MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Aug. 19 meeting of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education saw many parents who have or have had children at the Montrose Early Childhood Center ask the BOE to reconsider halving the number of paraprofessionals at the school for the upcoming school year and asked that staff levels be reconsidered. Last school year there were two paraprofessionals dedicated to each classroom at Montrose; with the budget cuts there will be one assigned to each classroom when school begins Sept. 5. There will be four buildingwide paraprofessionals who will be assigned to classrooms on an as-needed basis, in addition to the paraprofessionals who are assigned to students that mandate having one in their Individualized Education Plan. Parents at the meeting said the reduction in paraprofessional staff members would be dangerous for students at the preschool.
“Montrose has never been about doing the bare minimum required; it’s never been about doing what the NJDOE approves,” Montrose PTA Co-president Nicole Kleinbaum said at the meeting during public comment. “Since its founding several years ago, Montrose has been a unique preschool to provide high quality preschool education to the youngest students in our district in the least restrictive environment. The two dedicated classroom paraprofessionals allowed children with IEPs to thrive in a safe classroom with general education peers.”
Kleinbaum said that the 15:1 student-to-teacher ratio requires more than one classroom paraprofessional, especially when there are often times five or six children with IEPs in a class. Not every child with an IEP requires a paraprofessional.
“You are a former kindergarten teacher,” Kleinbaum said to Superintendent Ron Taylor. “Please have some empathy for these teachers who have five to six children with IEPs and reinstate the budget for two classroom paraprofessionals.”
Phil Gross, a resident who has a daughter at Montrose and another daughter who will go there next year, said he saw very little wiggle room among the staff when he visited the school this past year.
“What I did not see was any slack among the paraprofessionals or the teachers,” Gross, who said he and his family moved the community partly because of the school district, said at the meeting. “There were three fully occupied adults to try and manage a class of 15 students. There were three heroes working hard to make everything go smoothly. I am asking the board to reverse the decision and give us the full two paras in every class.”
Lindsey Stone and Alex Dubin have a son with special needs who goes to Montrose, and both serve as the special services liaisons to the Montrose PTA. They each spoke at the meeting about how their son, Benjamin, has benefited from the program at Montrose. Both Stone and Dubin said the general education students also need paraprofessionals.
“This decision causes us great unease for the children enrolled in the district preschool program,” Stone said at the meeting. “We are deeply concerned for our children’s education and safety. Montrose continues to have five children with IEPs per 15 children in its inclusion classrooms. Often that number is the minimum, not the maximum. This is not a ‘let’s see if that works’ scenario, because the consequences of it not working is that a child will get badly hurt.”
Dubin said that despite the paraprofessionals often being in preschool classrooms for special education students, the general education students are also a priority.
“This is not a special needs issue and should not be seen as one,” he said at the meeting. “This is an issue that affects the entire student population of Montrose equally. I’m not worried about my son; he has a paraprofessional dedicated to him. I’m worried about the other 14 students in his classroom. We are cutting education from the youngest, most vulnerable students. Even more so, this is a safety issue. Someone is going to get hurt.”
Ilana Dubrovsky’s daughter Mia has severe food allergies, and she said at the meeting that having fewer paraprofessionals puts Mia at greater risk.
“It’s a very serious safety concern for us, and it puts all Montrose children at risk,” Dubrovsky said. “There is just no room for error.”
Stone and Dubin’s son is not the only Montrose student who thrived with the paraprofessionals at the school. Justin Edwards said at the meeting that his son has special needs as well, and the structure at the district’s preschool worked for him.
“Please do not cut staff or support from this school,” Edwards said. “These children are at critical points in their development. This is a foundation that will impact the rest of their lives and other children around them. The paraprofessionals are critical to the success of all the kids as well as the teachers and this institution. The balance and harmony of these kids hangs on the support of this staff. We cannot let our community down by taking this away from them.”
Taylor, who began his job in the district in early July, said that he was not yet working in the community when the budget decision was made, but did clarify that the paraprofessionals who are assigned to a student who requires one in an IEP are outside of the 15:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Executive Director of Special Services and Youth Services Laura Morana said there would be 24 paraprofessionals at Montrose this year.
“The likelihood of having more than one para per classroom certainly is quite high,” Morana said at the meeting. “I don’t anticipate that a classroom would have three and four paras as we’ve had in the past, but certain accommodations can be made.”
Morana said one strategy that could be employed at the school is having the nurse come to a classroom if needed instead of taking a child to the nurse, therefore taking an adult out of the classroom.
“We’re looking at ways in which we can maximize the personnel that we have,” she said. “Safety is at the core of the decisions that are being made on the classroom as well.”
Taylor said the conversation about the number of paraprofessionals would be ongoing, and meetings with Morana and Montrose Principal Bonita Samuels had been scheduled to discuss it and report back to the BOE and public.
“We’re not leaving the table here as if this is a done deal,” Taylor said. “We understand the value of paraprofessionals. Whatever decision that was made and the context behind it is, it doesn’t change the value that we see in our paraprofessionals. There isn’t a parent in this room or any other who wants less for their students than they could possibly have.”
Photo by Amanda Valentovic