Opinion: Detroit schools support staff asks for community support

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Donna Jackson says schools support staff needs a long-term contract with the Detroit Public Schools Community District. (Courtesy photo)

Most school districts across the state, including Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), are reopening March 8, and while a return to semi-normalcy is a welcome development for students and parents, it is important that we recognize and support those who never left the schools. Paraprofessionals and food service workers across the Detroit Public Schools Community District have been working in-person throughout the pandemic. 

As the Detroit Federation of Para-Professionals (DFP) goes to the bargaining table this year, we are reaching out to the community for support as we begin negotiations with DPSCD. Whether we are talking about the days before COVID-19 or the unprecedented risks and sacrifices our members have made over the last year throughout the pandemic, we are deserving of a contract that respects the critical role we play in the DPSCD community and that compensates us fairly for our work. We need the community’s voice to be heard alongside our own to ensure our members get the contract they deserve. 

For the past year, public schools have experienced an upheaval of change. But one thing has remained constant: members of Detroit Federation Para-professionals — which includes paraeducators, school culture facilitators, family case technicians, food service workers, and noon hour aides — have been stepping up for students, the district and the community, all without having a long-term contract. We hope to change that over the coming months as we negotiate with the district. 

Alongside teachers, our members make DPSCD possible. Without us, the schools simply would not run.

COVID-19 has demonstrated to our communities who essential workers really are, and school paraeducators and food service workers could not be more essential. However, our contracts over the years have lacked basic cost-of-living adjustments, adequate paid sick leave and the resources to do our jobs as effectively as possible. Many of our members earn between $10 and $12 an hour, a wage that is often associated with entry-level jobs, not critical roles in public schools like educating students and ensuring that they’re getting the nutrition they need. The Fight for $15 is often linked to fast-food workers, not public-school employees, but that’s the reality of what we’re facing. Everyone deserves a living wage. 

Our members work so hard to nurture, educate, and mentor students from families apart from their own while struggling to afford the basics for our own needs and those of our families. That’s not right, and we need a contract that will change it. Our members do this work because they are passionate about helping the children. We’ve seen that exemplified over the last year, and we deserve to be fairly compensated. 

I’ve worked in public education for over 20 years. During my time in this profession, I’ve seen the role of paraeducators go from wiping down boards and taking attendance to being integral parts of the education team in the classroom working side-by-side with teachers. I’ve seen that food service workers are not just serving food, but they’re ensuring kitchens and cafeterias are clean and safe for students while providing students with the nutrition they need to get through the day. Our members are an integral part of the school community and should be valued and respected with a contract that reflects that. 

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DFP members work every day to build up the next generation of Detroiters into smart, enterprising, healthy and confident adults who will do great things in the community. We are part of the community. We live in the community. Many of us went to DPS. Many of our kids and grandkids go to DPS. We are committed to this community whether there’s a pandemic or not. 

Since 2010, Donna Jackson has been president of the Detroit Federation of Para-Professionals, Local 2350, which represents approximately 1000 Paraeducators and Food Service staff in Detroit Public Schools Community District.  Jackson is also an AFT Michigan Vice President, serving on the Administration Board, and Co-Chair of AFT Michigan Paraprofessionals and School Related Personnel (PSRP). She is a stalwart advocate for school employees. 

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