Parents of special education students concerned about paraprofessional shortage

Steamboat Springs High School is looking to hire more than four paras

Freshman Xavier Knott loves going to school at Steamboat Springs High School.

“He’s always the most excited kid to be at school and that’s not exaggerating by any means,” his mom, Ginger Johnston, said.

Xavier is also on the school’s cross country team, the mountain biking team and he skis with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. For all this, he requires paraprofessional support from the Yampa Valley Autism Program or the school, as he is on the autism spectrum.

“They got to ski with him, learn what he could do and he got to ski with them so it was a really symbiotic relationship between the two,” Johnston said.

Being a parent of a child like Xavier can be challenging at times, and Johnston said it takes a lot of advocacy. She is one of 17 different parents who approached district leadership in recent weeks concerned about a shortage of special education personnel in the district and whether their children were getting the care they need and are legally entitled to.

The Steamboat Springs Board of Education approved three resignations from special education teachers on Monday. Two are leaving the district on Dec. 17, and one is already gone. Now, the district is already down more than six full-time special education paras. Many of these openings are concentrated at Steamboat Springs High School, where parents say the situation is nearing the level of crisis.

When fully staffed, the district employs the equivalent of 35 1/2 full-time paraprofessionals and 6 1/2 or about 20% of them are currently open. Of these, 4 1/2 are at the high school, according to Katie Jacobs, the district’s director of human resources.

On Nov. 23, the parents met with district leadership to express their concern.

“It’s a different caliber of parents in this room,” Johnston said, referring to the meeting in the basement of the district’s office. “We work really hard for our kids, and this is the kind of effort that you put forth to keep our kids safe and to get them the education that they are legally entitled to.”

Johnston has a meeting scheduled in January to discuss Xavier’s individual education plan, and she gets quarterly reports on his progress. This fall’s report showed some regression, but the district has told her Xavier is receiving what is outlined in his IEP.

Last week, Anne-Marie Williams, the district’s director of exceptional student services, told parents that service hours outlined in IEPs were being met.

“Our response was, ‘How can they be met?’” Johnston said.

At the school board’s meeting Monday, Leighann McLaughlin, a substitute special education para and parent of a student with special needs at Soda Creek Elementary School, read a statement to the board outlining the situation.

“It is imperative the administration put forth a more effective effort to fill these current vacancies for our students,” McLaughlin said, adding that those students often have no voice and are unable to advocate for themselves.

‘Not adding up’

An IEP is a legal document defining a student’s special needs and what will be done to support them. They start with an evaluation of the student to understand what additional services and instruction strategies the student needs to succeed in the classroom.

IEPs are all different, with some requiring one-on-one care and others needing less, like help reading and writing. District officials say service hours for these students are being fulfilled as outlined in their specific IEPs.

“That’s my first question in my position,” Superintendent Brad Meeks said. “Are we following IEPs? Are what is said in the IEP being met? And to this point, my understanding is yes, we are.”

For parents who believe their specific IEPs are not being met, Meeks encouraged them to reach out to case managers and other school staff so they can address the issue and potentially modify IEPs.

Meeks said he couldn’t speak to individual students plans.

“If there’s some parents that have specifics about IEPs then they need to work through their case manager, the principal and (Williams), so we can figure out if there are gaps that aren’t being covered in the IEP we need to know what they are and how we address them,” Meeks said.

Many of the parents, including some who worried about speaking in public on the issue, don’t believe they are getting the whole story about whether IEPs are being fulfilled.

“Some things just were not adding up,” said Candy Granger, whose son is currently at Steamboat Springs Middle School. “They weren’t making the parents of special needs kids aware of the short staffing, and many of our kids like my son — he’s nonverbal — he can’t come home and tell me he didn’t have a teacher.”

Granger is very pleased with the services her son currently receives at the middle school but said she is so concerned about the situation at the high school where he would go next year that she is looking into holding him back a grade.

Her son requires constant oversight, and she said the lack of staffing at the high school makes her uncomfortable.

“They have to provide a free and appropriate education for my son,” Granger said. “If he were at the high school right now, that would never be occurring. … The result would be me having to keep him home.”

‘We just don’t have enough subs’

Meeks said the problem of staffing is one the district has been dealing with all year, and they are not alone. When the school year started, they had 36 different jobs posted. As of Thursday, there were 22.

On a daily basis the district is moving staff around between schools and asking teachers to sacrifice planning time to step in for absent colleagues, Meeks said.

“We start the days in the district a lot of times short subs,” Meeks said. “It’s districtwide; we just don’t have enough subs. … That’s a problem across the country.”

Jacobs said the district spends about $1,500-$2,000 every two weeks putting advertisements for open positions in the Steamboat Pilot & Today, which also pushes them to various recruitment websites. There are other job boards she posts openings to as well.

The posting for special education para jobs that went up in September says the job pays between $17.33 and $18.06 an hour, depending on experience. The position is eligible for benefits. Meeks said paras already with the district can make up to $26 an hour.

What can be difficult when it comes to hiring paras, Jacobs said, is that they are often competing for with other hourly employers locally like restaurants and Steamboat Resort.

McLaughlin, the substitute para, said she will soon be leaving the district for a job as a ski instructor simply because it pays better.

“I would love to work at the school full-time, but you know, it’s not worth it for me when five moths of the year I can make twice as much money,” McLaughlin said.

Several parents said they want to see more of an effort to fill these positions.

But simply offering more money can be tricky, Meeks said, because the district collectively bargains with staff, and even offering something as simple as a bonus or paying a certain position more likely would require negotiations. He also isn’t sure that would work.

“If that’s all it took was to put in a signing bonus, then nobody would have an employment issue,” Meeks said.

“Sooner rather than later’

The group of parents reached out to Matt Cloven, a disability advocate with Peacewolf Advocacy & Consultation based in Fort Collins, and he has sat in on last week’s meeting.

Staffing shortages are common in schools across the state, but three teachers leaving around the same time is not.

“That is unheard of,” Cloven said. “I think there has to be a look at the reason why they just had an exodus.”

What the district pays paras seems pretty comparable to what Cloven sees across the state, but as someone who grew up locally, he said it doesn’t seem like enough for Steamboat.

On Monday, school board member Lara Craig suggested they should have a board workshop to discuss staffing issues, especially in the special education department. Craig said they need to look at the district’s budget to find ways to address the issue as soon as possible.

“It was referred to by a parent tonight about it being a crisis, and I would actually probably agree,” Craig said. “We need to kind of plan for sooner rather than later.”

Cloven emphasized that IEPs are legal agreements, and if they are not being satisfied, it is a significant civil rights issue. Typically this process would start with a legal complaint. For many of these parents, that isn’t what they want.

“When you look at the dynamic, that’s a fear and that sucks on both sides,” Cloven said. “Is it likely? I don’t know. … That’s the thing with your guys’ parents up there, you got some strong parents but they’re also willing to help out. They’re not in it for the battle.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that when Xavier Knott runs on the Steamboat Springs High School Cross Country Team, the school provides paraprofessional support.

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