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Union says it will pitch in to make new Manchester school schedule work

August 28. 2013 8:36PM

MANCHESTER — The head of the union that represents city school paraprofessionals anticipates all school staff will make adjustments needed to enact the new hours-based school calendar, saying the plan could be a "positive and progressive" approach to bring much-needed improvements to the quality of education in Manchester.

"We all know there are big changes. We all want to do the best we can. We just need to work as a team," AFSCME Local 3912 President Gail L. Dubois said Wednesday. The union represents 103 of the 300 paraprofessionals who work in city schools.

"I don't foresee a problem. I think we negotiated a contract that is very beneficial to the (paraprofessionals) that gives principals the ability to use flex hours and cover their schools in the way they feel that is necessary," Dubois added.

While paraprofessionals, formerly known as teacher's aides, will "keep the best interests of children at heart," she said she also expects "everyone will respect our contract."

"Under no circumstances should you be asked to work without pay," Dubois wrote in an email sent to members Tuesday.

Paraprofessionals will play a key role in implementing the hours-based school calendar, which increases the time each day teachers spend teaching, shortens the number of days in the school year and doubles the number of professional development days for teachers, officials said. Classes start Sept. 4 and end June 12.

Since the length of the total school day doesn't change, expanded instructional time will be achieved by shaving minutes from the time elementary and middle school teachers are contractually required to remain after classes are dismissed. Elementary teachers must stay five minutes; middle school teachers eight minutes.

But school principal association president Brendan McCafferty criticized the plan because it lacks any guarantee there will be enough teachers to assist hundreds of students during arrival and dismissal, a process that typically takes 15 to 20 minutes.

"It's safer and more sound to have these things solidified before the school year begins. ... A lot of people are going to do the right thing, but you need everyone on board," McCafferty added.

McCafferty said principals have been working to find solutions to ensure student safety since April 8 when the school board and teachers' union signed the Memorandum of Understanding that enabled the hours-based school calendar to be enacted.

While principals have greater flexibility in using paraprofessionals, he said their numbers don't "come close to providing the coverage we need to guarantee student safety."

"We are stretched very, very thin and if anything happens, you really don't have the back up we could guarantee last year," added McCafferty , principal of Hillside Middle School.

School Superintendent Debra J. Livingston this week said she is confident the plan can be safely implemented. Livingston, Manchester Teachers Association President Benjamin F. Dick and Ward 10 School Committee member John Avard said they do not see teachers leaving students unsupervised at the end of the day.

"No child is going to be left stranded in the hallway or abandoned, and nobody's intent is to make the principals take care of the whole school by themselves," Avard said this week.

The recently signed two-year contract the paraprofessionals union signed with the school board allows paraprofessionals to work a minimum six-hour day and up to eight hours if necessary, Dubois said.

She also reminded members that paraprofessionals should always have a teacher or principal present during bus duty because only these "certified staff" can handle problems.

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