The South Orange Maplewood School District is proposing for a second year in a row to decrease the number of paraprofessionals in preschool classrooms at Montrose and Marshall Elementary Schools and Applecore, a move that parents say will negatively affect teachers and students in the classrooms.

The proposed reduction comes after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy created a program to give school districts in New Jersey funding toward higher-quality preschool education. As part of the program, $2.7 million was awarded to 33 school districts in New Jersey so they can create or expand already-existing preschool programs in the district.

The South Orange Maplewood School District was awarded $2.9 million through the program for the 2019-2020 school year. The funding will be used toward the preschool program in the three schools, which have preschool students with and without individualized educational programs, IEPs, which are instructional programs for students with special needs.

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The paraprofessionals that could be reduced are like teachers’ aides and not the state-mandated paraprofessionals that are required to be in a classroom as per Murphy’s program. The reduction proposed in the South Orange Maplewood School District has parents concerned that their children won’t get enough care and attention when they need help with classroom instruction or personal care.

Parents say reducing the number of paraprofessionals is the district’s way of trying to save money and fear that the students won’t be given adequate help with classroom instruction and that the move will be physically, mentally and emotionally draining on teachers.

The district says the reduction is a way to make staffing ratios more uniform in the pre-school classrooms.

“The grant sets standards for staffing ratios,” South Orange Maplewood Superintendent Ronald Taylor told TAPinto SOMA. “While the district can exceed staffing ratios, the district must do so uniformly across all pre-school classrooms including those of local partnering pre-school providers.

“Maintaining higher staff ratios is not sustainable as the program expands,” Taylor said.

If the reduction is put into effect, there will be one state-mandated paraprofessional in the classroom and not multiple paraprofessionals. During this past school year, several classrooms had a teacher and two to four paraprofessionals. With the proposed reduction, a teacher and one paraprofessional would be in the classroom.

“These are 3-year-olds,” parent Alex Dubin told TAPinto SOMA. “Some of these kids are in diapers. If one kid must go to the bathroom, that paraprofessional has to take that kid to the bathroom.

“That means there is a teacher with 14 kids, at least five of whom and sometimes six have an IEP, which means they have special needs in some way,” Dubin said.

Parent Caryn Gehrke spoke during the public comment portion of a South Orange Maplewood Board of Education meeting in August, explaining that having two paraprofessionals in the classroom at Montrose really helped her daughter Charlotte who has Down syndrome.

Having two paraprofessionals in the classroom instead of being assigned 1-to-1 or 2-to-1 paraprofessionals allowed her daughter to “be educated in the least restrictive environment,” Gehrke said.

“During her first year at Montrose, she had to be carried during evacuation drills, as she could not navigate stairs quickly enough to keep up with her class,” Gehrke said.

Another parent added during the meeting, “What happens if one student has an [a bathroom] accident or another is choking.”

There are currently about 23 paraprofessionals in the schools’ preschool program, district officials said during the board of education meeting, but that could change if the reduction is approved.

“This is not a done deal,” Taylor said.

South Orange and Maplewood Interim Assistant Superintendent of Special and Youth Services Laura Morana said the district is looking at ways to maximize the staffing currently in the district.

Having the school nurse visit the classroom to care for a child instead of a paraprofessional taking the child to the nurse’s office is an example of how current staffing could be maximized, Morana said.

“Safety is an important factor in the decisions that are being made,” Morana said.