Tempers flared as several current and former Montrose Early Childhood Center families expressed concern and frustration at Monday’s South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting about the district’s decision to halve the number of paraprofessionals for the upcoming year, and asked for staff levels to be restored.
“When I heard that you had approved a reduction in classroom paraprofessionals for the preschool, I was upset, as we had just fought this same fight last year,” said Caryn Gehrke, the parent of a Montrose graduate. “And you listened that time. I’m hoping you’re listening again.”
Currently, there are two paraprofessionals (aides that help support teachers and students) dedicated to each Montrose classroom. With the budget cuts, there will be one aide assigned to each classroom (a 15:1 ratio of students to teachers) when school begins in September. The district is still required by law to assign individual paraprofessionals to students whose IEPs, or Individual Education Plans, mandate that. In addition, there are four building-wide paraprofessionals who are assigned to classrooms on an as-needed basis.
Gehrke told the board about a time that her daughter had to be carried out of the building during an evacuation drill in her first year at Montrose. “This removed an adult from the rest of the class and with your current proposed ratio, would leave the remaining 14 preschoolers with a single adult,” she said. “And she was not the only one.”
Calling the staff reduction “short-sighted,” Gehrke said it would force the district “to spend more money on additional individual and shared paras for the students who can no longer access the classroom and school safely without additional help.”
Montrose PTA Co-President Nicole Kleinbaum praised the current system of two dedicated paraprofessionals per class and implored the administration to maintain the district’s “high-quality preschool education.”
“Montrose has never been about doing the bare minimum required. It’s never been about doing only what the NJ DOE approves,” Kleinbaum said, adding that her son has thrived at Montrose, crediting previous staffing levels for his progress.
“You’re a former kindergarten teacher,” Kleinbaum said, addressing new Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor. “Please have some empathy for these preschool teachers who have five to six students with IEPs in their classroom…”
Taylor, who said he did not take part in the decision to cut the number of classroom paraprofessionals, said that he understood the value of having that additional help.
“Just for clarity’s sake, if a student’s IEP requires a paraprofessional, we legally have to meet that,” he said. “That will be outside of the 15-to-1 ratio that has been discussed.”
Taylor said he was open to meeting with Montrose families about their concerns, adding, “We’re not leaving the table as if this is a done deal.”
Taylor also acknowledged the need for “ample professional development” for new teachers at Montrose. Seven of the school’s 10 teachers are new this year. (In January, Montrose parents raised concerns regarding mid-year turnover among the school’s teaching staff.)
Many parents first learned of the staff reductions changes from a slide presentation sent by Principal Bonita Samuels on June 12. On slide 29, a list of questions and answers includes the line, “What is the student:teacher ratio? 15 students: 1 teacher, 1 classroom paraprofessional. Additional paras may be determined by IEP.”
The slideshow was followed by a back-to-school letter to parents, dated July 24, from interim Assistant Superintendent for Special Services Laura Morana.
“There is one ‘classroom para’ in every class to help support the teacher and students,” the letter reads. “Due to Montrose being a larger, more populated building, there are four ‘building paras’ to go where they are needed. Depending on special education programming, there may be additional paraprofessionals assigned to students with special needs. This may be a ‘1:1 para’ or a ‘shared para.’ Students eligible for a paraprofessional via a Section 504 Plan may also receive this service.”
Morana said that the school will have 23 or 24 paraprofessionals spread over 10 classrooms. “The likelihood of having more than one para per class is quite high,” Morana said, adding that she didn’t expect classrooms to have “three or four paras, as has happened in the past.”
Morana added that “everything we do is with the students’ safety in mind.’
The administrators’ comments did little to assuage the safety concerns raised by most of the dozen speakers who asked the BOE to keep two paraprofessionals in each classroom.
“We have a lot of frustration because this is the fourth or fifth time we’ve heard you say the same thing,” said one man in the audience, calling out a “communication” problem.
Another frustrated parent shouted as she left the meeting that a reduction in classroom staffing could lead to a dangerous situation for students. “Then you’ll have lots to deal with!”
“Let’s hope no,” replied Board President Annemarie Maini. “We don’t want that at all.”