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Substitute teacher shortage adds to strain on struggling schools

'I've never seen it this dire,' Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie says of the struggle to find enough substitute teachers to keep his school operating.

Tara García Mathewson
Niagara Falls High School’s veteran secretary Teresa Kurilovitch takes the first stab at solving the day’s substitute teacher shortage, a task that can be a logistical nightmare.

It’s 7 a.m. on a Friday and Teresa Kurilovitch already knows it’s going to be a rough day. Twenty-one teachers are absent, and as a veteran secretary in the Niagara Falls High School office, she takes the first stab at finding replacements.

This diverse, urban, high-poverty school district on the New York-Canadian border often has more absences than substitutes to fill them. But this day is particularly bad in the high school, with absences likely made more numerous by parent-teacher conferences the night before and the frigid temperature during an otherwise mild winter. Only 12 substitutes are available. That means nine unfilled positions, each with an average of five classes. And the secretary who normally helps Ms. Kurilovitch make sure every class has an adult to lead it is also absent today.

Kurilovitch is working from a series of folders, each one with an absent teacher’s schedule paper-clipped to the outside. Post-its identify which teachers are covering which classes as Kurilovitch works her way through the pile.

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The process is like triage. Robert Bradley, the school’s main principal, stands by, ready to help think through the options. Some students start school at 7:20 a.m. with an early first period. They are the current priority.

“My goal right now is to take care of the early group and then the next goal is, how far can I get?” Mr. Bradley said. “If I can get two hours into the day, I’ll take it. Then later I’ll deal with the rest of the day.”

Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie, who rose to his position after more than 30 years in the district, said the current shortage in substitute teachers is unprecedented. There once was a time when the district had long lists of qualified teachers willing to work as substitutes in hopes of being in the right place at the right time when a position became available.

Now Mr. Laurrie says there are no lists at all in special education, science, and math.

“It has really risen to a level of concern in the last year and a half,” Laurrie said. “I’ve never seen it this dire.” 

The Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit, California-based education think tank, estimates US schools were about 64,000 teachers short during the 2015-16 school year, with shortages most common in special education, math, science, and bilingual education. Sometimes struggling schools resort to hiring less-qualified teachers, or turn to long-term substitutes to fill these gaps, further reducing the pool of teachers available to cover daily absences.

In general, the institute found that districts with concentrated poverty and high proportions of students of color are more likely to have trouble filling open positions.

“As is always the case in this country, students of color bear the brunt of the problem,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the president and chief executive of the institute. (In the Niagara Falls City School District, 56 percent of students are children of color and 75 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.)

Nationwide, slightly more than 1 in 4 teachers missed 10 days of school or more during the 2013-14 school year, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of the most recent federal data. This leaves substitutes with a critical role in educating the nation’s students.

But, as in Niagara Falls, substitutes are getting increasingly hard to find. For example, the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools conducted a survey last fall and found that across 400 Illinois districts, 18 percent of total weekly absences could not be covered by substitutes because of a lack of supply. In southern Illinois, where the problem was most severe, 26 percent of teacher absences went unfilled by subs each week.

Different states have different policies when it comes to who can lead a classroom as a substitute. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s database of teacher contracts (which includes about 150 of the largest school districts nationwide), Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, and Virginia are among the states that allow substitutes to teach with as little as a high school diploma or GED. There is no minimum education requirement in Idaho, New York, Texas, or Utah.

Regardless of these requirements, turning to substitutes at all can create cause for concern. Research shows that academic achievement declines the more days students spend with subs.

At 7:26 a.m. in the Niagara Falls High School office, teacher Edward Ventry walks in to say that a class of students is standing in the hallway upstairs. Their teacher is absent, but for some reason that didn’t show up in the system. No substitute has been sent up to cover the room. And Mr. Ventry himself is on the way out. He’s the coach for the bowling team, and his students made it to sectionals. Although he told the staff in the athletics department he would need someone to cover his day’s math classes, the news didn’t make it to the main office.

Now Kurilovitch has two extra absences to cover, bringing the total to 23.

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s database shows that most schools offer at least 10 sick and personal days to teachers each year, on top of the standard vacation schedule. Outliers include Toledo, Ohio, where public school teachers get as many as 26 paid leave days, and Burlington, Vermont, where the district gives 24.

In Niagara Falls, teachers get about 15 days to use for personal reasons, illness, or bereavement.

Paid leave allowances for teachers are similar to what other salaried professionals get, on average, though other fields don’t have the added benefit of extra vacation around the holidays and summers off. Still, Dr. Darling-Hammond at the Learning Policy Institute said there is wide variability across schools in the extent to which teachers actually take their sick and personal days.

Some states are considering teacher absenteeism as a potential metric for new accountability frameworks, and New York is one of them.

“It is a problem, when you have high rates of teacher absence,” Darling-Hammond said. “It signals that there’s a problem in the school culture, and it also signals that there is another source of obstacles for kids and learning.”

By 8:05 a.m., Niagara Falls High School’s approximately 2,000 students are in the building. The day has officially started, and while all the early morning classes will have teachers in them, Kurilovitch and the team of administrators are still figuring out final arrangements for later periods.

As classes get underway, substitute teachers with mismatched certifications or no certifications at all take attendance and pass out worksheets. These arrangements aren’t uncommon, and students with content-specific questions often have to turn to their peers or wait until their teacher returns to school.

Tenth-graders Kristy Jones, Amber Dutton, and Berenice Nieves Ortiz attempt a worksheet together in their geometry class, staffed today by a substitute certified in English, theater, music, and art. Their regular teacher routinely explains new content via videos that students are supposed to watch for homework, so his absence doesn’t mean a skipped lecture. But the girls are frustrated by questions they can’t answer themselves. They say the videos are often complicated, and class time is frequently used to ask questions. Today there is no one to ask. 

These absences – and the threat of them – can create another type of waiting game, too. Teachers who want to take a day off for professional development purposes often have to get in line.

Ed Ceccato, a long-time math teacher in the district, teaches a college statistics course through the Niagara University Senior Term Enrichment Program, or NUSTEP. His juniors and seniors earn college credit – at a discounted cost – while taking the class at Niagara Falls High School. Every year, the university hosts a professional development day for teachers in the program, but Mr. Ceccato expects that his participation will be contingent on that day’s staff attendance.

“They’ll probably say you have to come into the building and if we have someone who can cover you, [go], if not, we need you to stay,” Ceccato said, while monitoring a physical education class passing time in the library because no substitute was available to teach them.

He was originally scheduled for hallway duty, but as has happened seven or eight times already this school year, Ceccato is covering a colleague’s absence.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about race and equity.

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