Citing trouble finding fill-ins, Philly schools seek to outsource substitute teachers

 Students walk the halls at De Burgos Elementary School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Students walk the halls at De Burgos Elementary School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In what’s become a more common strategy for public schools all over our region, the Philadelphia School District wants to outsource substitute teachers.

The district’s main goal is not necessarily saving money, but ensuring fewer schools are left scrambling to cover classes a day-to-day basis.

That’s welcome news to Maritza Hernandez, principal of Julia De Burgos elementary school in North Philadelphia .

Of the 50 teachers in her building, she says she has at least one — but sometimes many — call out each day of the week. Sometimes it’s for health or medical reasons, but many other times, she says teachers just get burned out.

“Just frustration for lack of resources. We try to make it as positive as it can be, but unfortunately it just doesn’t always turn out that way” said Hernandez, one of the district’s many first-year principals.

She says many substitutes don’t want to come to 4th and Lehigh. De Burgos elementary sits in a neighborhood that’s often plagued by drug-related gun violence.

“They say, ‘No, I’m not going to come in. Not here.'”

Hernandez is not alone. On average, when a teacher in the Philadelphia School District calls out, their spot is only filled at a 64 percent of the time. Remaining classes are covered with a hodge-podge approach: another teacher has to sacrifice a preparation period or the principal puts other duties on the backburner to be in class.

“It’s really challenging when you’re trying to increase academic achievement when you’ve got multiple days during a month when a class isn’t covered by a consistent teacher,” said Naomi Wyatt, the school district’s chief talent officer.

Wyatt says that one of the reasons the coverage rate is so low is that the district doesn’t have enough administrative resources to actively grow and maintain a pool of reliable substitutes. On any given day, there are 500 spots to be filled, an average of about two per school.

In hopes of making the process more robust and efficient, the district wants to outsource substitute teaching services to a private company which will hire its own teachers.  They won’t be under the teachers’ union contract.

“We need to increase a pool where we’ve got folks who are interested and anxious to work more days in more places,” said Wyatt.

Under the existing model, compensation for substitutes varies from $40/day for an uncertified teacher to $180/day for a retiree who has subbed for 30 days in that school year. The district spends $18.6 million a year covering absent teachers.

Teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan calls the substitute crisis “manufactured.” He says rules that make retirees the last resort option have contributed to the low coverage rate. Given a better chance, Jordan says many more retirees would jump at the work. The provision exists to lessen a “double dip” trend where a retirees earn public income while also collecting a pension.

Some full-time teachers agree that existing substitute services are in need of reform, but they suggest that each school should have a dedicated full-time substitute.

The district seeks a vendor that can keep the coverage rate above 90 percent. Wyatt hopes to see plans that will provide incentives for substitutes to accept positions in the hardest to fill openings.

The submission deadline is May 1. Wyatt hopes the new system will be in place by September.

For more extensive coverage, including how outsourcing has worked in other districts, see this story in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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