April Burch

Office Paraprofessional
Read her story

At work and at home, April Burch sees how underfunded schools affect students.

April Burch, an office paraprofessional at Conway Elementary School in Stafford County, Virginia, spends much of her time working with students who “need a reset outside of the classroom.”

“Ninety-five percent of the time, they’re just having a bad day and need a break,” says Burch.

She keeps her desk stocked with Play-Doh and cotton balls, things that students’ anxious hands can squeeze and tinker with while they talk. Sometimes, the student didn’t get a good night’s sleep. Maybe they need a rest from sensory overload, or perhaps they are hungry. Sometimes, a transition at home is weighing heavily on the student’s mind.

Following local redistricting, Burch’s school of more than 900 students includes more kids from low-income families and those who need special education services.

“I have one student who just needs someone to tell him that he is a good kid and that he is loved,” Burch says. “He responds so well to positive reinforcement if we can just take a few minutes to give it to him.”

We have to stop shorting students because of our financial deficits. Tweet this

But being able to provide every student with the supports they need—smaller classes that allow more one-on-one attention, adaptive technologies, and in-school counselors, social workers, and school nurses to name a few—isn’t always possible.

A big part of the problem is the chronic underfunding of the two largest federal education programs—Title I, which provides funding for schools serving large numbers of low-income students, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which supports special needs students.

For decades, neither program has been funded at even half of what Congress agreed to invest when the programs were established. Costs shift to the states, which often means educators and parents are left to fill the gaps.

Burch is the proud mom of two elementary-age boys, both of whom are on the autism spectrum. One day during a classroom visit, Burch and her husband, Morgan, overheard the teachers discussing how they would pay for a field trip to the grocery store.

“It was clearly coming from their own pockets,” says Burch. The experience inspired them to launch a nonprofit in 2017 called Cooking Autism, which provides grants for special education teachers to offer cooking lessons. Learning to cook has a tremendous positive impact on many special needs students.

In just a year-and-a-half, the Burches’ nonprofit went from supporting five classrooms to 54 classrooms throughout the Rappahannock area. “Every day we talk to teachers who are so happy to be able to provide this, and parents who are excited about it,” says Burch.

In the 2019 state elections and 2020 presidential elections, she intends to support candidates who are going to invest in public schools—not just money, but also the effort to understand the vast array of needs that exist among our students.

“Maybe one of these days we’ll have the financial support we need for all of our classrooms,” Burch says. “We have to stop shorting students because of our financial deficits. It’s way past time, and we have a lot of fixing to do.”

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About This Project

We believe that opportunity begins with great public schools for every student. As the nation’s largest union, NEA created this series to highlight the issues that matter most to our members in the upcoming presidential election.

We know that opportunity for all requires a democracy that works for all, which is why we’re sharing personal stories from across the country; to demonstrate what’s at stake in this election for our students, our schools and our communities.

Support our efforts, contribute your story.