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Record crop of teachers is also a budget challenge

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia School District hired a record 1,414 teachers since the spring, opening the year with fewer vacancies than any time in recent memory – just 24 in more than 260 schools.

The unprecedented hiring spree was inspired by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s determination to eliminate the situation that has become the norm in Philadelphia schools – thousands of city students who lack qualified teachers in core subjects each year.

The District has not released data on how many of the new teachers have full credentials or are considered “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind law.

Officials calculated the need to fill 814 vacancies due to resignations and retirements and 300 due to new program initiatives, including a decision to reduce class size.

Officials also decided to hire an additional 300 teachers as “supplementals” who could be quickly moved into vacancies as they occurred. Of those, 95 were deployed as an extra teacher in each of the empowerment schools – schools that failed to reach state performance targets for five or more years.

In addition, the District also hired between 200 and 300 new counselors for middle and high schools to provide more academic planning for students.

As a result of the frenzied spring and summer, “there are no shortage areas,” said Estelle Matthews, Chief Talent and Development Officer at the Sept. 30 School Reform Commission meeting. “We have 10 vacancies today.”

She said that all but about 50 of the supplemental teachers had moved into positions, filling jobs vacated late in the summer through retirements and no-shows.

The main hard-to-fill areas were art and music, she said. And, despite efforts, she said, the District did not do as well as it had hoped in recruiting more teachers of color. “We’re still working on that,” she said.

While there is general agreement that Ackerman, Matthews, and their team presided over the most effective hiring process in memory, there are still many unanswered questions.

Chief among them is whether the administration has spent so much money on guaranteeing an adequate supply of teachers and its expanded hiring that it will be forced to wipe out other initiatives in the face of a massive revenue shortfall.

Chief Business Officer Michael Masch said it was too early to know exactly how much bigger the District’s teaching staff is this year compared to last year, though he said the staffing increase is in the ballpark of what was budgeted – a net increase of more than 600 teachers.

The District’s 2009-10 budget documents indicated that this planned expansion of the teaching staff would result in growth of the District’s instructional costs by more than $110 million this year. That budget line alone would consume most of the $130-$140 million in new revenues the District is now expected to receive from the state.

Yet the District appears to already be severely overextended because it spent money on other new initiatives and still needs to dedicate more than $50 million of its new money to non-negotiable expenses like borrowing costs and charter school reimbursements. This leaves District negotiators without much to play with as the District and teachers’ union negotiate a new teachers’ contract – although the influx of younger teachers to replace higher-paid veterans also saves money.

Also unclear is whether the streamlined process resulted in more teachers being assigned to schools through the central office rather than through the site-based selection process.

To speed up hiring, the window for site selecting of teachers ended on June 1 instead of stretching into the summer, said Arlene Kempin of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who works closely with the District’s Human Resources department.

Both Matthews and Kempin said that moving up the timeline for site selection didn’t reduce the number of hires made through that process.

“There are always some positions that turn over to traditional process because schools can’t fill them,” Kempin said. “Some schools get 500 applications for one job, while others don’t get enough.”

Under the teachers’ contract, most positions can now be filled through site selection. Schools can vote to choose all their teachers that way, and more than 70 have. Besides that, half the vacancies in all schools must chosen through that process, and all new teachers can be placed through site selection.

“There were so many hires in August; that meant there were a lot of traditional placements going on,” said Betsy Useem, who has studied the Philadelphia teacher workforce extensively for Research for Action.

Matthews said that she believes the placement process “went well. I didn’t have complaints from principals saying that you selected people I didn’t want.”

The bulk of the added teaching positions were earmarked for class size reduction in early grades, more flexible high school rosters, and special education.

Matthews said that there was no shortage of applicants – even though, she said, she made no use of a web clearinghouse called PA-Educator.net, which collects completed teacher applications, gathers all the relevant paperwork, verifies their certifications, and asks them for a list of the districts in which they are interested. Matthews said, in fact, that she had not heard of the service.

Useem also said that while the recession may have played a part in the surfeit of applicants, the District also made vast improvements in its hiring process.

Besides cutting off site selection at the beginning of June, the District also – for the first time – used a procedure in which applicants could apply online. In addition, Ackerman revamped the human resources and recruitment staffs, and hired retired principals to interview applicants virtually round-the-clock.

At the same time, hard-to-staff schools remain hard-to-staff. The Notebook asked the District for a detailed breakdown of the new teachers, including their certification status, content areas, and where they were placed. After more than a week, officials still had provided none of the requested data, saying they were still compiling the information and double-checking for accuracy and would provide it later.

It is known that more than 250 of the new hires came through Teach for America and the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program, meaning that they are brand new to the profession. TFA corps members sign up for two-year commitments, while fellows are career-changers who may stay longer.

These recruits have intern certificates but are considered “highly qualified” under No Child Left Behind.

Mike Wang, director of the mid-Atlantic region of TFA, which places students in Philadelphia, Camden, and Delaware, said that 97 corps members were placed in regular public schools and another 46 in charters in the city.

Wang said that TFA works with the District so that the teachers are placed where they are needed. About a third, he said, are site-selected, while the others are placed centrally.

In past years, some hard-to-staff schools had up to 40 percent of their teachers from TFA, but he said that is not true today.

The Effective Teaching for All Children campaign, led by the Cross City Campaign and the Education First Compact, has been pushing the District on the issue of equitable distribution of teachers and avoiding the placement of too many new teachers in the neediest schools.

TFA’s mission, on the other hand, is to fill hard-to-staff positions, and it declines to have any of its corps members, generally recruited from top colleges, taking spots in schools that have no trouble finding teachers.

The New Teacher Project, on the other hand, which manages the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program, has placed some of its teachers this year in special admission schools including Central and Science Leadership Academy.

But many of the new fellows have also been placed in discipline schools, including Camelot and the new Philadelphia Learning Academy, which is for students who have been expelled from the District.

Sarah Almy of the Teaching Fellows program said that the District this year did things differently.

“In the past we worked from a list of partner schools, including a lot of the empowerment schools” Almy said. “This year the District asked us to expand that list so our fellows were eligible to be hired by any school in the District.”

According to data provided by Almy, nearly half the fellows, 45 percent, are being used to teach special education at the secondary level.

Under tightened state rules following No Child Left Behind, special education teachers in high schools need additional certification in the subjects they teach, not just special education. Teaching Fellows have not yet attained certification, but have passed subject-matter Praxis tests. They get a summer’s-worth of training before taking over a classroom.

TFA teachers are intern-certified and “highly qualified” under federal law.

Data obtained by the Notebook last spring showed the continued inequities in staffing among Philadelphia schools.

  • Last year, there were 30 Philadelphia schools in which more than one-fourth of the staff was not highly qualified under NCLB. Half of those schools were among the District’s highest poverty schools – schools where 85 percent or more of the students are eligible for subsidized lunch.
  • Twenty District schools had 10 or more teachers who were not highly qualified. The list was topped by Martin Luther King High, which had 25 of 68 teachers who were not highly qualified.
  • Among the 30 highest-poverty schools in Philadelphia, a majority have 10 percent or more of their staff who are not deemed highly qualified. Among the 30 lowest-poverty schools, the comparable figure is 4 percent or less.

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