The sub situation in Philly schools: Amid improvement, inequity lingers

 Students attend a sixth-grade class at Julia De Burgos school. The substitute teacher fill rate at De Burgos has improved, but it remains well below the district average. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Students attend a sixth-grade class at Julia De Burgos school. The substitute teacher fill rate at De Burgos has improved, but it remains well below the district average. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Public schools in Philadelphia are finally receiving substitutes at a reasonable clip. But a stubborn pattern remains: Schools serving poor students are still left behind.

About a month ago,  Jonathan Leibovic spotted a strange man in the hallways of W.D. Kelley School in North Philadelphia.

A lost parent? An intruder?

As the man moved closer, Leibovic noticed he was wearing a lanyard emblazoned with the logo of a company that used to provide staffing help for the School District of Philadelphia. The man wasn’t lost. He was a substitute teacher, a sight so rare at this K-8 school that Leibovic hadn’t even considered the possibility.

“Teachers at Kelley don’t expect a sub to show up,” he said.

One year after a substitute teacher crisis forced the school district to change contractors and offer compensatory education services to thousands of shortchanged students, subs are starting to show up at Philly’s public schools.

Still, dozens of district schools are unlikely to receive substitutes when teachers call out. And there’s a stubborn pattern, one that has remained even as the overall situation has improved: Schools that serve the highest proportions of students in poverty are the ones least likely to get relief.

Trying out incentives

The district is well aware of the problem. Its new contractor, Kelly Services, has recently introduced incentives designed to attract more subs to schools that have been traditionally hard to staff. “Teaching is a hard profession and when you have a school that has unique challenges it’s difficult to get subs in the school,” said district spokesperson H. Lee Whack. It’s too early to say whether the approach has worked. But it’s a notable experiment, in part because the district also wants to lure permanent teachers to some of these very same schools and may try to formalize those intentions with language in the next union contract.

Last year, a paltry 32.8 percent of teacher absences in the district were filled with an assigned substitute teacher. That abysmal fill rate prompted Philly to ditch its contractor, Source4Teachers, and hire Kelly.

Kelly boosted pay for substitutes — after Source4Teachers had slashed it — and went on aggressive recruiting spree. The early returns look promising. At a City Hall hearing in November, the district said it had filled 75 percent of daily absences, a 42 percentage point jump from last year.

Those improvements have been felt across the district. At W.D. Kelley, for instance, the substitute fill rate for the first month of the 2016-17 school year was 32 percent, up from 23.51 percent a year ago. At Kelley, 86.59 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, according to district data. That’s one of the highest rates in Philadelphia.

Julia De Burgos, a K-8 school on the northwest edge of Kensington, has a student population that is 81.58 percent economically disadvantaged. Last year, the sub fill rate was 16 percent. This year it shot up to 34 percent in the first month of the school year, still well below the district average but a marked improvement. In the second month, things continued to improve, and De Burgos now has a 45.89 percent fill rate. 

The graphs below chart all district elementary and middle schools based on two criteria. The vertical axis shows the percentage of economically disadvantaged at a given school. The horizontal axis shows the school’s fill rate. The first graph shows data from the 2015-16 school year.

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The second graph shows data from the first month of the 2016-17 school year. It only includes schools that called for a sub at least 20 times in that first month in order to filter out super low sample sizes.

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As you can see the numbers have gotten better. The trend, however, remains.

Much of the public conversation around education inequity in Pennsylvania revolves around the iniquities between school districts. There are, however, obvious imbalances among the 220 schools within the School District of Philadelphia. The discrepancies in substitute fill rates may not qualify as the most egregious, but it’s a strikingly clear example of how low-income schools lose out in the competition for scarce resources.

And substitutes certainly qualify as a scarce resource.

‘A tough job’

While suburban school districts routinely cover 90 percent or more of their teacher absences, Philadelphia has fought hard just to hit the three-quarters threshold. That means demand for fill-in teachers well outpaces supply, giving subs a lot of discretion on when and where to work.

Every day, subs can log onto a digital application that lists openings, making it easy for subs to filter out schools where they’d prefer not to work. Often that means dodging schools in low-income areas where students have lots of needs and behavior problems are more prevalent.

“If you don’t want to have a tough day, you go to Penn Alexander or Meredith,” two schools in high-income neighborhoods, said Sheila Myers, a former substitute teacher in Harrisburg who now teaches full time at De Burgos in Kensington.

“It’s a tough job,” said Kevin Baxter, a former district substitute. “I mean no one’s lining up to sub at these schools.”

Baxter was one of the relatively few who did routinely take jobs in low-income parts of North and West Philadelphia. Last year, he’d often be the only substitute in the schools he serviced. It’s not easy work. And it doesn’t pay much either. Even with the recent pay bump district subs only make between $126 and $229 a day based on experience and the duration of the placement.

Baxter often left an assignment feeling like he failed his most basic task of keeping children safe.

“There were almost always fights,” he said. “You just have physical fights in the classroom. Some days it felt like they were breaking out every 15, 20 minutes. And that’s really heartbreaking.”

Vanessa Fidrych has seen the substitute teaching imbalance from both sides — as a student and a teacher. When she attended Philadelphia schools, she went to C.W. Henry Elementary School in a well-off part of Mt. Airy and then to Masterman, an academic magnet school, for the middle and high school. She remembers substitute teachers almost always showed up. And today, that’s still the case.

Masterman filled all of its absences during the first month of the school year while Henry checked in with a fill rate of 87.5 percent.

Fidrych now teaches Spanish at De Burgos. She’ll be taking maternity leave at the end of this school year and doesn’t expect her class will be covered by a substitute teacher.

“I think unfortunately people look at the ZIP code. People look at the address, and maybe even the demographics of our school and expect something that’s not really true. We have an amazing climate at De Burgos,” she said. “But subs see, ‘Oh, it’s Kensington. Oh, it’s Fourth and Lehigh. I don’t wanna go there.”

Specialist teachers called on to fill the gap

Kensington is known as one of the city’s drug crime hot spots, but Fidrych insists her school is safe. Unfortunately, she said, reputation keeps many subs from ever realizing that themselves.

When subs fail to show at a school such as De Burgos, teachers like Fidrych are the hardest hit. That’s because language teachers, art teachers, special-education teachers, and other teachers who don’t have a regular homeroom class have more flexibility built into their schedules. As a result, they’re better positioned to cover vacant classes on a rotating basis.

That’s normally what happens at De Burgos, said Fidrych. If a sub doesn’t show for a homeroom vacancy, a backup crew of specialist teachers will rotate through the classroom to ensure students are always supervised. To make all this work, the specialist teachers have to sacrifice their planning periods.

“We wind up covering,” says Fidrych. “If there’s no substitute teacher we have a rotation in the building and you lose your prep, your 45 minutes of sanity. And you wind up getting put into somebody else’s classroom, somebody else’s routine, with kids that are off their game.”

This type of disruption would cause problems at any school. But at De Burgos — where a majority of the students live in poverty and 23 percent are still trying to master English — the lost time is especially devastating.

“You need a teacher in front of the students for as much time as you possibly can,” she said. “And when you wind up having coverages and you wind up having, for example, having [English as a Second Language] and special-ed teachers that are covering instead of preparing for their classes, it all trickles down and winds up with children missing out.”

There’s also a cumulative effect on the staff, Fidrych said. Fewer planning periods means more stress. More stress means teachers need more mental health days and sick days, which only increases the need for subs who probably won’t come.

Better compensation for subbing at some schools

The district wants to ameliorate this by giving more money to subs who take jobs at hard-to-staff schools. This is the first year of the incentive structure. Kelly Services redirected questions about the initiative to school district officials.

The district said it’s targeted 20 schools where subs are hard to come by — essentially the lowest 10 percent. At those schools subs receive what the district calls a “slightly higher rate than other substitutes.”

The results so far appear promising, although they should be weighed against the fact that fill rates have improved at almost all schools this year. Data from the first two and a half months of the school year show improvements — sometimes large improvements — at the 20 targeted schools. Below is a sampling of 19 low-income schools that had poor substitute fill rates last year. The starred schools are part of the district’s incentive initiative for substitute schools. Of note, all 19 remain below the school district average of 75 percent, but a couple are creeping close to the middle. “I think we’ve seen in the data so far that we’re making some real gains,” said district spokesperson Whack.

SCHOOL SUBSTITUTE FILL RATE (2016-17) IMPROVEMENT OVER LAST YEAR
Delaplaine McDaniel 35.48% + 11.99%
James Blaine 27.03% + 14.56%
William Dick 57.14% +  16.82%
Edward Heston 66.18% + 42.69%
Kenderton* 38.05% N/A
Tanner Duckrey 67.94% + 27.50%
W.D. Kelley* 33.93% + 10.42%
George Meade*  59.79%  + 50.11%
 Julia De Burgos*  45.89%  + 29.72%
 Lewis Elkin* 31.48%   + 26.67%
 William Hunter  41.35%  + 16.63%
 William McKinley 36.71%   + 20.21%
 Potter-Thomas  48.84%  + 34.65%
William Cramp   50.62%  + 33.81%
 Munoz-Marin* 24.52%   + 18.21%
Allen Stearne*   47.46%  + 39.39%
 John Marshall  57.89%  + 39.86%
 Mary Bethune  58.62%  + 37.72%
 Roberto Clemente MS*  31.98%  + 29.27%

 

Amid its ongoing negotiations with Philadelphia’s teachers union, the district has said that it would like to offer similar incentives for its full-time staff. Language in a new contract could include bonus money for teachers at lower-income schools. But it’s difficult to ascertain details given the closed-door nature of negotiations.

What’s clear is that the district’s most disadvantaged students bear the brunt when subs don’t show. And their teachers are the ones forced to adapt.

Jonathan Leibovic at W.D. Kelley in North Philadelphia said the staff at his school grew so accustomed to not receiving subs that they’d developed a pretty good routine for covering gaps. When a sub did appear earlier this year, it actually created unforeseen problems.

Since students at Kelley aren’t used to having teachers they don’t recognize, said Leibovic, the sub struggled to maintain order throughout a trying day.

“It’s not a cut-and-dried situation,” he said. “I don’t envy substitute teachers at all.”

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