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A few days into this school year, I received a text from my husband. It was short, simple, and straight to the point: “It’s amazing the difference a qualified and responsible one-on-one aide makes in the lives of a child and their parents.” I was crying as I texted my one-word response. “Amen.”
We have always fought to keep our son mainstreamed. As his dentist always reminds us, “Your son is a beautiful and healthy boy who presents with autism (ASD).” Our son’s diagnoses include more “disorders” (specifically ADD/ADHD as well as Insomnia Disorder). Still, we knew early on that we would continue to mainstream him in elementary school the same way he was in childcare and preschool. With the help of a one-on-one aide agreed upon in his Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), he had proven to be successful academically and socially in a mainstream classroom.
Before the current school year, my husband and I had been fighting for our child’s rights for nearly a year. It was emotionally, mentally, financially, and even physically exhausting. I felt my blood pressure rise at every awaiting text, got panic attacks at the sound of a phone ringing, and constantly wondered if this was the day we would have to keep our son home… again. Our fight for our son was even a factor in my need to take a Stress Leave of Absence from work.
“Looking at the pay for paraprofessionals who are vital to the success of students with special needs, the wages are downright disrespectful.” Our Son’s Paraprofessional Changed Our Lives. Paraprofessionals Deserve Higher Pay. Click To Tweet
How a Paraprofessional Changed Our Lives
This year brought a long overdue sigh of relief. We have an awesome and supportive new teacher and are blessed to have a consistent, highly qualified, experienced, and dedicated paraprofessional as our son’s one-on-one full-day aide. We know that this is not the case for everyone, and we do not take it for granted. When we realized that he would need a one-on-one all-day aide to succeed in his educational goals, we began to research how much paraprofessionals were paid. We were shocked.
As a high school teacher, I have worked with several classroom paraprofessionals. I have experienced both types: from the consistent, highly qualified, experienced, and dedicated paraprofessional to…the opposite. The results were always consistent, though: a great aide directly influenced the success of my students with special needs. The success of my students was often directly linked to the aide’s qualifications and the relationship between the aide and their student. Due to this experience, I obviously wanted the best for my own son. And yet, looking at the pay for paraprofessionals who are vital to the success of students with special needs, the wages are downright disrespectful.
Parents of children with special needs literally trust paraprofessionals with our children’s lives. In the same way many say teachers are the “parents” of kids for the six hours students are at school, paraprofessionals are the teachers, caregivers, protectors, and so much more. But, unfortunately, their compensation does not always honor their heroic efforts.
Paraprofessional Pay is Too Low
In her article “School Support Staffers Don’t Make a Living Wage. Here’s a Comparison by State“, Madeline Will talks about this important issue:
“Education support professionals are known as the backbone of schools for their work supporting classroom learning…. Many of them work directly with students, particularly those who have disabilities. Yet many of these workers are not making a living wage…”
According to Indeed.com, the average Walmart Cashier/Sales hourly pay in California is approximately $15.55, at In and Out Burger, $16.87, and the average salary for a paraprofessional is $19.06. The latter is allegedly much higher than the national average of $15-$17 per hour. So, one can theoretically make more money working at a fast-food restaurant than working with a child who may not be able to feed himself or navigate a restroom without assistance.
Will’s article highlights paraprofessionals’ dedication to students, despite their low pay:
“For as hard as we work, we do deserve a whole lot more,” said Becky Medina, a paraprofessional at Pascual LeDoux Academy, a preschool in Denver that’s part of the public school system there. For $15.87 an hour, she changes diapers, helps potty train, dries tears, calms children down, supervises lunch and nap time, and assists with teaching small groups. “If we didn’t love the kids as much as we do, I don’t know how many of us would stay.”
My son’s needs do not include some of the issues listed above. However, having been in the classroom with him, I know he requires constant repetition, redirection, and refocusing. It is exhausting to work with any child all day. I thank God daily for his paraprofessional’s experience and patience with students with ASD and ADD/ADHD. My son has a great relationship with his aide and now loves school again. He is flourishing academically and socially, and both of our lives are better in so many ways.
If We Value Paraprofessionals, We Should Pay Them More
I am so thankful for the love these individuals have for our children with special needs. Without my son’s aide, I don’t know where my husband or I would be this school year, let alone my son. My fight for the educational rights of my child has lit a fire of advocacy in me for all children with special needs. My son’s new one-on-one aide has literally changed our lives. I can focus on teaching for the first time in over a year. I can give my best to my students daily. I was even able to take my students on a field trip, something I was afraid to do last year. I am not only back to the teacher I once was, but my son is getting the education he deserves. Our personal experience with the importance of special education aides has also made me want to advocate for those paraprofessionals who work with all children daily.
Our son’s aide and other paraprofessionals deserve a living wage and more. They need to be compensated for the often selfless and thankless work they do. Why would educators continue to fight for higher teacher pay without also fighting for more pay for the ones who provide so many essential, and oftentimes emergency, services for students with special needs? They care for our most precious, often overlooked, and vulnerable student population. Our children deserve the best. If we truly believe that, then there should be no question about increasing the pay for the qualified, experienced, and dedicated paraprofessionals who care for the children who need them the most.
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