The school day doesn’t begin with the first bell each morning. It starts with that first school bus ride and ends when the custodian turns off the light at night.
Jorge Sanchez has his hands full maintaining order while he drives busloads of students to and from Smiley Elementary School in Redlands. "It's a lot of responsibility," he says.
Education support professionals (ESP) play a crucial role in the everyday lives of students. Their ranks range from paraeducators who work directly with some of the most medically fragile students to clerical staff who deal with parents and make schools run efficiently, and custodial and maintenance staff who take care of schools’ physical environment.
ESP make up 40 percent of the total K-12 workforce nationwide. An NEA survey finds that, on average, they have nearly 11 years of experience in the field and nearly 95 percent plan to stay over the long haul. Most live in the districts where they work, and a large percentage volunteer time to community organizations and activities.
These dedicated professionals are a very important component of CTA, which one year ago took a historic vote to bring NEA-ESP into the fold. It took years of discussion and a couple of previous votes for nearly 5,000 national ESP members to finally gain full membership rights at the state level. The victory was decided by a 72.9 percent majority.
“I’m proud that after 20 years, I can call my ESP friends full colleagues of mine,” says CTA President Barbara E. Kerr.
Kerr played a major role in making it happen, says Michael Downey, a custodian in the Ventura Classified Employees Association who was the first Californian to serve as an ESP at-large representative on the NEA Board of Directors (1988-94). “It was her leadership, her willingness to do the right thing, and her efforts to convince people that we could disagree and yet value each others’ opinions that allowed us to get where we are today.”
Because of that historic vote, “CTA became an even stronger, more inclusive, more dynamic and more powerful organization than ever before,” said CTA President-elect David A. Sanchez, speaking at the NEA-ESP conference in Tennessee last March. “We took this action not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it’s right for the future of the organization.”
Since the vote, much progress has been made. Existing ESP chapters were granted provisional charters as full CTA affiliates. CTA established the CTA ESP Membership Transition Taskforce to make sure that ESP needs and concerns were addressed during the transition period. The CTA Board also established the ESP Issues Advisory Committee to make sure that programs and services important to ESP chapters and members were incorporated into CTA’s overall delivery system and to address any future concerns of CTA ESP members and locals.
ESP members are already included in all policy-making decisions and have joined committees that advise State Council.
CTA publications, bargaining tools, member benefits and “how to” manuals are being updated. Curriculum for the Presidents Conference, the Summer Institute and practically every other conference is being reworked to include ESP chapters and leaders. Scholarships are being offered for ESP members to attend a variety of workshops. CTA staff are also being trained in providing professional services to ESP members.
ESP have attended CTA conferences to help them become better professionals and more active union members. Last month, for the first time, a CTA ESP Conference was held in Sacramento. And CTA, in an effort to honor and celebrate ESP, declared May 22 to be CTA ESP Day “as a time to recognize the work of our own ESP members and the work of other school employees who are on the front lines of education.”
“I’m so glad the officers made a strong commitment to ensuring full inclusion of ESP members at every level of the organization,” says Paula Monroe, a high school secretary who serves as president of the Redlands Education Support Professionals Association (RESPA) and is running for a seat on the NEA Executive Committee. “To have an organization such as CTA representing both teachers and classified employees only makes us stronger.”
Among the benefits of being included in CTA, ESP members now have:
- Full participation in a strong union;
More clout at the bargaining table;
More power in Sacramento;
A voice in advocacy for public education;
More job protection;
More opportunities to attend training.
“With CTA on our side, we have more power to fight attacks on public education — like vouchers — and special interest initiatives,” says Downey. “ESP inclusion as full members of CTA has been one of my goals for 12 years. I am so happy that this process is in its infancy right now. It’s very exciting. I think it’s a win-win situation for all CTA members because now we’ll be one family working together.”
“There will be strength in bargaining, but also strength in gaining respect from administration,” adds Kathleen Telles, a State Council member who belongs to the Association of Educational Office and Technical Employees in Hayward. “Since the merger, we have felt much more respect from those in the district office here in Hayward.”
“Being part of CTA makes me feel like we are accepted and validated for what we do,” says Doreen McGuire-Grigg, a paraeducator who serves as president of the Lakeport Unified Classified Employee Association.
Just as is the case in the classroom, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to inclusion. ESP groups may operate as separate chapters working closely with teacher groups in the same district — which is the case in Redlands — or they may merge into a single association with teachers, a longtime policy for United Educators of San Francisco. A similar merger recently occurred in Shasta County; the North Cow Creek Educators Association now consists of 25 teachers and 12 classified employees.
“Before, the classified staff was not in a union and teachers were,” says paraprofessional classroom aide Anne Schwenning, co-president of the chapter. “Before, we just kind of rode on the coattails of the teachers and when they got a raise, we automatically got the same percent. Presently, we don’t have a contract. But I think that soon we will, if I have anything to say about it. Now we’re a much stronger unit.”
With the inclusion of ESP members as full-fledged members of CTA, there are bound to be some growing pains. Even with a “transition team” working out the details, some challenges lie ahead, says Monroe.
“It will require a change in thinking, because ESP members come from a different culture than teachers,” says Monroe. “But it will be amazing. And as long as CTA members are supportive and interested, it can be worked out. I know this because CTA does business for its members better than any other organization I know.”