TAMPA — After the deaths of two special-needs students in 2012, Hillsborough County school officials turned to the public for advice.
There was no shortage of feedback on the district's programs for exceptional student education.
Aides were inadequately paid and trained, schools were inconsistent when handling emergencies and parents worried whether their children with extensive medical needs were safe.
Nearly a year later, officials acknowledge they still are working to win back the public's trust. But they say they have come a long way — boosting the ESE work force by stepping up training, working to raise pay and creating better career paths for front-line workers.
"That's our goal constantly, to treat them like the professionals they are and to give them opportunities to grow," said Maryann Parks, who took over as general director of ESE in April.
A Tampa Bay Times analysis in 2012 found Hillsborough's ESE aides earned an average of $14,277 a year, often without benefits, less than workers in many Florida districts. Whether they fit the federal definition of highly qualified aides or lesser-qualified attendants, all earned a starting pay of $8.42 an hour, slightly more than minimum wage.
Proposed revisions in the teacher and support workers' contract are expected to improve that situation. Highly qualified aides would advance two pay steps, to $9.27 an hour. Those with two-year college degrees would earn more.
"They should have done that a long time ago," said Joanna Johnson, a teacher at Corr Elementary School who applauded the move.
All aides and attendants, who are now called paraprofessionals, were given mandatory training on Aug. 14 and 15 in sessions that centered around how to work effectively with their supervising teachers.
Parks said the workforce is stable despite the lower wage, and that the district does not try to save money by filling positions slowly.
"There's never ever been a day that I've ever even heard money come out of anybody's mouth," she said. But it isn't easy to fill the jobs, which have responsibilities that can include feeding children, helping them use the toilet and contending with difficult behavior.
"We don't have people sitting on the street corners," Parks said. "You have to advertise, interview and hire the right people."
The district's efforts go beyond the ESE staff, said deputy superintendent Jeffrey Eakins.
The first steps in the August training showed safety and emergency videos to all school employees and reminded them they all are responsible for all students.
"Then we went just a little bit deeper with just our ESE teachers and our teachers who are general education teachers who teach ESE students in their classrooms," he said.
Area directors made sure principals verified that everyone received the orientation before reporting to work. Schools held drills to address elopement, a term that describes special-needs students who wander off.
At Plant City High School, known for its strong ESE program, some of the training reinforced knowledge the staff already has, said teacher Sandra Denham. "I was hoping for something more in depth," she said. But "it's a good starting point."
Helyn Moore, whose autistic son transferred into Plant City after a disappointing experience at Strawberry Crest High School, agreed with Denham.
But, she said, "across the board, the improvements are not enough. It varies from school to school. It's up to parents to navigate the system to find the pockets of excellence."
Critics lashed out against district leaders for not informing the School Board or the public of the death of Bella Herrera in January 2012, a day after she stopped breathing on a school bus.
Word got out nine months later when the family filed a federal lawsuit, now in its early stages. The suit was filed about a week after another special-needs child drowned in a pond behind her middle school.
Today the district notifies board members of all emergency incidents.
Beyond the reporting issue, Eakins said it is important to listen to parents. Some have attended board meetings this summer with concerns that the district is not including their children enough with nondisabled peers.
Although officials cannot always give parents what they want, "you can get broader solutions when two or three parents have a concern and that gives you solutions for perhaps down the road for other unique situations," he said.
Parks said some criticism results from misconceptions about her department. For example, she said, the district is not sacrificing inclusion to prevent accidents.
With parental participation, district teams make decisions on the federally mandated plans that outline how each ESE student should be educated, "and our job as a district is then to provide that service," Parks said. "Some services are available in some schools. But safety should be anywhere you go."
Transparency will be important as the district continues to address concerns about ESE, Eakins said.
"We definitely know we have parents that are strong advocates for their children," he said. "We want to have a great collaboration so it is not advocate-adversary, but advocate-advocate in the best interest of kids," he said.
"We will continue to use surveys and trust that that feedback will be honest. And ultimately we will look back one to two years and see how far we have come in that process."
ESE advocate Claudia Roberts agreed that the improvements should be ongoing. "I think it's a start, but I don't think there is enough training across the board of teachers and staff who work with students who have significant disabilities," she said.
"I would like to see them not segregate students who could be included alongside their typical peers. And listen more to parents."
Johnson, the Corr Elementary teacher, said classroom aides should receive more training about disabilities. But she said she appreciates the steps that have been taken so far.
"The most important thing is to keep the kids safe," she said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]