Feature stories

Not for teachers only — Part I

Velma Hill, organizer and first chapter leader of UFT paraprofessionals, with mayoral candidate Abe Beame and UFT President Al Shanker, 1973.

Despite its name, the United Federation of Teachers is a union of 200,000 working people who are committed to improving the lives of New Yorkers in many different ways. Most, but not all, provide education, child care or health services for adults and children in thousands of sites across the city – schools, hospitals, community facilities and even in homes. All want and deserve voice and dignity in their working lives, and they came to our union for the strength, commitment and passion we put into fighting for them. This is the story of one of those groups of courageous and talented people.

Classroom paraprofessionals

UFT paraprofessionals are key members of the instructional team who work closely with teachers in classrooms, providing individual attention to the children who need it most.

All poor and mostly women, they first joined the nation’s schools in small numbers in the 1960s through a Great Society antipoverty program. It wasn’t easy at first. Some encountered discrimination and disrespect. They were made to do jobs no one wanted, like taking children home and cleaning up if they got sick. That slowly changed, and it had a lot to do with the leadership of the UFT.

Though it was certainly not a high-paying job at less than $2 an hour, paraprofessionals appreciated the opportunity to help children from their own communities. Besides, in 1968 the city offered them tuition-free college courses — the catch being that there was enough money for only one out of 10. To the city’s surprise, virtually all of the system’s 1,000 paras took an exam to qualify for the tuition, forced to vie against one another for the chance to further their education.

One of the lucky ones was Maria Portalatin, then a 30-year-old single parent who had supported her three children on $2,000 a year by babysitting and crocheting clothing. “The opportunity for me to go to college was an incredible gift,” says Portalatin, who would go on to become the second chapter leader of the UFT’s paraprofessional chapter.

But after only one year the city pulled the rug out from under her and her college-going colleagues by cutting the program. That shabby treatment gave the paras an education they didn’t expect — a crash course in why they needed a union.

Thus, it came to be that in 1969 classroom paraprofessionals chose the UFT to represent them at the bargaining table. To many teachers and to UFT President Albert Shanker it was a brave and gratifying choice. They had just emerged from the bitter, difficult and divisive issues surrounding Oceanhill-Brownsville. Most paras came from the same communities that had opposed the union during several acrimonious strikes, and Al Shanker’s name was still not welcome on the streets where they lived.

If the paras were wary, so were the teachers. But Shanker was determined to demonstrate the union’s commitment to the community and to the working poor. Furthermore, he had a vision that the paraprofessionals would be the city’s future teachers and serve as role models for their students. His vow that he would do for the paras what he’d done for the teachers won the paras’ vote despite their doubts.

But it was not until 1970, during the paras’ first contract struggle, that teachers and paras really forged a solid — and everlasting — bond. Negotiations were going nowhere. It was up to the teachers to show that the paras’ fight was everyone’s fight. From the jail cell where he was serving a sentence for the 1968 strike, Shanker wrote an 8-page letter to the teachers urging their support for their brothers and sisters.

The teachers’ 3-to-1 vote to strike on behalf of their paraprofessional colleagues brought the board to the table posthaste. This demonstration of union solidarity was a breakthrough not only for the paras’ fight for decent wages — which rose from $2,000 a year to $4,600 — but also for the UFT’s efforts to begin to repair relations with communities across the city.

In that first contract, the UFT restored and expanded the lost college program, establishing a career ladder for paras that remains unequaled. To this day the Department of Education gives paras time and tuition to go to college. As they learn and earn more, paras can launch themselves on a path that has led thousands over the years to become teachers.

At first, paraprofessionals worked only in kindergarten and first grade, helping to give the strongest start possible to the city’s poor children. But as they proved their worth, they expanded their responsibilities, moving up through the grades and assisting in remedial math and reading labs and English proficiency classes.

When, in 1976, Congress required public schools to educate all handicapped children, paras saved the day for tens of thousands of children who needed specialized attention and an abundance of sensitivity and compassion. After that, the numbers of paras soared — today there are about 18,000 paraprofessionals in New York City schools — along with the quality of education for disabled youngsters, many of whom had previously been relegated to institutions or hidden at home.

It’s no surprise that when the late Albert Shanker retired as UFT president in 1985 to concentrate on his duties as head of the American Federation of Teachers, he cited the paraprofessionals as his proudest contribution to education. “The paras,” he said, “have strengthened our union and our schools immeasurably.”

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