for help.

Many paraeducators don’t have access to the same benefits teachers have. While teachers are eligible for New Hampshire Retirement System if they work at least 30 hours a week, paraeducators must work at least 35 hours per week to qualify, according to NHRS participation standards. Many paraeducator positions are six or six-and-a-half hours a day, putting them just under the threshold to qualify for retirement benefits. School boards have the ability to vote to allow paraeducators to access the retirement system at 30 hours per week but many have not done so.

“We get a lot of talk from the district and from teachers saying how awesome we are, and they couldn’t do their job without us doing our job, but when it comes to negotiations and sitting down with the district and actually feeling valued, it doesn’t translate,” Keane said.

Some school districts have been turning to job fairs and signing bonuses to attract paraeducator candidates for the 2022-23 school year. The Weare School District held a job fair Aug. 17 to hire paraeducators, while the Merrimack School District held a career fair Aug. 16 for teacher and support staff positions. The Manchester School District held a job fair in May, with signing bonuses for paraprofessionals. Nashua School District held a job fair in April and offered signing bonuses for new hires. Elsewhere in the state, the Rochester School District and the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District have also held job fairs this summer.

The Department of Education held a series of professional development trainings earlier in August aimed at improving paraeducator and classroom teacher partnerships amid the statewide staffing shortage.

But some frustrated paraeducators say it’s not training they need to stay in the field – it’s better wages and benefits.

“You can work in a school district for $16 an hour and you may or may not get benefits, you may or may not be in the retirement program,” Keane said. “Or you can go to Dunkin’ Donuts in Concord at $16 an hour and not have to deal with hygiene issues or the potential for being hurt. To me, it’s a no-brainer. You go to Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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