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Noontime aides, who help keep schools safe, face elimination

By Ron Whitehorne on Jun 3, 2013 03:53 PM

​One of the more stressful jobs I've had over my two decades of teaching middle school was running a lunch room with upwards of 300 rambunctious adolescents. They were determined to make the most of the one time during the school day that they were out of the classroom. 

It was a challenge to keep peace and good order. I had to make sure students got their food, could visit the bathroom, and didn’t escape into the halls or the uninhabited regions of our old building. I depended on a group of noontime aides (who now call themselves student safety staff) to help police the perimeters, identify problems, and mediate conflicts.

Largely invisible to the public, these workers help create a climate in which students feel supported but also accountable. That may change next fall as the District faces a perfect storm of circumstances that threaten to further destabilize the already fragile school-support systems that keep children safe.

The 1,231 student safety staff members are an endangered species who face the prospect of elimination under the budget just enacted last week by the School Reform Commission. The loss of this staff, along with counselors and others who contribute to making schools safe, has to be a major concern. It comes at a time when many schools are facing the added challenge of a new wave of enrollment from closing schools. 

My old school, Julia de Burgos, a K-8 school in Kensington, is a case in point. On top of its present enrollment of 650 students, de Burgos will add about 250 more from nearby Fairhill Elementary, which closes this month. 

“There’s no way the teachers are going to be able to handle everything, and the principal will have to be counselor, secretary, security," Tassie Rivera, a parent leader at the school, told the Inquirer. "What will happen when a kid is being beat up in the cafeteria? It will be an unsecure school. It's unacceptable." 

Keeping schools safe

Justin Haley has been a student safety staff member for five years, the last four of them at Motivation High School. Last Thursday afternoon, Haley was one of a contingent of workers -- members of UNITE HERE, the union that represents them -- rallying before the SRC meeting along with parents, teachers, and students. 

“We’re concerned about what this budget will do to students and their families,” Haley said. “No counselors, no arts and music, bigger classes. … It’s not just about us, it’s about what this means for education.”

Haley described how he and his coworkers help keep schools safe. “We greet students, help them to feel welcome. We talk to them, mediate conflicts, and help teachers with difficult students, de-escalating situations that could lead to violence or serious disruption.” 

Haley and other safety staffers have been receiving training in conflict mediation from the District. He has also sought out training on his own.

The value added for a school by workers like Haley is recognized by many teachers and administrators. “Some of the most difficult hours of the school day occurred during the students' lunch periods," noted retired principal Frank Murphy, formerly at Meade Elementary in North Philadelphia. "The lunch room and school yard are settings where inappropriate behavior can easily go unobserved and quickly accelerate into serious situations. Fights that originate during these times almost always carry over into classrooms. I depended on my noontime aides to monitor and supervise student behavior during lunch periods. Having several skilled noontime aides on staff, in my view, is essential to maintaining a safe and orderly school environment."  

Although the main issue raised by the threatened elimination of these positions is the safety of students and the impact on school climate, this action by the District, like earlier attacks on its maintenance workers, also means increasing poverty and economic distress in our city. It means solving the budget crisis on the backs of these workers who are already struggling to get by on less than $11 per hour. 

Rally on Wednesday

On Wednesday, June 5, local members of UNITE HERE will be rallying at the District's headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. to press their demand for safe schools with healthy food. The rally is supported by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, the labor-community coalition that includes the three major school-worker unions.  

UNITE HERE’s work to strengthen PCAPS is notable in several ways. The union, which represents mainly hotel and casino workers in the region, has sought to educate and mobilize its whole membership about the attacks on public education. They recognize that this should be a concern of all of labor, not solely those employed by schools.

As in the case of the student safety staff, UNITE HERE has consistently sought to link the concerns of its members with the broader issues facing the community. The union is working with Youth United for Change, for instance, to develop a campaign to bring healthier food into schools. In spite of being a relatively small union with limited resources, it has demonstrated that aggressive organizing and a message of solidarity can be effective.

Let’s join them this Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and a member of the steering committee of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (28)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2013 5:49 pm
Noon-time aides are from the neighborhood and know the students and their families outside of the school.
Submitted by Anonymous on June 3, 2013 5:01 pm
Nice piece, this budget will have a dual impact on some of Philly's hardest hit neighborhoods, not only does it put our children's education and safety in jeopardy, it hurts working families many of who live in these struggling neighborhoods, with layoffs.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2013 5:23 pm
Cutting safety staffers at a time when the district is under going a dramatic transition (closing schools, new students being added to existing schools) seems like a recipe for disaster! I'm not sure how the district plans to ensure safety for all students while cutting the very people who keep the peace day-in and day-out.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2013 6:09 pm
My catholic school in the burbs, has noon time aides. Also teacher helpers. They are all volunteer parents. I bet there are alot of Philly school parents that have the time if not the initiative to help out. All the welfare Mom`s , get your self to school and help your children achieve a better life than what you have.
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on June 3, 2013 6:58 pm
You asking them to get out of bed before Noon??? They won't be around to get the wake up calls from teachers about their child's behavior.
Submitted by Eileen Duffey (not verified) on June 3, 2013 8:55 pm
Coming from a catholic school background I cringe when I read a comment from someone who lives in the suburbs and tries to relate to inner city public schools. There is an arrogance in your remark that I think you may not intend. I can picture the schools in the burbs you describe. I know many fine people who send their children to these schools. I do not wish to offend. Please as least try and consider that a $10.00/hr job is a drop in the bucket but it is a significant amount of income for a neighborhood person. And please, consider the ugly undertone of your use of the term welfare moms. If job opportunities were readily available they would not be "welfare moms." To put things in perspective, the going rate for a 15 year old babysitter in the suburbs is $10/hr. I have always had a great deal of respect for the noontime aides in my schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 4, 2013 12:38 pm
Go back to Catholic school and let the priests look over your children while you keep your head in the sand about the rest of humanity.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 4, 2013 7:10 pm
I would rather have a Catholic priest look over my children then the hundreds of PA teachers arrested/investigated in PA over the last two years for abusing public school children in PA. Don't be fooled public school teachers are committing more abuse than Priest have and will continue do so until the media coverup ends. Don't believe me? Look at the link for the Hundreds of actions taken against public school teachers for violating are children.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2013 5:22 am
You comment is not logical. Look at how many teachers there are in Pennsylvania and then look at how many priests there are. What is the proportion that have been involved in child abuse. Are you saying you would rather have your child abused by a priest than by a public school teacher?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2013 8:09 pm
So there are more teachers than Priest so that makes it plausible and that is your excusable; that my friend is a poor argument. The media and society bright to light the horrible scandal that occurred in the Catholic church yet you and the other enablers continue to hide and make excuses for the widespread abuse happening in Public schools across the US. To answer your question I would put my trust in a Priest than I would a PA public teacher.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 5, 2013 10:37 pm
So why is my pointing out that there is a higher percentage of Priests abusing children than the percentage of public school teachers abusing children excusing any abuse? You just seem to have a stereotypical hatred of public school teachers. Not a very Christian attitude to say the least.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on June 6, 2013 6:01 pm
As someone who works in an inner city neighborhood, I also take issue with your remark about welfare moms. Lack of quality education, lack of well-paying jobs in the neighborhood, and reliance on public transportation make finding steady, well-paying work difficult. Yes, some people do take advantage of "welfare" as you call it. (Welfare technically means Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and Food Stamps.). However, you also appear to subscribe to a mentality that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If you have ever spent time in low-income neighborhoods, you would see that pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps is difficult. Yes, some people in low-income neighborhoods have well-paying jobs. There are some parents who are poor, but they value education and these parents are the ones who often times enter their children in lotteries for charter schools or they make sure that they communicate with teachers and other school staff and hold their children accountable for doing homework. If you've ever been unemployed, you would know that employment provides a certain amount of structure that helps make a person more productive. I have been unemployed and it is demoralizing and depressing. This lack of structure in one's life may feed into the dysfunction present in certain home environments. Also, do not underestimate the continuing impact of unspoken racism and institutional racism on the lives of people of color who live in low-income neighborhoods. I would suggest that you spend a lot of time in an inner city neighborhood and this might give you a different perspective from what you have. The culture of low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia is much different than the culture of a middle-class suburb, for a variety of reasons. EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2013 8:20 pm
Catholic school in the burbs and Poogie, you are casting aspersions on the parents. That is unprofessional and uncalled for. No school should be forced daily to rely on volunteers to provide essential services. Neither suburban or urban parents could endure the daily din in a school lunchroom and would quickly remove themselves from the situation. The services provided by noon time aides are essential to the safety and well being of students on the playground and in the lunchroom. Noon time aides work on average three hours a day. Many work another job when they leave school and often a third part time job on the weekends to support their families. In recent years, due to decreased budgets, the number of noon time aides in all schools has been reduced. The District requires that each noon time aide be responsible for 90 children per lunch period. How do I know this? I worked in school lunchrooms for 12 years. It is a hard job that is unappreciated by students, teachers and parents.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2013 11:57 pm
I'm a teacher in the District, and I want you to know that I truly appreciate what noon-time aides do on a daily basis. I see the situations that they deal with, and I know what a tough job it is. Please let me offer you a post-thank you.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 3, 2013 9:48 pm
There will be noon-times aides in the school come September otherwise the SDP will be sued many times over for negligence. Tell Zogby to stop playing with the SDP and give them the money that they deserve.
Submitted by Jennifer (not verified) on June 3, 2013 11:27 pm
The district is hoping parents step up and volunteer so they won't have to pay the aides, but sorry volunteers aren't reliable on a daily basis for so many schools. What is gonna happen in a public school with 800 students and the volunteer doesn't feel like coming in and figures "I am not getting paid and I have so much to do at home, what are they gonna do? fire me?" It would be chaos. And let's be real, aids do so much in schools now-more than just lunch moniter. They sit at the front desk, patrol hallways, assist teachers, help with the buses. They are exactly the person in the school you think of last but will miss first when they are gone!
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on June 4, 2013 4:03 am
Thank you, Ron, for reminding us of the many, many people who are being affected by the SRC / Hite / Khin / Phila. School Partnership budget. What happens in the cafeteria impacts the entire school day just as what happens in schools impacts our neighborhoods and vice versa. All school staff are vital and deserve a fair contract.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 4, 2013 8:39 am
When you say $11 an hour, you mean $11 an hour for 8 hours while only working for 3 or 4 hours? With or without benefits? Just curious. I keep reading about the low paid the SEIU people are. Of course that ignores the health benefits even the part timers get. And it ignores their work rules that require 2 bus drivers to do the same job 1 person does most everywhere else in the country. And of course it ignores the culture that protects terrible workers from ever being fired. So they are actually remarkably well paid given their abysmal productivity. Somehow I suspect a big part of this story was ommitted here.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on June 4, 2013 8:48 am

The wage is $10.88 an hour.    To qualify for benefits workers must work five or more hours a day.    Noon time aides are only paid for the hours they work.    

Submitted by Education Grad ... on June 4, 2013 8:12 pm
Anonymous, Could you elaborate on or provide a link to a source stating that the District has 2 bus drivers to do the same job that 1 does everywhere else? Thanks. EGS
Submitted by Christa (not verified) on June 4, 2013 8:53 am
Parent Volunteers would be great except most people cannot afford to get the clearances necessary to work in the schools. You must have a State Police Background check $10, Child Abuse Check $10, FBI finger prints $28.75 and a Physical/TB test which could cost well over $100 without insurance. Some schools might pay for parents to get these done but most schools will not use funds for these kinds of things.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 4, 2013 3:39 pm
a few years ago, they tried to replace NTAs with volunteers from the community. A disaster. They had to put an end to that. You cannot rely on even the most well-meaning volunteers. Our kids deserve professionals in all positions. Lisa Haver
Submitted by rscherf1 (not verified) on June 6, 2013 8:22 am
The fact here is that this will save money but any money that is saved will be off set once the lawsuits start. As someone who has worked maintenance and operations in over 285 schools in 30 years, believe me when I say that noon-time aids are just as important as teachers.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 6, 2013 8:39 am
Noon time aids are important but... How did you work in 285 schools in 30 years? Do you get reassigned every month?
Submitted by rscherf1 (not verified) on June 6, 2013 8:01 am
I worked in maintenance in the central division of HVAC. We were the ones you would call if you were to hot or cold. I could have a job at one school in one part of the city and when finished I went to another school somewhere else in the city for another job. Not only have I been to this many schools, I also have worked in many of the classrooms, lunch rooms, gyms, hallways, offices, everywhere just about, while students and staff were present and I have seen the importance of having noon-time aids and security. Children will be children and if there is no one to watch them, they are going to do things or play rough and some child might get hurt. These people are needed.
Submitted by Tymir (not verified) on June 6, 2013 9:05 am
The School District HAS money. They are hiding and mismanaging it at the expense of all its workers, from maintenance men to principals. Chairman Archie - whatever happened with him, besides the media stating, yes, he did do ONE thing wrong with Dwight Evans - what happened to the rest of what he did with Ackerman et al.? There's money somewhere.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 6, 2013 10:20 am
The banks took it! 12% of the School District budget is to pay off bank loans, most made by the SRC's over the last ten years. Last years $300 million loan is going to cost the District $22 million over twenty years.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 18, 2013 3:44 pm
It is school police responsibility to keep schools safe. Noon time aide are assigned cafeteria clean up and SSA assist teachers where needed.

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