Rocky Point community fights for special education aides

Rocky Point community fights for special education aides

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Jessica Ward, center, surrounded by supportive red shirts, holds up a sign in favor of aides. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Jessica Ward sat in a united sea of red shirts before taking to the mic at Rocky Point’s Board of Education meeting on Monday.

“For some of the … board it might just be another item to get done with tonight,” Ward, a Rocky Point resident, said about agenda item No. 22, to eliminate two teacher aide positions. “But it means much more to me, as I am item No. 22.”

Ward’s position at Rocky Point elementary was one of four recently abolished special education aide jobs districtwide. The first two were eliminated at a July school board meeting, the same night the board hired five teaching assistants. When trustees — with Sean Callahan as the lone dissenting vote — terminated Ward and another teacher aide on Monday, they were met with boos from other aides, members of the New York State United Teachers and some residents.

Ward, the former vice president of Rocky Point’s Parent Teacher Association, put blame on Trustee Melissa Brown. She claimed in an interview that Brown wants Rocky Point to emulate the Sachem School District, where teaching assistants are used in the classroom instead of aides.

“She would like to bring teaching assistants because, in her opinion, it will serve the children better. The teaching aides disagree,” Ward said about Brown. “We do a lot more than what they think a teaching aide does.”

Aides give “health and safety support to children,” Brown explained in an email, and are assigned to those special needs students on a case-by-case basis. Many aides build relationships with the children and can identify their moods and needs more easily than other individuals in the school. Unlike teacher aides, teaching assistants are allowed to teach the curriculum in the classroom.

“There are many [special education] teachers who are charged with teaching multigrade levels of instruction in math, social studies and science, on top of trying to teach the students to read,” Brown said. “Teaching assistants provide the students with another teacher in the room to assist in providing academic instruction.”

She hopes more teaching assistants will raise graduation rates for special education students.

But some at the meeting emphasized how important aides were for their children.

One woman said her daughter needed more attention to pass her Regents exams.

“Those teachers could not give that one-on-one to my child,” she said. “She learns differently and those aides saw that and helped her.”

Superintendent Michael Ring said that one of the aides whose position was recently eliminated is working toward a teaching assistant certification, and in the meantime is still working for the district. Executive Director for Educational Services Susan Wilson said other aides could follow the same process.

While Ring said this school year is the first phase of Rocky Point’s move toward more teaching assistants, and there may be more teacher aides replaced with teaching assistants next fall, for now, the staff changes are over.

“I have no intentions of recommending any others to be eliminated,” he said.

But for Ward, losing her position as a teacher aide is a big setback.

“I am a single mother of four children under the age of 12,” Ward said, as her eyes began to tear. “I carry their health insurance so [being eliminated] is very upsetting to me.”

This version corrects the attribution on a statement about the Rocky Point school district’s staffing plans regarding teacher aides and teaching assistants.

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