On a sunny Monday morning, I visit the Breukelen Recreational Center. The children in group four are eating bagels and cream cheese for breakfast as Michelle Riffas, 50 — lovingly called Mrs. Michelle by her students — pours milk into their cups. “They have to always drink a cup of milk for each meal. I make sure of it,” she says. Out of the 11 children present, only five of them are eating their breakfast. The rest are playing with their table toys. One newly arriving student runs up to Mrs. Michelle and gives her a hug. It’s clear that she has a strong bond with these kids, but this bond could be in jeopardy if the Bloomberg administration goes through with its plan to lay off teacher’s aides and countless other school officials next September.
Mrs. Michelle is just one out of the four teacher’s aides working at Breukelen recreational center. Although their shifts are short, averaging about 19 hours a week, it’s clear that they play an essential part in the classroom. Their main duties include assisting the teachers with serving breakfast, creating weekly lesson plans and guiding the children through informative arts and crafts.
Breakfast is now over and Mrs. Michelle tells the kids to line up so they can go outside and play. The hallways are filled with pictures of smiling children attending school trips and participating in class activities. The bulletin board showcases each student’s artistic side with construction paper cut-outs of street lights and stop signs.
Once outside, the kids race each other for the handful of scooters and tricycles lying around. “Use your words. We have to always use our words in the classroom” can be often heard form Mrs. Michelle. Soon she’s comforting a child who’s unexplainably crying. The self-proclaimed candy lover, dressed in monochromatic colors carries around a small paper bag of candy. As Michelle chaperones the children outside, candy bag in tow, she quickly diffuses a situation between two kids who both want a turn on a scooter.
The possibility of layoffs is due to the Administration for Children’s Services’ decision not to cover health insurance for employees. Their plan is to only give a certain amount of money to each day care center in New York City, forcing the director to distribute it evenly for each employee. If there are four teacher’s aides at a center, like Breukelen, then the cost for each aide will total $56,000. If you combine that cost for the coverage of group teachers, assistant teachers, kitchen staff, office staff and a janitor, then you’ll have 75 percent of the given budget going toward health insurance. Laying off teacher’s aides will be the solution for providing important things like supplies, educational equipment and extracurricular activities. Budget is a big issue, and parents already pay a minimum of 15 dollars a week and a maximum of close to 200. In this case, it’s clear that a child’s weekly tuition coverage would not serve as the solution.
Robert Ramos, 33, is also outside with the students and explains to me the possibility of layoffs in great detail. He’s the head teacher for group two and is also the president of the New York Higher Education PAC. He’s known as a no nonsense teacher, although he’s only 5’8” and has a slight resemblance to Robert De Niro. His Spanish-flaired Brooklyn accent is very prominent as he speaks. “Children benefit greatly from having three teachers in a classroom,” he says. “If teacher’s aides are laid off next fall, then it will affect the teacher to student ratio.”
Many studies have shown that a smaller class size is imperative to a child’s educational achievement. Proper early childhood education is looked at as a catalyst for students to do well throughout their higher education.
Even though Ramos is against the layoffs; I thought it was important find out Mrs. Michelle’s point of view. Ultimately it’s her, and the other teacher’s aide, that will be most affected by the administration’s decision.
When I approach Mrs. Michelle, she’s eating a Swedish Fish and smiling at me. I ask if we can speak privately. She agrees and tells the head teacher she’s stepping away for a few minutes. I don’t know if I should just awkwardly blurt out that she may not have a job next fall, or if I should try to ask if she’s aware of the layoffs more casually. I go with the casual approach, and her facial expression sinks.
“They’re going to lay us off next September? I’m going to be short of an income,” says Michelle, a mother of three.
She shakes her head, and I’m surprised that she didn’t know sooner. It seemed like none of the teacher’s aides knew what was possibly ahead of them.
I went back to ask Ramos why none of the other aides knew about the layoffs either. It was one in the afternoon, and the children slept peacefully on their dark blue cots, as soft classical music played in the background.
“I’m not really supposed to say anything yet to the aides,” Ramos says in a whisper. “We’re not sure if the layoffs are going to happen for sure, and we don’t want them to panic.”
Concerned, he offers a bleak solution: “If we keep them, we will have to cut their benefit package.” The benefit package includes health insurance, which is not a viable solution for Mrs. Michelle who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis.
“If I don’t have insurance, then I won’t be able to get my medicine,” she says.
In the three short hours Mrs. Michelle was working, I saw the impact she has on these kids. She often tells her students, “No shouting, no pushing and no kissing on the lips.” Later that day, one of the children asks her classmate for a kiss, and he replies, “No, Mrs. Michelle said no kissing.” Her effectiveness speaks for itself.
It’s nice to know that there are many people who disagree with the Bloomberg administration’s decision. One of them is Mrs. Michelle’s union president, Santos Crespo. During a recent press conference held in front of city hall he said, “Not only are these workers being laid off, but these cuts will hit schools in some of the city’s poorest communities like Harlem, East New York, Brownsville, Williamsburg, Washington Heights and the South Bronx. These layoffs make no sense morally, ethically and economically.”
“Children benefit greatly from having three teachers in a classroom,” says Ramos, whose mother was a teacher’s aide for 16 years. “Children don’t see titles, only an adult who is nurturing and willing to help them achieve educationally.” He also stresses how much the other staff members need the aides: “Teacher’s aides also serve as substitutes when full-time teachers are out sick. This is important because they are familiar with the children already, unlike an outside sub which would not understand the children’s needs.”
The amount of affection the children receive from the staff is incredible. I see a child calling Mrs. Michelle’s name as she tap on her shoulder rhythmically in sync. Michelle laughs and looks at me, saying, “It’s like my name is a song or something.” She shakes her head, and I laugh along with her.
Mrs. Michelle has been working at the day care center for 16 years. She’s seen kids grow up in the neighborhood and has even taken care of their children. When I ask what she’ll do if they lay her off, her smile disappears. She shrugs her shoulders and says, “I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to find another job.”