Jessica Bohman's son Aaron is all smiles even though he's at United Hospital Center for a tonsillectomy. Bohman said a classroom aide helped her son build confidence and learn to feel more at ease, but he lost that aide this year due to a new law.

Last school year, Aaron Bohman’s second-grade special education aide held his hand, kept him safe, fed him, and helped him learn to better communicate in the classroom. 

But at the start of this school year, the aide who’d spent all year getting to know Aaron, who has autism, took another job in a first grade classroom. Jessica Bohman, his mother, said the aide had not only worked hard to learn to meet his individual needs, but also treated him with understanding and love.

“It’s hard for somebody to fill those shoes,” Bohman, of Buckhannon, said.

Aaron is not alone. Nearly 250 special education aides transferred to newly-created aide positions in first grade classrooms across the state, according to an incomplete count provided to lawmakers last month.

The positions were created by West Virginia lawmakers when they passed the Third Grade Success Act, a bill to place around 2,500 aides in first through third grade classrooms to improve math and literacy skills, following a severe drop in test scores during the pandemic. 

Lawmakers and state educational officials who supported the effort said they knew of a longstanding special education aide shortage and thought that aides might leave to take those new positions, leaving children with disabilities without help. 

But the law took priority, and now, as predicted, groups who assist families of children who need special education say they are seeing a significant decline in aides willing to take on the challenging work of assisting children with disabilities. In total, 41% of special education aides switched to the new jobs.

“We are in crisis,” said Christina Smith, executive director of ASTRIVE Advocacy, which provides training to families of children with disabilities and helps them advocate for their rights in talks with school officials. 

Six groups that help families get special education services noted that staffing had been a persistent problem in a report provided to then-state Superintendent David Roach in March. Since 2013, advocates have met with education officials and lawmakers, telling them about special education shortfalls — including the aide shortage. 

“The overall lack of well-trained personnel to provide behavioral supports still exists and the level of support is declining,” the 2023 report stated. 

The Third Grade Success Act, sponsored by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R- Clay and passed overwhelmingly, starts by adding aides to first grade classrooms; second and third grade classrooms are next. 

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, speaks on the floor last year. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature.

Hanshaw said in a statement that the loss of special education aides “was not an entirely unexpected result, but it is a critical problem nonetheless and highlights just how important it is that we continue to fund public education as much as possible.”

Department of Education spokeswoman Christy Day said in an email that that discussions have begun to address the problem. 

Advocates, attorneys say aide shortage is larger than officials know

While individual counties post vacant aide positions, Jonathan Shank, West Virginia Department of Education special education coordinator, said, in an emailed statement, that the state doesn’t compile a total. 

But Smith and other advocates said the special education aide shortage is likely even larger than reports would show. 

Nearly one-fifth of West Virginia public school students receive special education, according to the report sent to the superintendent earlier this year. 

But while state Department of Education data shows only a small number of those students’ families file complaints to obtain additional supports like aides each year, groups that help some families say they’ve told lawmakers and state officials that those numbers don’t show an accurate number of special education students who need additional assistance.

The nonprofit law firm Mountain State Justice and ASTRIVE Advocacy representatives said some families of children who request aides are told that simply no aides are available and some don’t know they can file complaints with the state if that happens.

Lydia Milnes, deputy director of Mountain State Justice, said the nonprofit law firm has heard from families unable to secure aides for their children for years. 

“And those people are also the people who are in charge of your kid day in and day out, and you don’t want to create a bad relationship with them,” she said. “You want to trust them. You want to believe that they’re telling you the right things.”

Pay rates vary among aides because they are classified as support personnel; those with more seniority can be paid more. Milnes predicted that for more special education aides to apply, they’d have to be paid much higher – perhaps $5,000 to $10,000. 

Lawmakers and education officials say they plan to work on the issue. Sen. Amy Grady, a Republican from Mason County and chair of the education committee, said there was no requirement to pay new first grade aides more in the new law.

“We don’t have a solution yet, but maybe a monetary amount could help,” she said.

Senate Education Chair Amy Grady, R-Mason, during a January committee meeting. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature

She said she hopes to drum up support in the Legislature for that and acknowledged an increase may need to be substantial. She also said seniority may need to be less of a factor.

Grady remembered conversations with advocates being about the special education teacher shortage, versus an aide shortage, but said she has been in talks with state education officials and legislative leadership about it more recently.

Representatives of groups that help families of children with disabilities said they supported efforts to improve early education for all kids. But they also want problems addressed for the children with disabilities they’ve sought to bring attention to for a decade. 

They also acknowledged special education aide positions can be harder than other jobs in the school system.

Along with having to chase children, aides may perform tasks such as reading passages to children, helping with toileting, communicating on their behalf and keeping them on task. Children may also become aggressive, perhaps because they are nonverbal and can’t communicate their distress or overstimulation, or they may refuse to perform an assignment. 

“I think sometimes, it may be more rewarding in the special education environment, because you’ve really worked hard to help that child to succeed,” said Christy Black, advocacy specialist for the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council. And you can see it.” 

A smiling mother holds her smiling son, who is missing a few teeth, in her lap
Jessica Bohman and her son Aaron eat at the Stonewall Resort. Aaron is one of many special education students who lost his classroom aide this year. Photo courtesy Jessica Bohman.

Before the help of the aide and a behavioral therapist last year, Aaron Bohman knew about 50 words. Now he knows about 2,500. He learned to better communicate through a reward system. For example, the therapist taught the aide to have Aaron ask for his iPad to be turned on when she paused it. He learned it would be turned quickly back on if he verbalized his request. 

Some kids with autism also run when they see an opportunity, like an open classroom door. Sometimes it’s simply to explore or perhaps to escape an anxiety-producing situation. With an aide assigned solely to him, Aaron stayed safer because the aide had her eyes on him.

“Once you’ve been better supported at school, I just know that he feels more confident there,” his mom, Jessica Bohman, said.

Without the assistance and security provided by a special education aide assigned to Aaron this year, his mother kept him home.

“He literally can’t be at school and be successful without the assistance of an aide,” Bohman said.

According to attorneys and advocates, many parents and guardians of kids with disabilities have kept their kids home so far this year. 

After missing several weeks of school, Aaron was only able to return to school a couple weeks ago with a new aide, thanks to a lawyer from Mountain State Justice representing him in a hearing before an attorney contracted by the state education department to resolve disputes. 

“She’s been really great,” Jessica Bohman said, “but we’re starting at square one all over again.”

Erin Beck is Mountain State Spotlight's Community Watchdog Reporter.