DETROIT — Schools across Oakland County urgently need aides for special education students.
The aides, called paraprofessionals, are in short supply this year, according to Karen Olex, executive director of special education for Oakland Schools, the county’s intermediate school district. In a statement to the community, she wrote that the need for aides in special education is “desperate.”
Olex said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press that districts are offering finder’s fees, bonuses and other perks to try to round up more people to work as aides, often community members who help special education students in a one-on-one fashion. Out of 15 districts in Oakland County surveyed, schools need about 866 aides to operate and still need to hire 145 for the upcoming school year.
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Paraprofessionals must have a high school diploma. If they work in schools with high low-income populations, they must also have an associate’s degree.
“They’re making every every effort to do whatever they can to bring in … community members,” she said.
The problem is not unique to Oakland County. Parents of children who require special education services said they’ve noticed a lack of aides in recent years, and resistance from districts in assigning one-on-one aides to their children.
Cassandra Florentine’s son, who has autism, struggled without an aide consistently there for him while attending a school in Utica. The mother said a one-on-one aide was included in her son’s IEP plan, but the requirement was never fully fulfilled.
“He may have had somebody who came in a couple of times a week, but that’s the most he’s ever been able to get,” she said.
Lower pay and high demands for the job contribute to the shortage. Some districts advertise starting salaries as low as $12.57 an hour, not enough to keep up with service industry pay. Businesses across Michigan are experiencing staff shortages, which has led to a competitive job market and higher pay. Salaries at Amazon warehouses begin at $15 an hour. While working with students can be fulfilling, the jobs can also demand a lot of time and energy, packed into a short school day.
Dee Ann Griggs, a Michigan parent, wrote on Facebook that aides are the “unsung heroes” of the classroom, and that they were a lifeline for her son, from ages 3 to 24.
For other parents, it’s the absence of aides that’s deeply felt. Darlene Waller’s daughter, who is 8, requires special education services for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. Waller said her daughter and other students especially needed an aide while riding a Detroit public schools bus, where some children are prone to run out of the bus unexpectedly.
In the classroom, Waller requested an aide so her daughter could have one-on-one help, but she was met with a litany of excuses.
“I’ve been told everything: They don’t have enough money for parapros, there aren’t enough parapros available, some teachers don’t like them in the classrooms,” she said. “It’s really been a hard fight just to try to convince them that this is what’s needed.”
Without the extra attention, Waller’s daughter has struggled, she said. Writing, in particular, poses a challenge because of dexterity issues.
Florentine took her son out of the school district and began homeschooling. The mother said she couldn’t help but feel like someone had failed her son along the way: He’d started to hate school because it was such an overwhelming experience.
‘I’ve realized that there are so many kids like him,” she said, “that just fall through the cracks. Those parents don’t have the option to homeschool; we kind of are blessed in that sense.”
Homeschool transformed the way her son received education, Florentine said. He needed someone to help explain assignment directions to him one-on-one, in particular.
Waller is looking for a new school this year for her daughter, but she’s not sure where she’ll end up yet. She feels like her daughter has been lost in a system that doesn’t provide the education or attention she needs.
“The kids are caught up in the red tape and the politics of the education system, and they’re not getting everything that they need or deserve,” she said.
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