Four School Workers, Facing Uncertainty
Friday, October 07, 2011 - 12:15 AM
The ring of the last school bell on Friday could be heralding the beginning of unemployment and uncertainty for nearly 700 employees in 347 city schools — school aides, parent coordinators, health aides and other support staff to whom pink slips went out two weeks ago. The layoffs took effect Friday.
They are the people who supervise students at arrival and dismissal, who make sure students who need medication take it, who ensure that students with complicated lives at home — or no place to call home — still go to class every day. They are the link (or sometimes, a buffer) between families and principals. And they are among the city’s lowest-paid workers.
According to their union, District Council 37, most of the workers are black and Latino, like many of the students they serve. Many of them are single mothers, and a lot of them live in the neighborhoods where they work.
The union has offered some concessions to avert the layoffs, but so far the proposals have been rebuffed by City Hall. The workers still hope for a solution, but they have also begun to contemplate the harsh reality of what might come next.
When students at Marta Valle High School on the Lower East Side meet Cliftonia Johnson, they see a familiar face — and one they can relate to, she said.
“These types of children, they don’t have it easy, and they need people in their school building that look like them and identify with them from a positive standpoint,” Ms. Johnson, 48, who also lives on the Lower East Side, said of the school's 370 students. “I was a pillar, as the parents like to call me, not only in this community, but also in this school.”
Ms. Johnson will finish her last day as a community associate on Friday. For the past two years, she has been an intermediary between Marta Valle parents and teachers. Her salary is $37,000.
Before that, Ms. Johnson worked 11 years at Trenton Central High School in New Jersey, and another seven at the Department of Education.
With more than 20 years of service to students under her belt, she said these layoffs are a slap in the face.
“To say you’re not good enough to keep, to just remove me from my job, to claim it’s budgetary reasons, that hurts and it’s a lie,” she said. “I have a pretty deep knowledge of the community and how important it is that schools here are reflective of the people who live in this community. They’re slowly taking that away.”
Nanette Sepulveda has presided over the revolving door of a family shelter in District 19 in Brooklyn for three years. Dozens of children enter her center each month, and all of them fall under her watch.
She ushers students onto the bus each morning; she confirms that a boy with asthma reports daily to his school nurse; she checks in with students to make sure each receives his or her school lunch.
As one of two family assistants serving the 190 families at her shelter, Ms. Sepulveda earns $25,000 a year to act as a liaison between families with children in the shelters and the schools they attend.
She said that she is the only assistant who speaks Spanish and that she is often called upon to translate for the city’s neediest children.
As part the Department of Education layoffs, Ms. Sepulveda, 49, of Brownsville, Brooklyn, will lose her job. She said she will not be able to pay her utilities and will probably have to cut her cable. Rent, too, she said, will be difficult to afford, and as a single parent she will not be able to buy her son and daughter their college books.
Ms. Sepulveda said there was always a job at McDonald's, which she does not look down upon. But she said her services and 16 years of experience were needed in New York City schools.
“That’s not where I want to be,” she said of serving fast food. “I want to ask, ‘Why are you giving my job to outside contractors? Because you can pay them a low wage?’ They’re already paying me a low wage. If the aim is to collapse the system, they’re doing it.”
When Marileysi Garcia received a letter from the Department of Education on Sept. 20 that said her job as a parent coordinator would be eliminated, the first people she picked up the phone to call were the families of Bronx Leadership Academy High School.
“They identify with me because I’m Hispanic myself and come from a low-income background,” she said, about the parents of her students. “They knew that I was not just there to collect a check, but to really help them answer their questions.”
Friday will be Ms. Garcia’s last day at the school, where she has been a parent coordinator serving the families of the 649 students for the last eight years.
Ms. Garcia, 32, of Clason Point in the Bronx, said that without the $46,000 salary she has come to depend on, and as a single parent of two daughters, ages 2 and 5, she does not yet know how she will make ends meet.
“I work and I struggle anyway to make payments on time,” she said. “I’m trying to stay focused, but it’s eating me inside. My daughter just started kindergarten in September; she’s very smart and picks up on things. I don’t want her to get off balance.”
Before her son Sayquan entered first grade in 2007 at P.S. 233 Langston Hughes in Brooklyn, Regina Dudley never knew what to make of his behavior. She saw that he would rather be inside alone than outdoors playing, and she knew that he would pull away when she outstretched her arms for a hug.
Ms. Dudley said she thought that Sayquan was just a quiet, reserved child. So she was surprised when the school’s parent coordinator told her, “Something doesn’t seem right with him.”
Soon after that meeting, Sayquan was found to have Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that affects a person’s ability to interact socially. She said without the parent coordinator — who served as the liaison between parents of children with special needs and the Department of Education — she would not have looked into her son’s behavior or known where to go for help.
“If it wasn’t for her, I would have been none the wiser,” she said. “If it wasn’t for her sitting me down, walking me through and showing me what I was entitled to have, I would have never known.”
Ms. Dudley, 38, of Canarsie, Brooklyn, is also a parent coordinator herself. Working at the High School for Global Citizenship at the Prospect Heights campus, she earns $48,545 and has held the position since 2003.
She said she was concerned about the families she works with, and she wondered who would call to check in with them or set them up with the care their child needs. But she also worries about caring for her own son and how she will afford to pay his medical bills.
“I’m sitting here right now trying to contemplate how am I going to do this without falling back into public assistance?” she said, referring to the brief time in 1999 when she relied on government aid. “But how am I going to survive without it?”