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The special-ed scare 

When "Phil" responded to a temporary employment agency's newspaper ad for special-education paraprofessionals in the Rochester City School District, he didn't know what he was getting himself into.

            But Phil --- who requested anonymity for fear he'd lose his temp job should he criticize the district --- says he had a genuine desire to help kids. And with his own child on the way, he was hoping to get the "benefits" he says the ad promised.

            That was last August. It's now mid-May, and despite the low pay ($8.50 an hour), the high stress, the threat one student made against his wife's life, and the sense Phil has that getting hired (and, thus, getting benefits) is a pipe dream, he's more determined than ever to become a full-time employee working with the district's most troubled students.

            "The 'regular ed' kids are not what middle school was like for me," says Phil, who attended a Catholic school in the city. "But ED [emotionally disturbed] classes --- man." At his Catholic middle-school alma mater, Phil says, "I don't think you ever thought that you would say, 'Fuck you, you fuckin' white bitch; you're a stanky-ass ho,' rip the TV off the wall and smash it, and expect to come back to school, ever."

            But, Phil says, he's seen it happen many times in the past nine months --- a child lashes out violently, only to be sent back to the classroom with a piece of candy and an admonition to "straighten up and fly right."

            The city school district does send students with serious behavioral problems to outside agencies --- such as St. Joseph's Villa and Crestwood Children's Center --- for specialized instruction. (Phil says the middle-school student who told him he would find out where he lived, break into his house, and slit his pregnant wife's throat while she slept was removed from school for doing so.) And many students with physical disabilities and/or learning disabilities are also sent to outside agencies for part or all of the school day.

            But the district is examining ways to keep more kids with special needs inside its schools. And it's also taking a hard look at the way it utilizes temporary employees.

            These initiatives have prompted members of the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals --- a union representing mostly special-ed aides --- to cry foul, and have prompted Phil to seriously reconsider his career choice.

As things are shaping up, Phil most likely won't have a choice, anyway. Temporary workers are expected to bear the brunt of the job cuts the district hopes to make in an effort to serve special-ed students in a "more efficient and effective" manner. (Teachers and unionized paraprofessionals are not expected to be laid off.)

            That's how Ed Yansen, the district's managing director of educational support services, describes the effort he's undertaken to redesign special-education services.

            Margie Brumfield, a special-ed paraprofessional at School 44 and a union member, describes Yansen's plan differently. The idea of bringing troubled kids receiving special instruction elsewhere back into the schools is "ludicrous," she says.

            "Dealing with the population that I deal with, these students should not be in the city school district," Brumfield says. "These are kids with so much baggage, and they need more services than what we can offer."

            Brumfield says there's particular concern among paraprofessionals, or "paras," that district administrators plan to bring violent youth back into the system.

            Yansen has encountered the same fear. He says he recently encountered someone who said to him, "'Oh, you're gonna bring back all these hundreds of kids from Crestwood.'"

            "That's not what we're intending on doing at all," he says. "We are not prepared to do that. We're just basically saying, the students that we believe that we have the ability to manage here, successfully, we are gonna keep them here. Kids that we cannot meet their needs in our district will continue to go to Crestwood and St. Joe's Villa and BOCES for services."

            Word of Yansen's recommendations made news last month in the context of the district's budgetary process. But Yansen says the effort is being undertaken primarily for educational, not economic, reasons.

            Essentially, Yansen says, the district is looking at two areas. For one, it's been examining the needs of special-ed students receiving personalized, or one-on-one, assistance to determine whether they could be better and more efficiently served

            "There are very few kids who need someone with them all the time, every moment of the day," he says. "Some of the kids resent having somebody walking alongside with them from the bathroom to the lunchroom to the bus stop. It makes them feel less independent. So, what we're saying is that we're gonna now begin to look hard at what the youngsters' needs are."

            For example, Yansen says, a student's most difficult times may be during lunch or math class. So rather than pay a para to assist the child all day, a para could be assigned to the child only during those "critical moments."

            Secondly, Yansen says administrators are determining what services currently provided by outside agencies can be delivered in the schools instead. "We are able, in terms of per-pupil costs, to provide [programs] in our own district comparable to what [students] are getting [elsewhere], at a lower cost," he says.

            "But," he adds, "that's not the driving factor. It seems educationally, programmatically, to make more sense to us. And for their families, it's a much more natural thing that their child go to school with his or her peers. That's the logical approach. The economic issues around it are probably secondary, or tertiary, in looking at this."

            Furthermore, Yansen says, the district is primarily looking at programs for students with developmental problems or learning disabilities, rather than behavioral problems, in the process. And far from hundreds of special-needs students receiving services in-house, he says the effort will result in "probably no more than a dozen students coming back into our system" next year.

So why are the unionized paras up in arms? It's not because they haven't been doing their homework on Yansen's plans. It's because they haven't been part of the process of developing them.

            Brumfield says the union has been unfairly "left out" of meetings in which the plan was developed, and it recently wrote a letter to district officials requesting that union reps be allowed to take part in the process. (The union itself has been in a state of disarray since a leadership shake-up last fall. Union members are in the process of electing new leadership, and say they cannot comment on last fall's events pending a court decision.)

            Yansen says the union has not been brought into the redesign process because it will not be directly affected by it. As he points out, the one-on-one paras are primarily "the temporary people." All the same, he says, union employees may be minimally affected by the redesign, and he says he will be "very willing, open, and ready to meet with the union folks and talk about this" in the future.

That's cold comfort for Phil and other special-ed temps like him. The district is keen to cut their hours or eliminate their jobs entirely, and the union is demanding that the temps be put on the chopping block before any of their members get the ax.

            In any redesign process involving layoffs, "We are not going to let any of our people go," says Natalie Vazzana, a union member and para at Monroe Middle School. "The temps will have to go first."

            The union has about 740 members, Vazzana says, and there are about 210 non-union paras working as temps.

            The district's special-ed overhaul may be a very gradual process that will have minimal impact on union paras. (It'll also have minimal impact on the district's budget this year --- Yansen expects only about $185,000 in savings in '03-'04.) But the stress it creates could have a major effect, particularly among the temp workforce, which Phil says already has a high rate of turnover.

            "There's a lot of employees that feel they want to do right by the kids, they want to work hard for the school, but they're also burnt," Phil says. Since full-time para work is only about 32 hours a week, most employees have other jobs.

            "It's a steady job, and certainly, if you're getting benefits, it's going to be a leg up on a lot of other crap jobs out there," Phil says. "But otherwise, you might as well be working retail for all of the support you're getting, and I think people show a corresponding degree of loyalty.

            "For temps," he adds, "that's a lot worse."

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