“I have a passion for kids,” Allana Loh tells me.

I knew this about Loh. Although I hadn’t met Loh until today, I knew she was an Educational Program Assistant (EPA) at Bicentennial School. That’s because for several years she worked with a child in my extended family. I heard from both the child and their parent about Loh’s dedication and help.

So when Loh sent me an email explaining why she and the rest of the educational support workers in the Halifax area were on strike, I walked over to Bicentennial to finally meet her in person. We talk as she walked the picket line on Thistle Street.

“I have raised two generations,” she says. “I’m currently raising my granddaughter. So I’ve had my own family, and I’ve raised my daughter, my granddaughter. And I just firmly believe that if at the end of the day, I have made a difference in a child’s life, then I’ve had a good day. I live my whole life like that. I’m 62 years old and I just dedicate my life to kids.”

Loh tells me that when she was growing up, her family wasn’t well off.

“I wanted to be a teacher, but never got to do that because of my family situation — we didn’t have money and it was out of reach.”

Out of high school, she got a job with Bell Alliant. The company paid for her university training, and she had a 32-year career with Bell Alliant as a labour relations officer.

“I did well,” she says. “And the day I retired, I dedicated myself to the community. I worked for five years in a nonprofit here in the North End [of Dartmouth] for underprivileged children.”

Loh has served as the vice-chair of the Dartmouth North Take Action Society, a member of the Dartmouth North Association, and has volunteered for the Harbour View School Advisory Council and at Faith Community Church.

For that work, in 2013 Loh was named as both the HRM Volunteer of the Year and the Provincial Volunteer Representative of the Year.

Loh admits that because her husband is a landscaper and she receives a pension, she is in a better position financially than most of the other strikers, many of whom are single parents. But even then, she says, “I’m just living paycheque to paycheque.”

“At my age and everything,” she says, “I’m trying to, you know, we’re trying to make a future better for our granddaughter. She’s only got us. She’s 17, so we have a long way to go. You know, most of us watch our children grow to adulthood. I don’t know if I’ll have that opportunity. And I worry about that.”

In her email, Loh laid out the financial situation:

School Support workers are undervalued and underpaid. I have worked as an EPA for seven years. Last year I made $24,000 as an 80% EPA working 28 hours each week.

I am supposed to start work 15 minutes after students arrive and leave at the end of each day when the bell rings. [But] Buses arrive before the first bell and leave after the regular dismissal time so I voluntarily arrive early and leave late to ensure my students start and end their day fully supported.

I am often asked to work a full seven-hour day to cover staff shortages and when I do, I do not receive my regular hourly rate of $18.87, rather I get paid $16.00 an hour, which is the lowest wage paid to an EPA.

There are 281 100% EPA positions who work 35 hours a week. Most EPAs are either 80% or 50%.

Wages and hours are the workers’ top concerns, says Loh, but she is also concerned about the lack of professional support. On the eight or nine professional development days (when students don’t go to school but teachers and staff do), the EPAs are given no professional development but typically are told simply to clean their workplaces.

“Training for our jobs is the responsibility of our Employer,” said Loh in her email. “However, in my years on the job I received only two training sessions — Trauma Informed Practices and Speech Language Development in Children; one was free and the other I had to pay for out of my own pocket.”

Many EPAs take courses in the summer, which they pay for themselves.

“The hiring process used by HRCE is less than adequate,” Loh continued in her email:

Their job requirements include First Aid & CPR and Non-Violent Crisis Intervention (NVCI). I took them on my own time and at my own expense, then learned that many hired never met that requirement and they don’t keep up on the certification either. There are no interviews for the position, rather a quick explanation of hours of work and when you can start. I guess a pulse is all one needs to work with the most vulnerable of children in the public education system.

Out on the picket line, I ask Loh to describe her work day.

“Right now, I work with two children in the run of the day,” she replies. “However, in the classroom, our responsibility is to manage behaviours of other children, of all children. So it’s to build the inclusion piece not only for the children that have learning differences, but the ‘regular’ ‘average’ child. As you know, the neurotypical children need the exposure much more than the other children because they’ve lived their whole lives with being different. And so for us to integrate them into the learning environment is critical to our role. So we have to build relationships. If there are 30 in the classroom, I’ve got 30 people that I’ve got to build relationships with and teach them how to love every person in there.”

And what’s the reception for Loh, her work, and the children she helps?

It’s a challenge,” Loh says. “It is a challenge in the current classroom because, number one, behaviours in the classroom are at the high scale of unacceptable, for a number of reasons — our community is challenged with poverty and, you know, all kinds of family issues, and that comes into the classroom and a teacher has to fix that. And as education program assistants, we come in and we build the relationships and try to drill down to find out what the root problem is and then try to make it a safe space for everyone to learn and grow and develop so that they can take those learnings and go out into their own communities and back home.”

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Nice to see the issues coming out rather than the use of the children as props to make a story. There is NO DOUBT these folks are under paid and overworked but they should be asking their union rep why was the contract was agreed to? The HRCE and all school boards need to be held accountable and be transparent of how they can pay different wages to the same person for the same job, this practice has been going on for years. There seems to be a similar problem in health care as in the education system not enough people to look after the students/patients and too many administrators/ office types that do not help to look after students/patients. I don’t think it is the money in the system it is how it is spend and the total lack of transparency and accountability with no one capable of oversight or supervision. However, there are plenty that get paid to do just that …. maybe if the high paid/overpaid administrators/politicians did their jobs but unfortunately that does not help the students/patients one little bit.

  2. It is not a full time job ~~summers off, many long weekends , extended Christmas break and PD and Snow days.