Union seeks ways to restore kindergarten aides

UNION, NJ – The Board of Education is looking at ways to restore aides to kindergarten classrooms who were cut from the budget in 2017, including parent volunteers, substitutes and Kean University clinical faculty and interns.

Under state guidelines, there can be a maximum of 25 children in a single kindergarten class before the school needs to provide an aide. The largest class in the district has 22 students, but parents have still expressed concerns regarding their child’s safety and the quality of education.
A petition that was started more than a month ago on change.org by two Washington Elementary School parents, Will Viegas and Rafael Castillo, helped bring light to this issue. It has almost 500 signatures.

“The district and Kean are currently working on a partnership to have clinical faculty and in-service interns assigned to the Township of Union Public Schools on a consistent basis,” Superintendent Gregory Tatum said in an email to LocalSource on Nov. 7.
This partnership is in the early stages and there’s no date for when it would begin.

Along with the largest class size, Washington Elementary also has the most classes in the district, with five. The fifth class, that Viegas’ and Castillo’s daughters are in, was added in 2017.

“We started noticing some issues within the first couple of days of the new school year,” Castillo said in a phone interview on Nov. 6. “We started noticing everything from safety issues to academic issues in that short period of time.”

One of their main concerns is the location of their daughters’ classroom, which is on the second floor while the other kindergarten classes are on the first floor.

Viegas recalled an incident that involved his daughter being released with another student by a substitute teacher to the school’s aftercare program.
“Two 5-year-olds were released and they were just wandering the hallways trying to figure out where to go,” he said in a phone interview on Nov. 6. “Luckily someone found them, but I think it’s still unacceptable.”

In prior years, aides helped children during fire drills, escorted them to the nurse’s office and bathroom and assisted them during class if they were having a difficult time understanding a topic. Now, without the help, it’s up to the teachers.

Tatum said that aides “certainly make a contribution … in many cases, the classroom assistant duties include assistance with mobility around the school, working with students before and after class, and general support during classroom activities.”

After their petition received some recognition, Viegas, Castillo and two other parents met with Tatum on Oct. 5 to discuss possible solutions.
“So far they’ve tried implementing sending substitutes in to help but there aren’t set schedules for them,” Viegas mentioned. “It seems like more of a Band-Aid solution.”

Washington Elementary received two substitute teachers to help between the five kindergarten classes.
“Tatum approved the substitutes a couple of weeks after we met with him which was great,” he said. “But we need something more.”
Along with Viegas and Castillo, other parents voiced their concerns at the Oct. 16 Board of Education meeting.

“We know that historically our system works better for our children when assistants are in the class,” Chastity Santana said at the meeting. “Union and our children need these positions in kindergarten.”

Castillo experienced recently how hectic a kindergarten class can be when he volunteered to help out in his daughter’s computer class.
“Class is about 35 minutes and between myself and the teacher, it took us about 10 minutes to get the students set up,” he told LocalSource. “If I wasn’t there, it probably would’ve taken double the time.”

With this loss of instructional time, Viegas is worried that the quality of education is being sacrificed.
“Our kids might be lacking the education that they may need to get them through first and second grade because we’re missing this strong foundation early on,” he said.

Tatum mentioned that the aides were cut from the budget due to the reduction in staff and an increased need in the district’s special services department.

“The aides were re-assigned to meet the demands throughout the district, which are mandatory by state and federal regulations,” he mentioned in the email.

Castillo feels that the loss of kindergarten aides affects Washington Elementary a bit more than others in the district.
“The petition is for everyone in the district, but when you start comparing it to other schools, the class sizes at Washington almost double them,” he said.

Volunteer applications are available on the district’s website for anyone wishing to help in a classroom.