Miami Herald

Henry Matthews unfolds a crumpled dollar bill, counts coins in his sweat-soaked palms -- 5 . . . 10 . . . 15 -- then rummages through his pockets for more as the J bus squeals to a halt.

"Got it! It's a good thing we didn't miss this one," he says with a chuckle. "Imagine roasting for another half-hour."

On a recent Thursday afternoon, a scorcher in early fall, he forks over the extra 50 cents for a bus transfer instead of hoofing it the rest of the way home.

"I can't do this every day -- the quarters add up," he says. "Usually, I just catch one bus and walk the 20 blocks or so."

As a full-time paraprofessional at Wynwood's Jose de Diego Middle School, Matthews earns about $12,500 a year -- leading to the daily grind of counting coins and taking long walks. At 42, with five sons to support, he lives well below the federal poverty level, $20,000 for a family of four, and Miami's median yearly income, $43,316.

Matthews is paid about the same as a cashier in Kmart, not enough to own a car or home. So for now, he lives with his sister in Allapattah.

Nonetheless, Matthews says his job is priceless: "We have the opportunity to help save a child. It doesn't get any better than that, bro."

Paraprofessionals, better known as teacher's aides, fill many roles in South Florida schools. Some, like Matthews, work side by side with disabled children to ease their transition into regular classrooms. Others serve as job coaches, parent educators and vocational advisors.

The Miami-Dade school system has 2,992 paras on staff, including 395 who work with disabled students. They have remained near the bottom of the pay scale, with a starting salary between $11,468 for a 10-month contract and $13,762 for 12 months. Veterans in the system may top out at $26,236 and $31,484, respectively.
Henry Matthews in the classroom with student, Jose Nunez, 12.

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