ESPs: “Advocates for Students” but Staff Shortage an Issue

Some ESPs from BFA
Back row against the wall L-R: Tammy Bruly, Kasia Bilodeau (92), Cara Miller, Roy Sargent, Lori Ploof, Lindsey Bostwick (94) Amy Grioux
Front Row Standing L-R: Louise Fitzgerald (85), Sonya Cuteo, Deb King (90), Jessica Wilson, Brenda Calano (75), Laura Shail
Photo credit: Reilly Babinski

Some ESPs from BFA Back row against the wall L-R: Tammy Bruly, Kasia Bilodeau (’92), Cara Miller, Roy Sargent, Lori Ploof, Lindsey Bostwick (’94) Amy Grioux Front Row Standing L-R: Louise Fitzgerald (’85), Sonya Cuteo, Deb King (’90), Jessica Wilson, Brenda Calano (’75), Laura Shail Photo credit: Reilly Babinski

Reilly Babinski, Writer

Para-educators, now called Educational Support Professionals (ESP), provide assistance and support for students in mainstream or alternative classes under the supervision of a classroom teacher or case manager.

Kasia Bilodeau (’92)is a Special Educator and team leader for Bellows Free Academy Community Integration Program (CIP), which has a number of ESPs working within the CIP program.  When asked about the CIP program, Bilodeau said, “Based on the area of the school ESPs work in, their duties vary. For instance, they are in a lot of mainstream classes supporting students, but they could be in a biology class one period, then the next class they could be giving support for a student here [with me] with special needs, whether it’s personal care or alternative curriculum.”

Lindsey Bostwick (’94), an ESP for CIP added, “You could have seven different classes and seven kids you’re supporting, from tying shoes and learning how to shave to biology.”

According to Bilodeau, ESPs are not randomly assigned a class to give support in; the ESPs play into their personal academic strengths to be able to provide the most assistance possible for the student on their caseload and for the class in general. By having an ESP in a classroom, mainstream teachers can teach without worrying about any students struggling and additional support relationships are built in the class. 

“We add support in mainstream classes for all students and can help take stress off teachers,” Brenda Calano (’75), an ESP for CIP, said. 

ESPs are advocates for their students as well. “We act as advocates for our students’ needs and any changes that need to be made,” Bostwick said. She added, “It could be an upcoming test or assignment that could need accommodations or disrupt a [student’s] routine.”  By having an ESP both the student, their family and case manager can be accurately informed of any assignments, tests or events that are upcoming and may be subject to change. 

The services and support ESPs provide are immense but the shortage of ESPs is preventing many of these services. When Bilodeau, Bostwick, and Calano were asked what could be causing the shortage, they said the main culprits were salary, job challenges and fear from current events. 

Pay is a big factor in the shortage, the salary of ESPs is unlivable. “Salary has a lot to do with the shortage. It’s unfortunate since it’s a highly-valued position by many. The need and benefit of having ESP is not compensated with the salary that we are provided. We have excellent health benefits, things of that nature, but it’s not a livable wage,” Bostwick said.

This low salary can make many ESPs take on a second source of income, or multiple, to be able to sustain themselves and families. “If I think about all of our ESPs, almost everybody, at some point in their careers, has more than one job” Bilodeau said. 

The challenges that come along with the job factor into less ESPs, especially at the high-school level. The more complex behaviors and problems that are now arising can turn some people away, especially when paired with the low salary, but when there aren’t enough ESPs to be able to provide support and/or assistance in these instances, escalation happens.  “I think back to when I first started years ago, the amount of complex behaviors that we’re dealing with now make complex situations unfold,” Calano said. 

The third reason given was fear, whether it is from the pandemic and schools being a hotspot for sickness because of it or from current events around schools that would make someone too afraid to work in education, specifically at the high=school level. “It’s maybe an uncomfortable feeling for some, the unknown, whereas, maybe, a kindergarten class is a little different,” Bostwick said.

This fear of the unknown, of what may happen, can be a big factor in why people don’t go into this profession. “There’s always that fear, obviously, overall, with what’s happening around the country,” Calano said. 

The effects of this shortage have been preventing people from getting the necessary services they need in order to thrive. “Staff is spread thin. Sometimes services have to be lessened at times. Flexibility needs to be there, but specifically in this department, our students excel with consistency and routine. So when routine is disrupted, and it compromises things in a way, it can throw someone off it doesn’t go well,” Bostwick said. She added, “The staff of ESPs are bouncing wherever needed, but the students are the ones that have their anxiety heightened about not being in their routine or with the same person they find comfort in; that can derail a day.”