Robbin Blake has spent her career in Philadelphia classrooms, supporting the city’s most vulnerable children as a special education assistant.

Her salary is capped at $30,000, a sum so low that for years, she worked two full-time jobs to make ends meet, leaving her only three hours per night to sleep. (Health problems eventually forced her to quit the second job.)

Blake, who currently works at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, is a 26-year district veteran. She is one of the forces behind a growing movement to draw attention to the plight of Philadelphia School District paraprofessionals, the district’s aides, bilingual counseling assistants, and other low-wage classroom employees.

Blake and a group of paraprofessionals with increasing visibility have issued a manifesto with 15 demands, ranging from better pay and more opportunities for advancement and training to dedicated office space to store educational materials and have meetings with parents. Dozens rallied Saturday to underscore their campaign.

The group’s members say they haven’t felt well represented by their union in the past and have aligned with the Caucus of Working Educators, a social justice caucus within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. A slate of Working Educators leaders is challenging PFT president Jerry Jordan’s CB Team for control of the union, with an election to occur in early 2020.

“I’m still a classroom assistant because I love what I do, I love the kids,” said Sadedrah Williams, a special education assistant at Greenfield Elementary. “But I deserve more respect, and I deserve the wages I need to live."

This fall, Chicago paraprofessionals won significant raises in a new contract after an 11-day strike by teachers and other school workers there. The Philadelphia group, organizing as #ParaPower, says it’s their turn.

Megan Lello, a spokesperson for the school system, said the district could not comment on the details of any negotiations, but noted that the district “values all of its employees. They are integral in teaching, supporting, and encouraging our students each day, which is the most important work that can be done as we prepare the next generation of Philadelphians.”

Jordan, whose union represents 13,000 workers, including 2,520 paraprofessionals, said the importance of the aides’ work cannot be overstated.

“They provide an enormous amount of support for classrooms and for the instructional program,” he said. “I really don’t know how the district and its classroom teachers would manage without them.”

A group of paraprofessionals from the #ParaPower movement gathered Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 for a rally at Temple University.
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
A group of paraprofessionals from the #ParaPower movement gathered Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 for a rally at Temple University.

Jordan said he has fought just as hard for paraprofessionals as teachers, noting that paraprofessionals have always gotten the same across-the-board raises as teachers and other PFT members; in 2000, the union called a strike when the district was insisting the PFT accept a lower percentage increase for paraprofessionals.

“Their salaries are too low, and we’re going to be really fighting to get an increase in salaries that our paraprofessionals make,” said Jordan, who has written to Philadelphia School Board President Joyce Wilkerson to open contract negotiations. “I have my marching orders.”

The PFT’s current contract expires Aug. 31, 2020.

That gives the paraprofessionals’ movement urgency, said Leah Wood, who’s worked for the last 10 years as a classroom assistant at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences.

“I spend my summers planning out the next year, what I’m going to do with my students,” Wood said. “I just want to be paid, and I want training to be able to do my job better.”

Williams, who works with children on the autism spectrum, said that she had barely any training before starting her district job, and that she and other paraprofessionals — some of whom have been tasked with giving medically fragile students tube feeds and changing colostomy bags — need more.

“I got sent into a classroom, and I had to just figure it out,” Williams said.

The paraprofessionals are also asking for career paraprofessionals to be financially rewarded. Although the job is plagued by high turnover, paraprofessionals earn no automatic step increases past the sixth year of employment. Teachers, by contrast, can work up to the designation of “senior career teacher,” which pays over $90,000.

One voice lending support to the movement is Councilmember-elect Kendra Brooks, elected as a member of the Working Families Party this fall.

Brooks knows the paraprofessionals’ plight well. Her sister is employed as one, and she called the group “some of the most underpaid staff in our district.”

“Paras are often from the neighborhoods [around] our schools, they are often directly connected to our kids — yet we see time and time again that there are few pathways for paras to become teachers or other higher-paid staff,” Brooks said in a statement. “If we are serious about diversifying our workforce, serious about providing living wage jobs and pathways out of poverty, serious about school staff that comes from and is connected to the places where our children live, then we all must invest in our paras.”