Sunday, May 27, 2018
Education

Special needs aides to fill in where needed as Pinellas shifts them away from classrooms

More than 100 aides who are trained to help teachers in special-needs classrooms will instead do clerical work or assist in other Pinellas County classrooms this fall, part of a special education reorganization that has not gone as planned.

Pinellas eliminated 212 positions held by exceptional student education associates this year, with administrators saying that more people was not the solution to bolster the performance of students with disabilities.

No one would be fired or laid off, officials said, because hundreds of employees would retire or leave the district, opening up ESE associate positions for those whose jobs were cut.

But about 150 of these aides had not been placed as of this week, and there were no open ESE associate jobs, district and union officials both acknowledged in interviews.

Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said the associates would receive temporary assignments until jobs working with special-needs students opened up, which he hoped would be by the end of this school year.

He said some of these associates, who are certified to work with the district's most vulnerable students, will be doing clerical work. Others will assist in general education classrooms at high-need, low-performing schools like Maximo and Melrose elementaries, where the aides will not receive special training.

"A teacher's assistant is a teacher's assistant," Corbett said.

Some parents of students with special needs were angry to learn that the district was not putting the employees without assignments back into ESE classrooms.

"To pull people out of the ESE classrooms and continue to pay them the same wages and put them in clerical work — I mean, really?" said Judy Owen, whose son attends Sexton Elementary. "To say that they don't need them, I mean, you can look at the graduation rate for students with disabilities … and you can't dispute that something is needed."

In Pinellas, less than 40 percent of students with special needs graduate from high school, significantly less than the state average of 52 percent.

Similarly, 14 percent of Pinellas eighth-graders with special needs were proficient in reading on the 2013 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Nelly Henjes, president of the Pinellas Educational Support Professionals Association, said she expected these associates to be assigned as secretaries, documents clerks, or helpers who watch the children of high school students while they're in class, as these were positions on the same pay grade as the ESE associates.

"They promised that everyone would have a position (in ESE)" said a visibly frustrated Henjes, sorting through papers at the union's headquarters.

Corbett said no ESE associates would be working as secretaries, and he hoped to place a majority in classrooms.

Last year, Pinellas cut 220 positions that assist students with special needs, and were able to keep those aides in ESE classrooms through normal attrition as others retired or resigned.

This year, Pinellas eliminated hundreds more positions as part of a broader reorganization of exceptional student education.

The department's director, Lisa Grant, said through a spokeswoman that she was unavailable for interviews this week. In the spring, she defended the cuts even as the district acknowledged that the student-to-teacher ratio would increase in many cases.

"More isn't always better," Grant said in then. "I'm not saying there isn't a time and place … but we can't rely on more people as a solution to improve student achievement."

Pinellas, officials noted, has for years been spending more on special-needs education than other large counties but still getting worse results.

Extra associates will be assigned to classrooms that demonstrate need, administrators have said in recent months.

Paula Keyser, whose son receives special education services at Largo Middle, said she was concerned that papers already submitted by parents and teachers requesting additional associates are not getting through to the district.

"If there's that many of them without assignments, that's crazy," Keyser said.

Joey Bower, chairman of the school advisory committee at special-needs center Nina Harris, said he was skeptical that the district had eliminated these positions to improve the special education department rather than cut costs. Grant and Corbett have maintained that cost savings were a side effect of their actions, but not the motivation.

"Ultimately I know that's what drives a lot of the decisions," said Bower, whose 10-year-old son has congenital muscular dystrophy and functions at the level of a toddler. "Having more people in the office versus the classroom, I don't see how that benefits the children."

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow @lisagartner.

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