By Christian Basnight
Sekena Wilson never knows what she’ll be doing from one day to the next at Harrington Waddell Elementary School, where she works with special needs children. One day she’s helping students with math. Another day she might help with feeding a child who needs extra care.
“It’s never the same,” she said. “My schedule today was completely different than it was yesterday and completely different than it was last week. And I might be in a completely different class with kids that I’ve never been with before.”
Aides for special needs students are formally known as paraprofessionals. For Wilson, being a paraprofessional is rewarding work.
“You get close to them, and you find out things about their personal lives that break your heart a little bit,” she said. “You want that kid to be better and succeed so when they’re older they don’t have to depend on the people they currently live with.”
But paraprofessionals also aren’t paid well. Wilson said aides should be compensated more for their services.
“I think for any job people should make at least $35,000 a year,” she said. “We don’t make minimum wage.”
The Lexington City Schools officials agree and are proposing a second consecutive 14% pay hike for paraprofessionals. Lexington City Schools officials are also budgeting for higher staff wages and more job positions in which staff work with special needs and non-English speaking students.
The starting salary for paraprofessionals in Lexington is currently $18,117 per year, which is roughly 14% higher than it was the previous fiscal year of 2022. Lexington City Schools officials want to implement another 14% pay raise for 2024, which would bump the starting salary to $20,588 per year.
The annual starting salary for full-time teachers in Lexington is $42,128. Paraprofessionals work the same number of hours per day as full-time teachers. But the job has 17 fewer contract days and doesn’t require a teaching degree.
Rebecca Walters, superintendent of Lexington City Schools, said that while the present salary for paraprofessionals is comparable to other schools in the region, higher wages can help attract more aides to the school district.
“When someone does leave, it becomes harder and harder for someone to take that position at that level of pay,” she said. “So that’s another reason we’re trying to get that number up so that it’s more appealing to someone who might be looking for something like that for a career.”
Five paraprofessionals work at Waddell Elementary, including a temporary aide. The proposed budget includes a hire for another full-time paraprofessional.
The number of students who qualify for special needs services changes throughout the school year. Wilson said paraprofessionals serve at least 15-20 special needs children at Waddell.
Wilson, who assists nine students herself, said the job requires adaptability.
“It’s a lot of reading and math help,” Wilson said. “And then I have one kid in particular that I draw with, write with, and feed occasionally.”
Tim Diette, chair of the Lexington City School Board, said conversations around paraprofessional salary began after an aide quit.
“We recently lost a paraprofessional to another job, and they wanted to stay in it, but it was really because of the pay,” he said. “We want to compensate our paraprofessionals in ways that sort of respect the work that they do.”
Rose Covington, an aide at Waddell, said an extra paraprofessional could help staff provide better care to special needs students.
“We absolutely need more paraprofessionals because sometimes when we’re overloaded, we don’t have enough people to tend to all the kids’ needs,” she said.
Wilson said some days are difficult to manage, but she’s motivated by her students’ accomplishments.
“In a perfect world, every classroom would have its own paraprofessional,” she said. “Some days are rough, and then there are certain kids that succeed and you’re like, ‘this is really why I do this.’”
An increase in non-English speaking students
Lexington City Schools also want to better serve non-English speaking students. School officials budgeted for a part-time aide for English language learners.
Becky Smith, the city schools’ English language learner coordinator and sole ELL staff member, said demand has increased because the city has experienced an increase in the population of non-English speakers.
“I’ve always had a certain amount of pride that it was basically my program, and I was very proud of it, but this year I realized we need help,” said Smith, who’s overseen the Lexington schools program since 2007. “This isn’t working like this. It can no longer be one person.”
Since August, the number of non-English speaking children enrolled in Lexington City Schools rose to 35 from 21.
“Thirty-five students are just too many for us to really do the best we can by each child,” Smith said.
Smith also said students often lose language skills they’ve learned during summer breaks when they’re not in school.
“It’s heartbreaking every August when you go back to school and see the amount of regression students have had,” she said.
Smith works with nine grade-levels but spends the bulk of her time at Waddell Elementary where she assists 30 children and manages 14 different languages. She said a part-time ELL instructor could cover a few grades.
“Right now, I barely have enough time to do twenty-five minutes of literacy with each grade level and we need to touch on way more than that,” she said. “There’s math, there’s social studies history, there’s so much but it’s just not enough time per grade level at this point.
Smith said she ideally wants to have an ELL instructor working with students every day of the week.
“I don’t think you can learn English one day a week or two days a week, so I hope that we will find a person who works five days a week for however many hours a day,” she said.
Janice Burguieres, a first-grade teacher at Waddell Elementary School, has two non-English speaking students. She said the ELL program has made a big difference in their learning.
“I have seen my student from Ukraine open up so much more since he’s been here and be willing to take more risks, both speaking in Ukrainian and in English,” she said.
Jennifer Bushnell, the interim ELL coordinator for Lexington City Schools, is filling in for Smith while she’s on sick leave.
“I usually fill in a lot of the paraprofessionals, but this is very different,” Bushnell says. “This case load is huge, so I don’t know how she does it.”