Educators at the Groden Center schools in Providence and Coventry engaged in a one-day strike on Friday to demand safer classrooms for their students and living wages for staff, and in protest of management’s Unfair Labor Practices.
Groden staff are negotiating a contract with management. The primary goal of behavioral specialists is to reduce turnover and ensure a safe learning environment for students. Workers have proposed many measures to improve the schools, management denies they are in a crisis and has not taken their proposals seriously.
The Groden Center is a non-profit that serves students with Autism from Southern New England. Students who struggle in traditional public schools are sent to Groden, at tax-payer expense, so they can receive specialized education more suited to their educational needs. The school districts believe the students will be taught by professionals who are familiar with the students and have training and expertise in educating students with autism. Instead students are watched over by temporary agency staff with lower training standards. Currently over one third of the classroom shifts for behavioral specialists are being covered by temporary staff which lack training and familiarity with students.
Consistency is a cornerstone of their education and well-being. The constant turn-over and use of temporary staff not only deprives students of a quality education, it has resulted in daily occurrences of injuries and unsafe situations for students and staff.
The problem, educators say, is low-wages and backwards management priorities. While Behavior Specialists start at just $11.70/hr ($21,294 per year), managers make six-figure salaries and the companies founders were given million-dollar retirement packages. While vans used to transport students are falling apart and lack basic safety features, management bought luxury cars for top executives. In 2016, Groden hired former DCYF-head Janice DeFrances to be their CEO and paid her $152,218. Groden also provided a $1.2 million dollar golden parachute to one of its founders upon their retirement.
The strike follows waves of labor action at other schools around the country this year, with teachers’ strikes in multiple states resulting in increases to education funding, better classroom-ratios, and higher wages for educators.
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“We’re striking to show that the current situation with high turnover and all these temporary staff is unacceptable,” said Kersten Brothers, a Behavior Specialist in Providence. “All students, and especially students with autism, need consistency. We will never be able to recruit and retain the staff our students need if management continues to pay poverty wages.”
“We love our students and don’t want to be on strike,” said Samantha Lozeau, a Behavior Specialist at Groden South school in Coventry. “But with such high-turnover and all these temp agency staff, our students aren’t getting the education or services they deserve. Most of our students cannot stand up and speak for themselves so we are going to be their voice and fight for better schools for all educators and students.
“Hopefully this strike will be a wakeup call to management and they’ll start taking our concerns seriously,” said Lozeau. “We’re standing up for change and we won’t stop until Groden is a better place for educators and students.”
SEIU New England Vice President Patrick Quinn introduced the elected officials and candidates for office in attendance, including Senators Sandra Cano (Democrat, District 8, Pawtucket) and Jeanine Calkin (Democrat, District 30, Warwick), Representatives Kathleen Fogarty (Democrat, District 35, South Kingstown), Susan Donovan (Democrat, District 69, Bristol) and Teresa Tanzi (Democrat, District 34, Narragansett, South Kingstown), Ward 1 Providence City Councilmember Seth Yurdin, Ward 5 Pawtucket City Councilmember Meghan Kallman, Val Lawson, candidate for State Senate District 14 in East Providence, Rebecca Kislak, candidate for State Representative District 4 in Providence and Laufton Ascencao, candidate for State Representative District 68 in Bristol.
[From a press release]
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