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NAPERVILLE, Ill. — Claire Considine, a teacher’s aide at Naperville North High School in a suburb about 35 miles west of Chicago, had lost count of the hardships that she and other school support staff had been through since she was hired in 2019: the trauma and disruption of Covid-19, chaotic online instruction, mask and vaccine debates, and rising behavioral and mental health issues among students.

Now, facing staffing shortages, the district of more than 16,000 students dumped extra work on those who remained. As part of her job, Considine worked closely with students with disabilities, often helping medically-fragile children ride the bus or go to the bathroom. She did this all for $14.25 an hour, bringing home an average of $650 every two weeks. She struggled to afford gas for her car.

In November 2021, she was relieved to hear her union was organizing a rally to demand higher wages for teacher’s aides (also known as paraprofessionals) and other support staff, such as secretaries, health techs, campus supervisors and information technology support workers. Finally, a raise was imminent, she thought — hopefully a substantial one: The district had a $200 million surplus in June 2021. The board had opted to refund $10 million of it to local property owners as a tax refund earlier that year.

Claire Considine, a former teacher’s assistant at Naperville schools near Chicago, left the district for a higher paying job at a nursing home. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

But soon after the rally, held the same night as a district board meeting, she and her fellow support staff got their answer: The school board approved a $1 raise, bringing her wage to $15.25 an hour.

Considine, 28, was shocked. On the day of the rally, she had bundled up in her warmest coat to march with a crowd of over 100 to a school board meeting, holding a posterboard board that read: “I love my job but I also need to put gas in my car.” Though nervous, she stood tall and projected her voice behind a cloth mask during public comments.

“I want to stay, but there might be a time in the not-too-distant future where I simply cannot afford to stay,” she had told the board. “I wish it wouldn’t take all of us telling you that we need to work a second job just to barely make ends meet.”

The approved salary increase was less than the $16 an hour that many Naperville North students earned working at Target. An extra $1 an hour was hardly going to make a dent in her car payment or student loans. If she stayed another year, she’d receive another dollar, and two years later, one additional dollar. Support staff also received a one-time $1,000 bonus. In the past, that might have felt like a win, but the inflation rate hit 7 percent that month, essentially negating her 7 percent raise.

Considine began searching for jobs not long after the small raise was announced. In November 2022, she submitted her resignation. On her last day, she gifted a book to her students filled with photos of them together. Saying goodbye was heartbreaking, and she felt guilty leaving her coworkers with yet another unfilled position. “I was sad to leave, but I knew I couldn’t stay. I knew I needed to make more,” she said.

At the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, 53 percent of public schools reported being understaffed, according to the Institute of Educational Sciences. While teacher shortages often get the most attention, shortages among non-teaching staff also disrupt the smooth running of schools. Support staff members often describe themselves as a hidden workforce, blending into the background. Behind every effective teacher, they argue, is a team of support staff, who receive little acknowledgement from parents or the community.

“Teachers can do only so much, so paraprofessionals are the bridge for students to receive the individualized services they need,” said Ritu Chopra, executive director of the Paraprofessional Resource and Research Center at the University of Colorado Denver. “They become the eyes and ears of the teachers. If you’re a special education teacher with a caseload of 12 students and the students are going into general education classrooms, the teacher has to be Superman or Superwoman to be in 12 different places at once. In the absence of paraprofessionals, special education services wouldn’t be possible.”

Related: When kids go back to school, who’s going to drive the bus?

Support staff receive significantly lower pay than teachers, typically working hourly jobs, meaning no pay during summers or school holidays. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median annual pay for paraprofessionals in the U.S. at $21,528, when adjusted for unpaid time off over the summer and holidays, below the poverty line for a family of three. In 2021, 37 percent of support staff worked two or more jobs. “Educational support professionals are actually earning less than they did 10 years ago when adjusted for inflation,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “Many are on a form of assistance like Medicaid or SNAP just to make ends meet.”

“I was sad to leave, but I knew I couldn’t stay.”

Claire Considine, former teacher’s aide.

A spokesperson for the district, Alex Mayster, said the district had no comment when given a list of questions related to the school board’s decision. However, he did provide a statement from the district that was released soon after the vote, which called the agreement “fair and fiscally responsible.”

“I am so thankful to have a contract in place that shows our district’s appreciation for the valued members of our support staff,” district superintendent Dan Bridges said in the statement.

Sharon Kurolenko, the president of the union representing Considine and her coworkers, said that the union overwhelmingly voted to ratify the contract, which included additional sick time and maintaining health insurance coverage. It was “a step in the right direction, but there is more work to be done,” she said. “We are committed to continuing to advocate for the respect and wages all our hard-working education support professionals deserve.”

School administrators, and even the National Guard, have needed to fill in for missing bus drivers, part of a broader shortage of school support staff. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

Schools have long relied on the nearly 2.2 million educational support workers they employ. While the number of bus drivers, secretaries and custodians has remained steady or increased modestly in the past 30 years, teachers’ aides and security guards are two of the few positions in education that have seen substantial growth. The number of teachers’ aides more than doubled between 1990 and 2018 as the teacher shortage grew and efforts to integrate more students with disabilities in general ed classrooms increased.

While support staff are often seen as unskilled or low-skilled labor, many positions require a degree, specialized training or considerable skill. Most districts require paraprofessionals to have an associate’s degree, and some states ask them to pass an exam as well. In special ed classrooms, they’re expected to manage high-needs, high-risk children. IT support requires extensive technical knowledge. Health techs are CPR-trained and undergo additional training, usually without any increase in pay, in how to resuscitate a patient after cardiac arrest, stop excessive bleeding, and manage epileptic seizures. According to the NEA, 57 percent of support staff workers in K-12 schools have an associate’s degree or higher.

Related: Tight labor market hits after school

The disruption of the pandemic elevated the importance of school employees such as school nutrition staff, who quickly revamped their programs to serve grab-and-go meals for families who needed the support, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, the director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association.

But 93 percent of school meal programs report staff shortages, and the pool of potential school nutrition employees is being drawn away by restaurants and other employers that can offer more pay, Pratt-Heavner said. For example, when Denver recently hiked its minimum wage to $17.29 — close to $4 more than the state minimum wage of $13.65 — school districts outside city limits reported that potential employees were being drawn to jobs within the city. Even though schools can offer perks, such as weekends and holidays off, they can’t match that higher pay.

“It just has been very difficult for school nutrition programs to compete with fast food restaurants for salaries and benefits,” Pratt-Heavner said.

Bus driver shortages led Massachusetts to enlist the National Guard for help, and in some districts around the country, principals and superintendents began driving buses out of desperation. The shortage of custodians has left teachers and students cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors before and after school.

As schools emerged from Covid-19, staff support jobs did not return to what they had been in 2019. The challenges piled on, and they saw wages rising nearly everywhere except in education. Considine watched three other coworkers leave before her.

“The educational environment got more difficult physically, emotionally, mentally and psychologically,” said Mark Klaisner, the president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. “People were feeling trauma. And there wasn’t extra compensation for battle fatigue.”

Educator strikes have also increased across the country since 2020, not only among teachers, but among the school staff who support them. A three-day strike in April closed school for more than 420,000 students in Los Angeles after 30,000 school custodians, bus drivers, and paraprofessionals walked out. School support staff have also gone on strike this year in Woburn, Massachusetts and in Morgan County, Ohio.

Claire Considine, a former teacher’s aide at a school district near Chicago, held signs with slogans like “More than praise, we need a raise” at a 2021 staff rally. The school board later voted to raise pay by $1 per hour, still less than wages offered by nearby retailers. Credit: Image Provided by Claire Considine

At the November school board meeting where they spoke in favor of salary increases, several Naperville support staff discussed the hardships they endured. Logan Aschom, an IT support professional for the district, and father of a 4-year-old, told the board he feared he wouldn’t be able to continue working for the district. “My cost of living is rapidly outpacing and consuming my small increases in pay,” he said.

In a conversation after the meeting, he said most of his paycheck went to his daughter’s $1,500-a-month daycare, and $9,100 in annual property taxes. If it wasn’t for the $1,250 monthly rental income from an upstairs unit in their house, he and his wife, who manages an art gallery, couldn’t pay their bills.

Former paraprofessional Shalandar Phillips, a mom of five, including 6-year-old twins, said her 12- to 14-hour days at the school often meant she wouldn’t get home until 8 p.m. and missed dinner with her family. Even after working those long hours, she struggled to pay bills. She ended up quitting in early 2022, crying with her students and coworkers on her last day. She now works as a medical receptionist, logging only 40 hours a week and making approximately $14,000 more a year than she did as an educator.

Related: ‘More than a warm body:’ schools try long-term solution to substitute teacher shortage

The support staff shortage also directly affects the wellbeing of students and teachers. Without enough teacher assistants, for example, some students don’t receive the same level of individualized attention, which is a particular concern for students with disabilities.

Noah Peterson spent his senior year in a special education classroom at Naperville North last year. He has cerebral palsy, a mild cognitive delay, and wears leg braces to assist with walking. His special education supports require the school to provide a one-on-one aide during the school day. His mother, Jen Williamson, began noticing high turnover in the aides helping her son on or off the bus after he returned to in-person instruction in fall 2021. Sometimes an assistant wasn’t available, so Williamson would have to drive her son to school.

For years, Williamson fought to have one aide stay with her son while he was at school, but as shortages grew, he began having four to five different aides, rotating throughout the day. The instability concerned Williamson. Every year, she gives the school a three-page document with her son’s photo, his diagnoses, surgeries, medications, doctors and allergies; she worries that with the high turnover, this information doesn’t trickle down.

“I’ve almost lost him so many times,” Williamson said, as she waited for her son to come home on the bus from his transitional program through the Naperville district. “The aide is who I trust the safety of my child with throughout the day. It is very important they are aware of his diagnosis and how to care for him.”

Klaisner, of the superintendent’s association, said districts are motivated to hold down salaries as much as possible to keep budgets balanced and avoid raising taxes. “With 7 and 8 percent inflation, we’re talking about a 25 percent increase in three years. Taxes are not going to go up 25 percent in that time,” he said. Insurance premiums continue to increase for districts as well. “It’s always more complicated than the general public thinks,” he said.

In April 2023, Naperville District 203 had 53 open positions for support staff.

School districts across the country, including Naperville schools in suburban Chicago, are facing shortages of school staff such as paraprofessionals and bus drivers. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

As challenging as it can be to work in school support, the position appeals to some who want to work with young people.

Considine, for example, was drawn to the profession to help students who may be struggling, just as she was helped in school. She credits paraprofessionals with helping her learn to read and enabling her to attend college. She was diagnosed with dyslexia in fourth grade, and couldn’t read until junior high, when she received reading intervention and worked one-on-one with a paraprofessional. In high school, another aide helped her prepare for the ACT.

“Now I worry they’re so short staffed, they’re pulling aides away from the kids like me,” she said.

After high school, she hoped to become a speech pathologist, but was worried about student debt. She opted to attend community college, then graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications in 2019 and moved back home to figure out her next step. Her mom suggested the paraprofessional job, which comes with health benefits. Eventually, Considine was putting in 50 hours a week, plus babysitting once a week for $4 an hour more than the district paid her.

Thirty-seven percent of school support staff report working two or more jobs, according to a 2021 survey by the National Education Association.

To earn a teaching credential, she’d have to return to school and take out more student loans.

“I never thought about being a teacher because I saw how hard it was. But I loved being a teacher’s aide,” she said. Considine didn’t intend to continue living with her mom, but she saw no way out. The cheapest rent she could find was $1,200 a month for a basic one-bedroom apartment outside of Naperville where rents tended to be lower. “If I didn’t have friends or my family, I’d be on the streets,” she said.

Her fears weren’t unreasonable. As in other U.S. cities, the cost of living has risen dramatically in recent years. Rents in Naperville rose 10.4 percent between June 2021 and June 2022, and home prices rose 17 percent during that time. The median household income in the quiet, affluent suburb is around $136,000, compared to $66,000 for nearby Chicago. The demographics of the top-ranked district — 60 percent white, 18 percent Asian, 12 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Black —  roughly matches that of the community as a whole. Only 15 percent of the student body is designated by the state as low-income, compared to 47 percent for Illinois.

Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, has been advocating for increased pay across the state, including lobbying the Illinois House to pass a bill that would raise the minimum pay for educational support staff to $20 an hour for the 2023-24 school year. “For some educational support professionals in our state, their pay doesn’t even cover their health insurance costs for their family. They can go down the street to Amazon and get paid more per hour, yet these amazing people are so important to the success of our students.”

After leaving Naperville North, Considine began working as a receptionist at a nursing home facility two miles down the road. Her starting wage was $17, and she’s already begun training in activities coordinating that she hopes will help her transition to a position earning $80,000 a year. “I just couldn’t do the 12-hour days and the lifting and toileting and bus riding anymore,” she said. “I was burnt out.” She now has more free time and extra spending money to occasionally eat out with friends. She’s even begun saving for the future.

“I have more balance and a better quality of life,” she said. “It’s 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then I’m done.”

This story was supported by the journalism non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

This story about school support staff was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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