Despite progress, teacher vacancies linger as Philly schools open

 During a Wednesday budget hearing, Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym urged city school district officials to hire more instrumental music teachers. (NewsWorks file photo)

During a Wednesday budget hearing, Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym urged city school district officials to hire more instrumental music teachers. (NewsWorks file photo)

Despite an aggressive hiring spree, the School District of Philadelphia will start the year with scores of teacher vacancies, although there are fewer openings than last year.

That means thousands of students will have at least one class without a permanent teacher when school starts on Wednesday.

As of late Tuesday, 84 full-time openings remained across 58 district schools, according to the district’s official vacancy tracker.

In late June, with just 45 vacancies, district officials called a press conference to announce they were on track to fill every teaching position. The district had originally said it would fill all open positions by June 30. Teacher vacancies have plagued the district for years, and officials waged a well-publicized hiring campaign over the summer to eradicate the problem.

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It would appear they’ve made some progress, but fallen short of their overall goal.

“We are significantly ahead of where we were a year ago,” said Superintendent William Hite at the end of last week.

That sentiment, however, didn’t sit well with City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who has been a leading critic of the district amid its vacancy woes.

“It is simply unacceptable,” Gym said of the remaining vacancies. “It is a fundamental mission for the School District of Philadelphia to begin the school year with a teacher in every classroom. It is the most basic mission of the school.”

A firm purpose of amendment

The district had 118 teacher vacancies when the 2015-16 school year began and 132 when the year ended. A rolling substitute teacher shortage compounded the problem, and the district held voluntary summer classes for students who’d missed out on instructional time. The state Department of Education, meanwhile, found that three dozen students at Roosevelt Elementary School in Germantown received inadequate education due to long-term teacher absences. 

District officials vowed to fix the problem. They rolled out a series of recruitment videos, hosted a number of job fairs, and prodded principals to take care of hiring early. For much of the summer, users couldn’t log onto the district website without first seeing an advertisement seeking applicants for district teaching jobs.

On June 28, the district held a press event designed to highlight its success.

“This year, parents will experience something different because all of their children will be in classrooms that are staffed by certified teachers,” said Hite at the event. “We’re very excited about that, and we think they will be as well.”

 A little over two months later, vacancies continue, many in traditionally hard-to-staff areas such as special education and foreign language. Still, the district said, its focus on hiring has borne fruit.

“We have recruited and hired over 700 teachers, 99 percent of our teacher positions are staffed, and retention rates are up,” said district spokesman Kevin Geary in a statement. “Hiring and retaining top talent remains a priority, and we continue to work to hire new teachers to fill vacancies as they occur.”

Geary also noted that some of the special education vacancies will be filled by contractors until permanent teachers can be found.

The district has about 8,000 teachers. The 84 vacancies represent roughly 1 percent of all full-time positions.

Fiscal crises, quarrels with union

The district had, however, been able to fill its vacancies in the not-too-distant past. At the start of the 2011-12 school year the district reported that all of its positions — with the exception of a single library post — had been staffed. The 2012-13 school year began with just 12 open positions.

The district’s vacancy woes re-emerged in the last couple of school years. Those years have been marked by fiscal crises and an ongoing dispute with the teachers union, which has been without a contract since the middle of 2013. The district achieved some measure of financial stability this year and is running a small surplus. The labor woes, however, have persisted, and the district’s tense relationship with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been evident throughout its hiring push.

Union leaders accuse the district of ignoring seniority and other contractual work rules. In early July, 78 veteran teachers who were forced out of their old positions were still without jobs. As of Tuesday, all but a handful of those teachers have received a placement. The union filed a class-action grievance against the district, claiming violations of the assignment transfer provisions of the union contract. That grievance is awaiting an arbitration hearing, according to the union.

“The process is completely chaotic,” said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers vice president Arlene Kempin. “The process isn’t a process anymore.”

The union has also groused about the district’s attempts to fill vacancies by moving teachers out of their core subject areas. Over the summer, the district hired a pool of supplemental teachers in to backfill positions as they became vacant. The supplemental teachers, however, weren’t necessarily certified to teach in the subject areas needed.

On Aug. 23 the district emailed supplemental teachers and offered  them positions outside their areas of expertise if they were willing to get emergency certification.

“Due to recent updates in our certification policy, we now have some flexibility to potentially offer you positions that are outside of your content area(s),” the email read. The message specifically mentioned that educators certified to teach pre-K through fourth grade could sign up to teach middle school and high school. The district said it would cover the cost of emergency certification. 

Asked about the “update” referenced in the letter, district spokesman Geary wrote the following:

“To help ensure there are teachers in classrooms, we are working through several steps to get qualified teachers in those positions, including emergency certification.  Many of our potential hires were close to being certified in another subject, and the district has long been able to use emergency certification as a means to recruit and hire new teachers. All of this is done in accordance with state rules and regulations.”

Shifting numbers, shifting teachers

Union officials, though, have characterized the district’s hiring procedures as unusually scattered. Gym fretted that the district has become reliant on slapdash tactics to meet its regular hiring needs.

 “The emergency certifications are understandable in an emergency. But they are not to be used as a way to fill slots on a mass scale,” she said. “I worry significantly that we’re in a space of scrambling and desperation.”

The district will have to continue to monitor its teacher vacancies closely through the first months of the school year. Until students show up, however, the district can’t know exactly how many teachers are needed at each school. Once a more accurate enrollment picture emerges, the district will have to redistribute some teachers to schools that received more students than expected.

It’s also common for some teachers to leave the district shortly after the school year begins. The district hopes it’s a smaller group than usual, and has invested significant time and money into a new hire orientation designed to prepare teachers for the challenges they’ll face in the classroom.

District officials also point out that only 96 teachers have retired or resigned since June 30. Last year, that number was 121. The district hopes for a corresponding dip in the number of teachers who leave the district during this just-begun school year.

Gym called teacher vacancies a “top concern” and said she would delve more deeply into the matter if large numbers of positions remain unfilled.

“If this situation persists there will be hearings, we will run investigations, we will expect answers — better than the ones that we’re getting,” she said.

Schools with multiple teacher vacancies 

Bartram 9-12 2
Longstreth K-8 2
Anderson K-8 2
Overbrook High 9-12 2
Franklin High 9-12 2
Kearny K-8 2
Moffet K-5 2
Penn Treaty 6-12 3
McClure K-5 2
Kensington Urban 9-12 2
Washington High 9-12 3
Wilson Middle 6-8 3
Lincoln 9-12 2
Stearne K-8 2
Hill-Freedman 6-11 2
Phila Juvenile Justice Services 9-12 2
Ethel Allen K-8 2
Clemente 6-8 2
Cooke K-8 4
King 9-12 3
Marin K-8 2
Strawberry Mansion 9-12 2


Subject areas with multiple teacher vacancies

Spanish 4
Math 5
Elementary (6th) (LTI) 2
Elementary K-4 2
Music 2
Elementary (6th) 2
Social Studies (LTI) 2
Elementary (K-6) 2
Middle Years English 2
Elementary (1st) 2
English 2
Biology 4
Elementary (6th) 5
Chemistry 2
Emotional Support 4
Learning Support/Math 2
Learning Support/English 2
Vocal Music 3
Autistic Support 3
Middle Years Math 2



Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed inadequate special education at Roosevelt Elementary School in Germantown to vacancies. The cause was long-term teacher absences. The story has been updated to reflect this change.

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