Susan Soares, a special education teaching assistant at the Stratton Elementary School in Arlington, has been named the MTA Education Support Professional of the Year.
The announcement — a surprise to the recipient — was made during a virtual meeting of the Arlington Education Association this afternoon.
More than 100 AEA members, along with MTA President Merrie Najimy and Vice President Max Page, were on hand for the surprise, and Soares’ colleagues produced a video tribute.
Soares will be honored on April 10 at the upcoming virtual 2021 MTA ESP Conference.
Soares has worked for the Arlington Public Schools for more than 13 years.
During the 2017-2018 school year, she led a successful unionization drive for her fellow paraprofessionals — a classification that includes teaching assistants, behavior support professionals, tutors, librarians and building substitutes — organizing one of the last major non-union groups of ESPs in Massachusetts.
Teresa Spangler, a fellow paraprofessional in Arlington, wrote in support of the nomination for the award that Soares had expressed concerns that her special education ESP duties were not being fulfilled.
“Administrators had routinely dealt with staffing shortages by shuffling ESPs around,” wrote Spangler, so Soares began to keep a log. Soares found that she had been pulled from her primary role 156 times in one school year. “For Susan, this was unacceptable,” Spangler said.
Arlington Education Association President Julianna Keyes, a middle school global studies teacher, said that Soares succeeded where others had not.
“She accomplished the impossible. Unionizing the paras in Arlington was floated almost every year, but no one followed through on it,” Keyes said. “She did the work and got the support, passed the vote, wrote the contract, and took the seat at the table.”
Najimy said, “Our education system can’t function without people just like Susan. She not only fights for her students, she fights for dignity and justice for fellow ESPs. I am proud to be with her colleagues and fellow union members to honor her today.”
“Part of honoring our ESPs also means adopting the MTA ESP Bill of Rights,” Najimy continued, “taking it to the bargaining table, the community and the State House, and fighting to win dignity and justice for ESPs all over the Commonwealth.”
Past AEA President Jason Levy recalled the moment when Soares approached him about organizing the ESPs.
“From that first conversation, I realized that this would not be another failed attempt at unionizing,” he said. “Through her determination, organization, resilience and hard work,” he said, Soares became “the deciding factor in the unionizing of Arlington’s paraprofessionals.”
Soares then chaired the Negotiating Team and was a member of the Contract Action Team as the paraprofessionals bargained their first contract, which significantly expanded the pay scale for paraprofessionals, improved job security, provided access to professional development and established benefits commensurate with other unionized employees.
Soares is truly dedicated to unionism — and to her students, Keyes said.
“She shows up at every MTA meeting, every training, and she is the first to send support or congratulations to her colleagues. She's done all this while supporting her students in a variety of special ed and regular ed classrooms throughout the school.”