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It’s More Than Pay: Striking Teachers Demand Counselors and Nurses

Posted by Macy Plummer on October 24, 2019
It’s More Than Pay: Striking Teachers Demand Counselors and Nurses

In a typical week, Adrienne Vaccarezza-Isla, a school counselor in Chicago, might help a dozen eighth graders apply to high schools across the city. Or try to convince a mother that her daughter, who had seen her get shot years earlier, should join a group for students dealing with trauma. Or work with sixth and seventh graders on time management.

Even though she is the only counselor for 650 children at Avondale-Logandale Elementary School, which serves preschool through eighth grade, Ms. Vaccarezza-Isla might also have to fill in as a substitute teacher — which has happened a half-dozen times this school year, before she went on strike last week with the Chicago Teachers Union.

“Kids are looking for me because they are having some sort of social emotional breakdown,” said Ms. Vaccarezza-Isla, 53, a 30-year veteran of Chicago Public Schools. “It hurts me that I can’t be there for them when they need me.”

The school walkouts that have spread across the country since early last year have rallied the public behind teachers. But high on the list of priorities in more recent protests, especially in large urban districts like Chicago, are demands for support staff focused on students’ well-being — counselors like Ms. Vaccarezza-Isla, nurses and psychologists.

These demands have risen as activists promote a broader mission for educators: a vision of schools as community centers that offer an array of health and social services to children, especially those from low-income families.

In Chicago, it has become clear that teacher pay is not the primary sticking point in the negotiations; after all, the city has already agreed to a raise. The Chicago Teachers Union is asking that the district enshrine in its contract a promise to hire more counselors, health workers and librarians, and to free them from tasks outside of their core duties. Those professionals are also members of the union.

Jackie Gilson, the sole school psychologist for 4,500 students at Lane Tech College Prep High School, a selective-admissions school in Chicago, said she did not expect her school to be fully staffed with mental health professionals any time soon.

“But I am pleased that this time around, what’s front and center is the importance” of those supports for students, she said.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has promised to double the number of counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses working inside schools. Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders have also proposed big staffing increases.

Those promises represent a political sea change. Ten or 15 years ago, it was not uncommon to hear in education reform circles — among both Republicans and Democrats — that educators were “making excuses” if they said children could not learn effectively when they were experiencing trouble at home, whether eviction, neighborhood violence or family mental illness.

The approach has shown some results. A teacher strike in Oakland, Calif., ended in March with a raise in addition to smaller caseloads for counselors and school psychologists. When Los Angeles teachers went on strike for a week in January, they walked away with a promise from the district to hire more nurses, counselors and librarians.

So far, the Los Angeles Unified School District has hired 45 of the 150 nurses required by the deal, according to a district spokeswoman. Pay remains a challenge. The starting salary for nurses in Los Angeles public schools is around $55,000, while hospitals can offer up to $100,000, with the opportunity to earn overtime.

Stephanie Yellin-Mednick, a nurse at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in Los Angeles, argued that it could still make financial sense for a nurse to work in a public school, given the benefits of summer recesses, pensions and health insurance without paycheck contributions.

She said that over the course of her 37-year career, she had seen growing numbers of students dealing with asthma, diabetes, obesity, allergies, depression and anxiety.

Only 39 percent of American schools employ full-time nurses, according to a 2018 study. A benefit of the Los Angeles strike, Ms. Yellin-Mednick said, was that it got the word out that while there may be a nurse’s office at a school, it is not always staffed by a nurse. Some nurses in the district are responsible for multiple schools, traveling throughout the week. At any given time, a secretary may be sitting in a nurse’s office, unsure of how to handle health issues.

“They send more kids home; we get them back to class faster,” Ms. Yellin-Mednick said. “We’re able to do an assessment and figure out symptoms and what is going on, or get them to a doctor quicker. Also, they can’t fake with us.”

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