Philly public schools push to hire more support staff before first day of school

Fairfax County Public School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility

School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The first day of school is just a little more than two weeks away, and while the School District of Philadelphia has made progress in hiring teachers and counselors, it still has hundreds of essential support roles to fill.

Last year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a shortage of bus drivers and cafeteria workers created chaos for Philadelphia schools — and schools across the country.

This year, chief talent officer Larissa Shambaugh said the district is trying to staff up early by holding in-person recruitment events across the city, including a job fair Wednesday at a middle school in North Philly.

“What we are doing is ensuring that we are hiring as many people as possible to minimize any impacts that we are not yet aware of due to the pandemic and the changing labor market,” Shambaugh said.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The district has felt the impact of the nationwide teacher shortage, as well as a shortage of other credentialed employees, like nurses and bus drivers, she said.

Despite the challenges, Shambaugh said she believes the district’s 220 schools will have enough staff to open on Aug. 29 as planned. “Of course, we will always be looking for additional staff to be able to ensure that every role is filled.”

Roughly 97% of teaching and 95% of counseling positions were filled as of mid-July, according to a district update. In total, the school system needs more than 9,000 teachers to be fully staffed.

At the time, support roles, including nurses, teaching assistants, building engineers, student climate staff, cleaners and food service workers had lower staffing rates, ranging from 71% for engineers to 89% for cleaners.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

During a job fair at Grover Washington, Jr. Middle School in North Philly the line of prospective applicants snaked outside of the building.

More than 700 people registered in advance and hundreds of hopefuls milled about the building Wednesday morning, stopping at job-specific tables.

Idah Jacobs, 28, was interested in becoming a bus attendant or a school safety officer. Her main incentive to work for the district is her three small kids.

“The school hours thing really works for me being a mom,” she said, adding that the pandemic and lack of child care had kept her out of the workforce in recent years.

For her, a job with the district represents long-term stability and the chance to advance professionally.

“The main thing that I kind of like is there’s room for growth,” she said. “I want to stay where a job is stable. Even though a lot of schools were closed [during the pandemic], the district still needed people to work.”

Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer, said the district sees its employees as “lifelong learners” and wants them to have opportunities to grow their careers within the school system.

That can mean advancing from an entry-level role to management within a single department or enrolling in discounted college classes through university partnerships offered through the district.

The district also has a number of new pipeline programs meant to build talent in-house, including training cleaning staff to become building engineers — the people responsible for everything from HVAC systems to asbestos abatement — and paying nurses and bus drivers while they undergo the state’s certification process.

Shambaugh said to compete with other school systems and the medical sector, the district has increased salaries and is giving teachers, counselors and nurses a $1,000 bonus in September. New bus drivers are eligible for a $500 signing bonus.

Nursing director Shannon Smith said more than 90% of nursing positions are filled, but there are still plenty of openings.

She said the nursing shortage is even higher in some non-urban areas, where districts and hospitals are offering higher salaries in an effort to lure city nurses away.

“The money that’s being offered is really high and the nurses are going for that,” Smith said.

While the district is trying to compete financially, Smith said she tries to sell the job to prospective nurses by appealing to their sense of personal responsibility.

“You get to be an educator, you get to be a caregiver and you get to reach children at an age where you’re actually making a difference in how they see themselves healthy,” Smith said.

Before becoming director, Smith worked as a school nurse for the district for 20 years.

“I’m from Philadelphia. I grew up in Philadelphia. I went to school in Philadelphia and I want to make a difference in Philadelphia where I live,” she said.

Smith said her goal is to make sure that each of the district’s schools has at least one nurse before classes start later this month.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal