This Op-Ed piece is written by Joann Pezzano, a Developmental Learning Center (DLC) parent.
This is the story of my son Danny and his aides.
We keep hearing about the Board of Education’s plan to possibly “outsource” aides in the Montclair schools, and most of these aides work with Special Education students. I sometimes watch these Board meetings late at night on Channel 34, listening to all of the proposals and back and forth, hearing parents fight for their schools and programs. For several months, I have been hearing and reading about “special ed kids” and “aides.” These words are bandied about, in an anonymous way. There is, because of law and sensitivities all around, a lot of privacy when it comes to these groups. They seem amorphous, unknown to most. Well I am here to tell you I know them. I know a lot of them… these “aides” and these “special ed kids.” This is pretty much my world these days, and I wanted to tell a little about a few of them.
My son, Danny, loves his aide Mrs. Soltau, and so do the other kids in his class at the Montclair Community Pre-K. My son has special needs which require him to have an aide in order to be successfully included in his class at the Pre-K this year, a class of 20 children. Danny is in his third year at the Developmental Learning Center (DLC), the Montclair Public Schools program for preschoolers having special needs which is housed within the Montclair Community Pre-K building. Danny spent his first two years solely in a self-contained room at the DLC (meaning that there were only other students with various disabilities). But this year, with the help of Mrs. Soltau and the great therapists and teachers at both the DLC and the Pre-K, he is having a wonderful experience being in a classroom of typical peers for half of his day.
Mrs. Soltau has been with the DLC for about ten years and has helped many children who have gone through there, both in self-contained classrooms and inclusive situations like the one Danny is in this year. She is soft-spoken and unassuming. She knows just when to help Danny and when to step back and let him shine. She works with my son’s special and general education teachers to help him be more successful where he has deficits, especially in language, play skills, and fine motor activities. She knows when he gets overwhelmed and needs a break or change from activities that might not stress a typical child.
She gets as excited as I do by his progress. In fact, she told me she was so happy the other day when he finally put on his own snow boots–“No Soltau… I do myself!” Mrs. Soltau told me that she ran to tell everyone, including the DLC’s Supervisor and secretary. Seemingly little milestones for most children are a pretty big deal when you have a kid with special needs, and Mrs. Soltau realizes that. “I was almost in tears yesterday,” she told me, when Danny had his big job of being the calendar person, correctly counting forwards and backwards from 100, choosing the correct weather on the classroom weather-wheel, and spelling February correctly, all without help.
You can’t outsource that kind of love.
The other day, when I dropped Danny off outside his classroom and Mrs. Soltau came to greet him, a few little girls in his class ran up to her to show her something they had made. “Mrs. Soltau, Mrs. Soltau, LOOK!” That made me happy. Having been a teacher of many precocious little girls, and having one myself (Danny’s little sister), I was glad to see that these little girls in Danny’s class see Mrs. Soltau not just as my son’s aide, but as a valuable member and go-to adult in their vibrant classroom. These girls know, love, and accept her in the classroom, and this helps translate into the acceptance of my son. She is not a stranger to them. She knows what she is doing. She has been part of the ongoing trainings, in-class therapies, and discussions with the experienced staffs of both the DLC and Pre K for many years.
One day, at a play date with one of the little girls in his Pre-K class, the girl said to me, “Mrs. Soltau helps Danny.” I said, “Yes, sometimes Danny needs someone to help him with some things in class.” The little girl just nodded and accepted it. And that’s ok. Isn’t it a wonderful lesson for children to learn and experience early on that some children have different abilities and disabilities but can still be part of the same world? Isn’t this what Montclair is supposed to be about? I mean, isn’t this diversity too? A great aide helps all this along, it just doesn’t happen incidentally. A great aide, like a great teacher, guides other children in the acceptance and understanding of children with special needs.
Mrs. Soltau is a single mom, a grandmother, and she loves Danny. Sometimes she accidentally calls him Dillon, the name of her grandson. Next year, her youngest daughter, who volunteered at the DLC this summer, will be attending Montclair State. She isn’t sure what she will do if her job if the Board of Education votes to outsource her job to an Essex County agency. The proposal is that many of the aides would offer be offered their jobs back, but without benefits.
In my opinion, aides shouldn’t be called “paraprofessionals” where “para” means “acting as.” Mrs. Soltau isn’t “acting” as a professional at all. She and the other aides at the DLC exemplify the word professional as do most of the aides you will meet at the DLC and in the District as a whole who work with with a variety of developmental and medical challenges. Things can and do happen every day with special needs kids – significant medical needs, a major meltdown. You have to be a professional to deal with all of this. You have to work seemlessly with a teacher and the staff and be part of it all for the greater good, because it can be stressful. But there are the triumphs. “It is such a rewarding job,” Mrs. Soltau says, and she tells me that she and her fellow aides at the DLC look out for each other, fill in for each other, help each other… a family, a team. “We don’t leave,” Mrs. Saltau says of the DLC aides.
In fact. another of Danny’s aides in his self-contained room for the past few years at the DLC, Barbara Spivey, is also going on her 10th year there. She has been with long-time pre-school special needs teacher Joanne Dedovitch ( “Mrs. D”) in her very special classroom that entire time. Many parents who enter that room with their 3 year olds, full of anxiety that their babies, most in school for the first time, many fresh out of Early Intervention or new to the whole world of special needs children, worry if their children will be well taken care of. It is not only Mrs. D’s manner and confidence that helps put parents at ease, but the the team of aides assembled around her, like Mrs. Spivey, who parents can quickly say act as Mrs. D’s 3’rd and 4th’ and 5th hands, an extension of her.
Mrs. Spivey also doesn’t know what will happen if her job is outsourced. She has a son in college as well. She needs the benefits. But it is hard for me to get this out of her… You see, these aides don’t complain to the parents. They do their jobs, they smile when the parents come to pick up their kids.
Danny enters Kindergarten next year. There is enough anxiety about that for parents in this town when their children are typical. But throw in an IEP, six places to choose from, and unknown aides who may or may not know what is going on and have a long “learning curve.” I have not invested so much time and energy into my kid, and don’t want to waste the time, energy, and money the DLC has invested in him, to deal with a learning curve, which in school years, like dog years, could be months or an entire year or more (this, I know). I don’t have that kind of time to waste with my son.
So if they are outsourced, maybe Mrs. Soltau and Mrs. Spivey will have to look elsewhere. Mrs. Soltau says, and that won’t be easy at her age. What a choice we are giving them… Thank you for your years of service. Thank you for your experience, love, care with our most in-need children. Now, here is your job – take it or leave it. You can have it back, but it won’t be with benefits or security, and you should be grateful to at least have a job! I don’t know what the deal is right now with the MEA and its offers to the Board, and vice-versa. Most of us are not privy to all of those negotiations and the he said/she said. All I do know is that everyone should get together and do what is right for these “professionals” and the children they serve. When the Board speaks about shared sacrifice, I don’t see the sharing in having special education students, teachers, and aides bear the brunt of that.
Our aides are Montclair and other local residents, mostly women, many mothers and grandmothers, many single parents. Most have love, patience, and understanding of our children that has come with years of training and under the guidance of the school system. If we outsource them, another agency will be in charge from Essex County. We don’t know what training they will have or not have, what professional development they will be required to have or not have. Sure, things can always be run more efficiently – there are currently recommendations before the Board about how to run things in Special Education more efficiently, including when it comes to aides and scheduling them, sharing them, fading them back as students get older, etc. These things should all be put into action before the outsourcing is voted on. We shouldn’t be foolish into thinking that spending less money on the neediest kids, especially when young, will cost us less in the future….quite the opposite.
When I hear “outsourced,” I think of that new TV show that spoofs all of the outsourcing to India that is happening in Corporate America, where the Indian employees take American sounding-names as they field phone calls from consumers who think they are calling somewhere in Omaha (though maybe not so much anymore?). I imagine that the next step might be to have our aides outsourced there as well, and calling via video-conference to say, “Hey kid… Danny! Hey… Danny! Over here! Whoo hoo! Look! Over here! Would you put on your boots? Look! Here’s how ya do it! Just do it, why don’t ya?”
Joann Pezzano is this year’s President of the DLC Parent Organization. She is also heavily involved with Montclair’s SEPAC (Special Education Parent Advisory Council) and is a certified New York City teacher on hiatus. She plans to be at the BOE meeting today, Monday, February 28 at 7 pmto support our aides.