NYSUT School-Related Professionals took home three awards at the recent American Federation of Teachers Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel Conference in Baltimore, proving they really are the best in the nation.
The Buffalo Educational Support Team, led by Jo Ann Sweat, won the PSRP Organizing Award for staying strong through nearly 10 years of contract negotiations. They continued to organize even after multiple school board changes and repeated attempts to break the union. Sweat, who heads up the 900-member local, comprising teaching assistants, teacher aides and health care aides, won raises of 10.5 percent for members in the first year, followed by three years of 2.25 percent increases. The new contract, which will last four years, also includes signing bonuses, longevity bonuses, and professional development.
“We did what we thought was best for our members. I just could not see settling for 2 percent. That was not going to do anything for them,” said Sweat. Sweat said the majority of her members work multiple jobs to support their families, and they deserve a decent wage and the respect of their colleagues. “The contract represents the largest raise we’ve ever gotten, and also includes extra pay for new hires, additional compensation for subbing, and more pay for SRPs who have to do toileting,” she said.
The West Genesee Paraprofessionals Association, led by Kristin Good, won the PSRP Member Engagement and Professional Development Award for their amazing work with mentoring and the creation of the Para!Academy. The Para!Academy project was headed up by Susan Gifford, the local’s former president and a retired teaching assistant who said TAs and aides needed a “deliberate and intentional” training program to stem high rates of turnover in their ranks.
“We had TAs say, ‘They gave me a job and put me in the district, and I don’t even know where to put my purse,’” said Gifford. To solve the problem and stimulate engagement, Gifford founded the Para!Academy in July 2022 to train TAs, aides and other School-Related Professionals, or paraprofessionals as they are sometimes called. Para!Academy includes a full-day orientation strictly for TAs and aides where they walk through the TA handbook Gifford helped develop and get a full and comprehensive introduction to their job descriptions. The academy also matches new paraprofessionals with veteran paraprofessionals and provides for regular contact as well as peer observation sessions, so that new employees can watch more experienced colleagues in action.
The program also included two librarian-led book studies. Gifford said the equity-focused book studies were an important step for anti-racism. “If you want something to change on a district level, you have to make sure everyone is in on it,” she said.
Funded through a Take a Look at Teaching grant and the West Genesee Teaching Center, the program has been an unparalleled success. The center trained 45 new paraprofessionals during its inaugural year – more than a third of its total number of paraprofessionals “I am thrilled to tell you that nobody quit this year, and it has launched four people into full-time teaching positions,” Gifford said. “This is something every school district should want to do. They should want to train their people.”
The New Hartford Employees Union, led by Vincent Nesci, won the PSRP Advocacy Award, for converting budget cuts into across-the-board raises. Nesci said the award was a happy surprise. “We never intended to receive this award. We were just working to get a good contract – which we got!” He added that district administration tried to break them, but in the end they only made them stronger.
After 6 months of negotiating ended in an impasse, New Hartford board members tried to lure select members in with raises and imposed demands, but Nesci and his team launched a counter-offensive that included escalation training, community outreach, presence at board meetings, and one-on-one meetings with board members to alert them that they were in violation of the Taylor Law. In time, the New Hartford board capitulated to pressure, and all NHEU employees received at least an 8 percent raise and many job titles that had been grossly underpaid received more; in fact, some job titles received over 30 percent, Nesci said. The newly negotiated contract also improved sick time, longevity increments, stipends, personal leave, snow days, holidays, and health insurance.
The conference also honored Shelvy Young Abrams, the recently retired UFT Paraprofessionals Chapter chair and NYSUT SRP at-large director for her founding role in the PSRP movement.