This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Five weeks into the school year, District officials are reaching the end of their tether with the private substitute placement firm Source4Teachers.
The District has seen the number of staffed classrooms plummet since it outsourced substitute recruitment and placement to the Cherry Hill-based firm in an attempt to boost coverage levels. Source4Teachers has said the firm is working to find solutions, but progress remains slow.
After the fill rate for empty classrooms reached nearly 30 percent in the last week of September, that level has now slumped back to 20 percent, the District said.
Speaking after Wednesday’s Appropriations Committee hearing at City Council, Superintendent William Hite told reporters, “We’ve been very disappointed with their performance. It hasn’t met our expectations.”
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has filed a grievance against the District, challenging the legality of the outsourcing decision. Its president, Jerry Jordan, again spoke out against Source4Teachers at Thursday night’s School Reform Commission meeting.
“The District needs to end their contract with Source4Teachers, a firm that has failed miserably to provide substitutes for our schools,” Jordan said in a statement to the SRC.
“All you have to do is visit a school to witness the chaos created by their dismal substitute fill rate.”
Jordan was one of several speakers at the boisterous meeting who demanded that the District immediately end the contract.
In its $34 million, two-year contract with the District, Source4Teachers promised a 75 percent fill rate in September, a figure above last year’s District rate of 55 to 65 percent. By January, the company said, it will have 90 percent of classrooms filled.
But on the first day of school, just 11 percent of sub positions were filled. After reporting a rate of between 25 and 28 percent during the last week of September, the rate had dropped to 19 percent a week ago and 20 percent today.
“I don’t think anyone expected it to be so slow,” conceded Owen Murphy, a Source4Teachers spokesperson.
He said that Source4Teachers had bolstered its advertising campaign and that it was receiving around 25 new applications daily.
“While it might feel like a slow start, I think this volume is an indication of what an attractive offer we’re giving teachers,” he said.
But with only about 300 people hired and 1,400 applicants now being processed, Source4Teachers is still far from its goal of having a pool of 5,000 substitutes. Murphy said that just 150 of the total pool are retired teachers. According to an addendum in the contract the District signed with the firm, 500 of the 1100 substitutes in its regular pool were District retirees.
Gallard said that the District is working with Source4Teachers to encourage applications. After hearing feedback that lower pay scales were part of the problem, the firm is raising the daily rate for retirees from the original $140 to $200. And this week, a letter signed by Hite went out to retired teachers in the District, encouraging them to take on substitute roles as per diem employees.
There’s also talk of partnering with another organization to boost teacher recruitment before January. After January, the company will incur financial penalties for every 5 percent it falls short of its 90 percent target.
But time is running out for Source4Teachers. Hite said that the situation would not “go on forever” and suggested that there was a date after which the District would cancel its contract with Source4Teachers, although he would not disclose that date.
Until then, District officials will keep a close eye on the company and its ability to fill classrooms across Philadelphia in the coming weeks, he said.
"If they don’t meet those requirements, we’re going to have to go in a different direction.”
Editor’s note: The School District has clarified that the fill rates they have been reporting to the media are the overall fill rates for substitute positions. These reported fill rates have counted the positions filled by 24 salaried District instructional coaches who have been reassigned as substitutes. The fill rates the Notebook has cited in its coverage thus overstate the fill rate attributable to Source4Teachers by between 3 and 4 percent. District spokesperson Fernando Gallard said the District "will use the fill rate attributable to Source4Teachers when reviewing their contract."
Catherine Offord is an intern at the Notebook.
This is an updated version of an article that appears in the Notebook’s October-November print edition.