My sixth grade students leaned forward as I read to them, almost as though they would better be able to capture the words in the book. We were reading “Out of My Mind,” by Sharon Draper. This book is about a bright student named Melody who has cerebral palsy. Melody uses a wheelchair to get around, gets assistance with eating and bathrooming, and relies on a communication board to talk. When we got to page 52, Melody explained that her aids, “do stuff like take us to the bathroom (or change diapers on kids like Ashley and Carl), feed us at lunch, wheel us where we need to go, wipe mouths, and give hugs. I don’t think they get paid very much, because they never stay very long. But they should get a million dollars. What they do is really hard, and I don’t think most folks get that.”
At this point, a sixth grade girl quietly raises her hand and patiently waits to be called on. Encouraging thinking while reading, means stopping to discuss questions and thoughts my students are having. I pause to call on her and she asks her question with concern in her voice, “Does Mrs. Saad get more money than the teachers, because she does a lot of extra work for the students she works with?”
It was one of those eye opening moments that occur when kids are allowed to express themselves openly. I carefully skirt around the issue of how much the school’s Special Education Assistants (SEAs) get paid, but her question remains trapped in my thoughts. What started as an innocent question from a sixth grader gave me a heightened awareness of the role SEAs play in students’ lives.
The truth of the matter is that our SEAs work extremely hard. Their extra work does not usually get recognized verbally or financially. The SEAs that I interviewed make around $20,000 per year. As a general rule, two SEAs cost the district about as much as one teacher. SEAs work with our students with the greatest needs, but on the average make about $4 an hour less than our security guards. The group as a whole is frequently passed over for raises, which has left many of them working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. When employees began contributing to their pension last year, it hit the SEAs harder than other groups, because they already have such a limited income. Yet, they fill one of the most important jobs in the school.
According to one SEA, “Without SEAs the children I work with would not be able to take part in many of the day to day activities of their classrooms.” However true that may be, our current arrangement with SEAs leaves a lot to be desired. The SEAs that I talked with do not receive planning time to meet with classroom teachers. Because of this, they walk into classes not knowing what to expect on any given day. No matter what is planned by the teacher, they not only have to go along with it, but they also have to be able adapt the curriculum for our neediest populations on the fly. In addition, all the SEAs I interviewed expressed concern that kids are entering our school system with needs that are different from past years. “Because of budget cuts on a broader scale in social service agencies, we at West have had to work with kids who do not live with their family, but are in foster homes, group homes, solo support homes,” reported an SEA at West High School. She went on to describe that for “kids whose moms and dads are not part of their everyday life, the SEA that they work with is sometimes the only person who has remained the same that they have daily contact with.” Jackie Saad, an SEA at Sennett Middle School has also recognized changes in the populations she serves. When she was first hired, she described the kids that she worked with as mostly having learning disabilities. She now works with students who need “a replaced curriculum, frequent breaks, support at lunch, during encore classes and bathrooming. In short, they require my full support. At the same time the students with learning disabilities are losing out. One SEA in a classroom simply is not enough to support the diverse needs of all students.” The common thread through each of the responses I received to my question was the same, an increase in the needs of our students without the necessary increase in people resources.
But, in spite of these challenges, the reality is that SEAs keep pushing forward in the best interest of the students they serve. They are the ones hunting down disposable undergarments, wipes and changes of clothes. Many times, they figure out how to get school supplies and backpacks for kids in need. And, no matter what, they are there when things fall apart. It is our SEAs who are spending time with kids one-on-one when events frustrate the students to the extent that they need a break from the classroom. As one SEA described, she “will walk for as many blocks or miles needed to help a student calm down in order to get back to being able to deal with whatever frustration life has thrown at them today.” Melea Richardson is also an SEA at Sennett Middle School. She recognizes that with all these new challenges, it takes a passionate professional to do this job. According to Richardson, “I can confidently say someone hired off the street cannot do what I do! Most of my students have been very low cognitively so they depend on me to be calm and smile and help them through all the chaos of the day as well as help them develop skills they can use as they get older.”
Richardson wants the same things for her students that I have frequently heard classroom teachers express. Unfortunately, due to limited Special Education resources, she does not feel like it is working. “What I want most for my students is the best quality education they can get. Unfortunately I know they all are not getting it! How can they be if they all don’t have the support and resources they need to learn?” she asks. And her sentiments are echoed by Saad, “Over the last few years I have felt less than successful because there are so many students that need my help but not enough of me to provide them with the support they need. My day often ends with the thought “if only I could have helped this student just a little more.”
Saad is not alone in this thought and the voice of our SEAs must be considered as the Madison Metropolitan School District moves forward. To bring about success for our students and our schools, we need to take a closer look at how we staff our buildings and fulfill our students’ needs. In addition, SEAs need to be included in professional development opportunities and be given time to meet with teaching teams to plan for their students.
SEAs choose to stay in a career where they are often sworn at, kicked and challenged. They do this, because they care about our children and they understand the importance of their role in our students’ lives. We need to start rewarding SEAs both financially and by treating them with the professionalism they deserve. Most importantly, we must create school conditions that foster success for the students they serve.
Email the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education and let them know how important our SEAs are to student success: firstname.lastname@example.org