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Durham families say support staff are crucial for students with disabilities

Liz Schlemmer
Victoria Facelli is the mother of a kindergartner at Morehead Montessori Elementary in Durham Public Schools. Her daughter has cerebral palsy and relies on multiple classified staff, including a one-to-one instructional assistant, to be able to learn in a general education classroom.

On a recent afternoon, Victoria Facelli picked up her daughter from Morehead Montessori Elementary to walk home. Her daughter, who is in kindergarten, has cerebral palsy. She gets around with a wheelchair or a walker and uses a communication device to help her speak.

“What do you think, should we go home?” Facelli asks. “And then what?”

Her daughter taps several keys on her device, which speaks out loud, “Lunch.”

“Lunch, it's not lunchtime!” Facelli exclaims with a grin.

Facelli then stops to chat with some of the school staff before they head home. She often checks-in with her daughter's instructional assistant.

“My daughter could not access the classroom she's in right now safely, without a one-to-one paraprofessional,” Facelli explains.

Marquee for Morehead Montessori school says "We stand with our classified staff. Morehead strong!"
Courtesy of Victoria Facelli
The marquee at Morehead Montessori school, a public school in Durham, says: "We stand with our classified staff. Morehead strong!"

One-to-one assistants can help students with disabilities learn in a general classroom with their non-disabled peers. They might help them navigate a playground, eat lunch, take notes or go to the bathroom.

Facelli and her daughter set out on the sidewalk, walking past a marquee at the school that says "We stand with our classified staff." Facelli nods her approval at it.

Durham Public Schools has been rocked by staff sick-outs after the district announced its plans to reduce significant raises for some classified staff who had received them for months. The chaos is disrupting life for families across the district, but especially for students with disabilities who often rely on classified staff far more than other students.

Facelli spoke at a recent school board meeting to support maintaining raises for all classified staff. Nearly all the parents who spoke that night have children with disabilities.

“We feel all of the impacts bigger and harder. We feel it first and we feel it most, and I think [this pay issue] impacted more of the people who work with our kids,” Facelli says.

Facelli's daughter works with about five-to-10 classified staff regularly — instructional assistants, physical therapists and occupational therapists. Custodians and maintenance staff are crucial for her daughter too.

“A disabled student is more likely to need someone to have wiped up the spill in the cafeteria, because she cannot navigate around it. Or it poses a much greater threat to her slipping, not catching herself, and getting a concussion,” Facelli explains.

It's hard on kids in special education when a single staff member is missing, says instructional assistant Lakshmi Premkumar. Last week, she and several other instructional assistants at Forest View Elementary walked out of their classroom for students with developmental needs.

“From what I heard, it was absolute chaos in our class,” Lakshmi said.

Lakshmi says she hopes families understand that when she and her co-workers walked out, they were thinking of students' long-term needs.

“We are fighting for their sake, for their children to have better qualified and seasoned teachers and staff around,” she says.

Lakshmi knows several co-workers who are resigning after the district informed them that it would no longer honor some of their experience on its new salary schedule.

“Who would want to work in an environment where they feel like 10, 15 years of their work service has just been nullified?” Lakshmi says.

Plus, some neighboring districts pay their classified staff more. That's part of why Durham Public Schools tried to offer raises. Jessica Boyter is an occupational therapist who moved to the district from Wake County Schools.

Portrait of woman with curly brown hair and glasses.
Liz Schlemmer
Jessica Boyter is an occupational therapist at Durham Public Schools who serves students with disabilities at multiple schools.

“I wanted to work where I live, but you know, I took a pay cut coming to Durham from Wake County,” Boyter says.

Those recent raises helped put Boyter’s pay more on par with other districts. Now those raises are being revoked because the district failed to budget for them.

Many occupational therapists have been affected by the pay issue. Boyter says they're all crucial to providing special education services. They help students learn basic tasks, from teaching students with motor disorders to color or use scissors to helping students with behavioral disorders manage their emotions.

Along with other therapists and specialists, Boyter says their goal is, “that each kid would get the full ability to participate in their school day in their school environment, [to] learn and just get every opportunity that a typically developing kid would have.”

That's why mom Victoria Facelli says it's concerning when classified staff aren't at school.

But rather than blaming staff for the sickouts, Facelli supports them. She's more worried about any long-term effects the recent problems will have in Durham Public Schools.

“I think that there are people who are sticking around to see if [the district] can make this right. But there are definitely therapists on my daughter's team who will leave,” Facelli says. “And there already are not enough people to fill our open positions.”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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