Union President, School Support Staff Ask for More Workers, Better Wages

They’ve been sworn at, hit, kicked, bitten, scratched, and had items thrown at them.

They work with the school district’s most emotionally, academically, medically and psychologically vulnerable students.

Yet they earn just $16 an hour.

District employees known as para-professionals or education support personnel work in classrooms with groups of students or one-on-one.

Lisa Begley (pictured), president of the Haverhill Education Association, asked the School Committee Thursday to consider the scope of the district’s ESP’s duties as the district and union negotiate a new contract.

Para-professional Christine Beckwith called the current salary and the course of contract negotiations disheartening.

“If your child required the services of an ESP for their success in school, would you think $16 an hour was enough to draw highly skilled personnel?” she asked committee members.

Begley said the city is losing good esps to any number of the 70 percent of similar districts that pay their paraprofessionals more than Haverhill does.

“It’s difficult to attend negotiations and to be told that money is not available, then read that the city has extra money and is asking people how to spend it,” she said.

Begley called for additional ESP staffing and a living wage.

Haverhill High School para-professional Deborah Tilley said there are roughly 220 ESPs compared to 8,000 students in the city’s schools.

They provide personal care, carry out instructions from therapists or medical personnel, provide accommodations for students with physical impairments, and record students’ achievements or lack of progress at meeting goals and benchmarks, she said.

“Para-professionals save the city thousands of dollars every year,” Tilley said.

Shrinking staffs result in ESPs being shuffled from classroom to classroom or school to school, Begley said, which is problematic for teachers, the ESPs and students.

Amy Aloisi, an ESP who serves as the librarian at Pentucket Lake School, said the demands of the job affect the time she is able to spend with her own children.

While working on a project for some of her students, Aloisi said one of her daughters remarked, “You spend a lot of time on the kids at Pentucket Lake; could you watch a movie with me?”

Aloisi supervises five classes of 25 to 30 students each day, unaccompanied by a teacher.

She said many members of the support staff have bachelor’s degrees, are working toward master’s degrees, and have 20 or more years of experience.

“There is not one para-professional in this city who doesn’t go above and beyond,” Aloisi said.