National News

Teacher's aide says lack of paraprofessionals affecting students with special needs

Posted November 16, 2017 10:42 a.m. EST

— A teacher's aide at Metro Nashville Public Schools says children with special needs are not getting the attention they need in the classroom.

The News 4 I-Team has uncovered just how far reaching this problem is.

The teacher's aide said the situation is becoming worse every day, and a Metro Schools parent said she is worried about the future of her son's education if something doesn't change.

It's not the kind of life Viviana Aureille imagined for her son.

"When he was diagnosed at 22 months, my whole world crashed," Aureille said.

Her son Mark has autism. At 5 years old he still can't form a complete sentence.

It's children like Mark that have a Metro Schools aide coming forward, saying many students like him are not getting the support they deserve in the classroom.

"I feel like the kids are being under-served and they're not getting the services that they need," said the aide, who News 4 is not identifying because she still works for the district.

The I-Team has uncovered there are currently about 60 open positions for paraprofessionals within the area's largest school district.

"I'm here today to shine a light on the problem that we have here within Metro Schools," the aide said.

The aide said many of them are quitting because they can't afford to live off the starting salary of $16,000. While teacher's aides did get a three percent raise last year, she said it's still not enough.

"It is increasingly more difficult to do quality work and feel like you're effectively helping those students because the amount of strain and stress of being understaffed," she said.

Last year there were 123 open positions for paraprofessionals. This year half of those remain unfilled. And this is a problem that goes back several years.

News 4 reported in 2012 more than 100 jobs were cut in Metro Schools. All of them were paraprofessionals.

The I-Team has also learned there are no rules in Tennessee requiring a certain number of teacher's aides in a classroom.

With more than 10,000 students with special needs in the district, sometimes classrooms don't have a teacher's aide at all.

"Should parents be concerned that their child is not getting the appropriate care in a classroom?" the I-Team's Lindsay Bramson asked.

"I understand if parents feel like that, I get that, and I'm sorry if they're feeling like that. And we want to make sure they don't feel like that, so if there is that concern I ask them to reach out to us," said Debbie McAdams, director of the Department of Exceptional Education for Metro Schools.

The teacher's aide said test scores are also a major problem.

The I-Team uncovered out of thousands of standardized tests specifically given to children with special needs, as many as 70 percent of students scored below grade level expectations.

"We know we can do better and we know we need to do better," McAdams said.

McAdams said she's aware some teacher's aides are frustrated and want more money. In the meantime, she said they're doing everything they can to make sure students are getting the help they need.

"We're putting in teacher subs for a lot of these open paraprofessional positions, so instead of trying to find a para-pro substitute we're putting in a teacher, a certified teacher substitute, to fill these positions," McAdams said.

But ask this teacher's aide and Aureille and they'll say it's not enough. Both want to see more done to keep teacher's aides in the classroom who can help Mark and other children like him succeed.

"I would love to stay in this and have a career with exceptional education. I can't afford it," the aide said.

"Please think about our kids," Aureille added.

How does Metro's 60 unfilled positions compare to other districts throughout Middle Tennessee? In Williamson County, there are 20. In Rutherford County, there are six. Both Wilson and Sumner counties have three open positions, and Cheatham County Schools has two open positions for paraprofessionals.

The I-Team also wanted to compare the test scores to 2015 and 2016, but couldn't since the state changed the way they test beginning this year.

Metro Schools will be holding a certified job fair currently scheduled for Dec. 2 at the Martin Professional Development Center, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.