Catina Taylor and Tequila Laramee, educational support professionals and organizers with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, outside the Bureau of Mediation Services after filing their intent to strike. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul educator unions voted overwhelmingly to strike. Both unions have cited increased pay for educational assistants as a major demand. They will walk out March 8 if they don't reach a deal with their districts. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Saida Omar left home at 7 a.m. last Wednesday to drive to her job as an associate educator in Minneapolis Public Schools. She spent the morning interpreting for Somali parents in special education evaluations.

By 12:30, she had already missed 15 calls she needed to respond to. 

Because Saida was interpreting all morning, she couldn’t answer the technical support calls for the district’s online school. Two parents had complained to the IT department. Saida had to return the calls and apologize. She didn’t have a chance to eat lunch until 3 p.m.

Helping with interpretation plus doing her regular duties feels like two full-time jobs, Saida said.

“My job description is, ‘We can ask you to do anything we want,’” she said. “That’s how I see it.”

Saida has worked as an educational support professional in Minneapolis Public Schools for 14 years. Because she is bilingual, teachers and administrators often call on her to interpret, communicate with families, and assist with behavior problems—on top of her assigned duties.

After those 14 years in the district, Saida earns about $32,000 a year.

“Even though you’re working full time, it’s not enough. It’s never enough,” she said. “That’s why I vote yes for a strike. Because you’re working, but your job is not valued.”

Earlier this month, Minneapolis and St. Paul educators voted overwhelmingly to authorize strikes. Both cities’ teachers and educational assistants plan to walk out March 8 if they cannot reach satisfactory contracts with their districts.

In Minneapolis, one of the union’s major demands is increased pay for Minneapolis’ diverse educational support professionals. While about one in five Minneapolis teachers is a person of color, district data show that half of all educational support professionals are.

And this diverse group of educators earns much lower wages than licensed teachers. Some educational support professionals make as little as $24,000 per year, according to the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals.

St. Paul educators are also demanding higher wages for educational assistants. The union in St. Paul wants a 2.5 percent pay raise across the board, plus a higher pay scale for educational assistants, which the union says would result in an average 23 percent pay increase.

Educational support professionals play a variety of roles, including classroom support, behavior intervention, and family communication. Because they often share similar racial and cultural backgrounds with their students, ESPs can often relate better to their experiences, which means they play a critical emotional support role.

But the low wages and high stress at school are causing many educational support professionals to leave their jobs, the union said. Minneapolis’ paraprofessionals are leaving for jobs in other districts or charter schools, in the private sector, and even to teach in other countries. The district currently has 370 educational support professional vacancies, according to records obtained through a Minneapolis Public Schools data request. That’s a 22 percent vacancy rate—triple the rate for the same date in 2018. 

This wave of the Great Resignation has consequences for both students and teachers. 

Jabari Browne, who teaches kids with autism at Sanford Middle School, previously worked as an educational support professional. The staffing shortage means he can’t spend as much time teaching, because he also has to perform ESP tasks: redirecting behaviors, taking kids to the bathroom, feeding them. “It makes it a lot more difficult to be able to teach and focus on students’ goals and objectives, because of having to be in the role of an ESP at times,” Browne said.

At a Wednesday news conference, Shaun Laden, president of MFT’s educational support professionals chapter, said that the high turnover in these roles, where relationships are so essential, is stressful for students.

“That’s incredibly important and relational work,” he said. “And it’s incredibly intimate with a student who you might be toileting, or you might be feeding, or you might be providing occupational therapy assistant work to.”

Educational support work is “incredibly important and relational work. And it’s incredibly intimate with a student who you might be toileting, or you might be feeding, or you might be providing occupational therapy assistant work to.”

Shaun Laden of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers

It’s difficult, Laden added, “for our students to have to learn someone new, have a new person to be introduced to, to do that incredibly important work, because we can’t find the resources to pay our hourly workers a living wage.”

‘We’ve done everything we can, but the district is not doing anything for us’

Educational support professionals’ role in their communities often go well beyond their job descriptions. In some cases, they become trusted liaisons between the schools and the communities they serve.

When Saida first began volunteering in the Minneapolis Public Schools, she saw immediately the difference her presence made to her third-graders. Like her, they had come from Somalia not speaking English. It made it easy for her to relate to them.

“They were calling me Auntie, even though they didn’t even know my name, the minute I entered the room,” she said.

The connections she makes as a Somali educator last well beyond first impressions. 

“We make the parents and the teachers become friends,” she said.

Saida Omar poses for a portrait at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers headquarters. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

When bilingual staff invite parents to attend a family night, she said, hundreds show up. But when district staff call, only a handful will come.

Saida has poured many hours into attracting Somali families to the Minneapolis Public Schools, visiting families at home and reading books with small children to build relationships. That way, she hopes, parents will enroll their children in district public schools when they are ready for kindergarten. Many Somali families enroll their children in charter schools instead. And families’ increasing preference for charter schools is fueling the district’s enrollment decline and budget shortfall.

“It’s a tough job to keep the families, and we’ve tried our best to keep our families in public schools,” Saida said. “We’ve done everything we can, but the district is not doing anything for us. That’s how I feel.”

Mental health needs fall on support professionals’ shoulders

As Minnesota schools returned to in-person learning last year, educators quickly noticed that students’ mental health needs had skyrocketed. A survey from the University of Minnesota shows that statewide, students, staff, and administrators are reporting increased mental health needs and fewer mental health resources in the wake of a seemingly endless pandemic; trauma and unrest following the police killings of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Amir Locke; and a rise in violent crime.

But without additional mental health professionals, that added labor often falls on the educational support professionals whose life experiences align more with their students.

Catina Taylor started as a Minneapolis Public Schools educational support professional in 1999.

“I represent these kids. I am these children,” she said. “I’ve heard that gunshot and had to run. I’ve been a victim where the police came in with a no-knock warrant. I’ve been a victim where the police have killed a person that I love.”

“I represent those kids. I am these children. I’ve heard that gunshot and had to run. I’ve been a victim where the police came in with a no-knock warrant. I’ve been a victim where the police have killed a person that I love.”

Catina Taylor, educational support professional since 1999

For the past four years, Taylor has been out of the classroom working to organize educational support professionals through the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Because of increased student mental health needs, she said, the job has become “10 times harder,” she said.

“You got folks that are still sticking around; that’s because they have built relationships with these children, and they know how to deescalate and have conversations with them,” Taylor said. “And when you lose those folks that’s been around and instead you got these new folks coming in that don’t know these kids, that’s like a train wreck ready to happen.”

Catina Taylor has always loved working with children. She’s been an educational support professional since 1999 and has served as a foster parent. But rising mental health needs now make the job much harder, she said. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Tequila Laramee, an associate educator at Bethune Arts Elementary, grew up in north Minneapolis, like her students. In November, she was named Minnesota’s ESP of the Year. She hopes she can provide an example to her students: “You don’t have to be a product of your environment,” she said. “You don’t have to be a statistic.”

Her kindergarteners have learned to greet each other in 16 languages. She loves helping them learn to love school. And she sees how they struggle with traumatic events in their families and communities. She wishes they had more mental health support.

“These murders are in our students’ neighborhoods,” Laramee said. “And they don’t always talk about it. But they come to school, and they have to deal with what happened at home, what happened in their community, what happened to a family member. They have to deal with school at the same time as dealing with what happened last night.”

Mental health problems and staffing shortages have also made Shantella Barnes’ job harder at Journeys Secondary School in St. Paul. Barnes works with students with emotional behavioral disorder, and frequently deals with fights, physical abuse, and mental abuse at school. After 23 years on the job, she earns $33,000 a year.

“It makes it difficult for us to come to work and deal with other kids and trying to help them when we have to try to figure out how we’re helping our own family,” she said.

Shantella Barnes, a special education assistant in St. Paul, cast her vote to strike at the Iron Workers Union Hall on February 17. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Costs go up, but pay doesn’t

Though the job has gotten harder, the pay has not substantially improved, even as the cost of gas, food, and rent increase. Nearly two in three educational support professionals work multiple jobs, according to a Minneapolis Federation of Teachers survey. 

Laramee works a total of three jobs: as an educational support professional, organizing with the union, and providing independent living skills support to people with disabilities. Her schedule is so busy that she worries it will lead to a breakdown in her own mental health.

“I love organizing with the union,” Laramee said. “But why can’t I just work one job and be able to live and survive?”

Some ESPs live in their cars or stay in homeless shelters.

“I personally had to use my own money to help another ESP because his rent went up and he became homeless,” Taylor said. She helped get him a hotel room “so that he wouldn’t be out in the cold.”

Tequila Laramee, Minnesota’s ESP of the Year, works three jobs to pay her bills. She worries that being so busy is bad for her mental health. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

ESPs don’t work over the summer or during school breaks, which stretches their limited pay even further. 

“September, October, November, you’re recovering from the summer,” Saida said. “Then in January you start saving money for rent in June, July, August, and September. So our whole year you are either trying to recover from or you’re saving for summer.”

As pay stagnates at school, wages in many other jobs have increased throughout the pandemic, which has attracted educational support professionals. Data from the Federal Reserve show an 11 percent increase in average private sector wages between January 2020 and January 2022. In that time, Minneapolis ESPs’ wages have increased by 3 percent. At the same time, they say, they pay the same for health insurance as top administrators, and a new health plan makes it more expensive to visit their doctors.

Educators who spoke to Sahan Journal said they’ve known support professionals who left for other school districts or charter schools, to work as FedEx delivery drivers, and even to work at McDonald’s.

Officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools declined to comment on educational assistant pay, citing confidentiality of the mediation process. Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff has called the proposals “not fiscally feasible” in a time of budget shortfalls and declining enrollment. In a video released February 23, Graff said he shared many of the union’s priorities, including higher wages for educational support professionals. 

“It is my responsibility, however, and the responsibility of our Board of Education, to ensure that MPS is financially solvent when today’s kindergarteners graduate, and for years to come after that,” he said.

“It is my responsibility … to ensure that MPS is financially solvent when today’s kindergarteners graduate, and for years to come after that.”

Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff

Joe Gothard, the St. Paul Public Schools superintendent, struck a similar tone in his own February 23 video. “Our educators deserve everything they are asking for in a new contract,” Gothard said. At the same time, he said, “We simply cannot spend more and more on staff and higher salaries in our current environment.”

Educational support professionals’ low wages make going on strike even more of a risk for them, Laramee pointed out. Workers do not receive pay when they are on strike. Yet 98 percent of Minneapolis ESPs voted to walk off the job.

“We’re constantly saying we can’t afford to take a couple days out of work because we financially can’t afford it,” Laramee said. “But that’s why we’re striking.”

Losing the diverse educators Minneapolis needs

The high turnover comes with a painful irony. Minnesota districts, including Minneapolis Public Schools, have long encouraged classroom aides to pursue their teaching licenses and become the diverse teachers that students need. 

Browne gained his license through a district Grow-Your-Own program. But he said several ESPs he’s encouraged to apply said it would be too financially hard on them, although the program provides financial support.

That’s the case for Saida and Laramee, who both would like to be teachers. But Saida can’t stomach the thought of additional student debt. She says she can’t afford to make the leap on her current wages.

Jabari Browne worked as an educational support professional before earning his teacher’s license. Now a first-year teacher, he’s still often performing ESP duties because of short staffing. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Laramee wants to become a teacher and then a school counselor. She needs to complete seven more courses to earn her degree. It feels so close she can almost reach it.

“I cannot wait,” she said.

But before she can enroll in more classes, she owes the university money she can’t currently afford to pay. 

Regardless of whether they want to become teachers, Browne said, educational support professionals need an “enormous raise.”

“There’s so many ESPs who are fine with being ESPs as long as at some point they’re getting an appropriate living wage,” Browne said.

A distant dream

Saida’s children, ages 10 and 7, have never been on a vacation.

“The reason is because of the job I have,” Saida said.

Saida loves working with students and families. She loves teaching. But she doesn’t think she can last much longer in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Some of her friends have gotten teaching jobs in other countries like South Korea and Saudi Arabia. With her college degree and classroom experience, she could teach English in another country. She’d earn more money. And housing, transportation, and health care would be covered for free.

Maybe she could even take her family on a vacation.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.