This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In an email to School District employees Thursday, Superintendent William Hite again acknowledged the failure by staffing firm Source4teachers to adequately fill the District’s substitute vacancies and described a few planned changes in the Cherry Hill-based firm’s contract to be considered at Thursday’s School Reform Commission meeting.
"Without a doubt, our efforts this year to ramp up substitute teacher recruitment and hiring by contracting with Source4Teachers (S4T) have not worked as anticipated," Hite said.
Hite plans to ask the SRC’s approval to limit Source4Teachers’ work to filling daily teacher absences. The task of recruiting and placing long-term and other substitutes would revert to the District, according to Hite’s letter.
On Wednesday Source4Teachers filled 31 percent of substitute vacancies, the "highest yet," according to District spokesperson Fernando Gallard. On Monday and Tuesday, the rates were 27 percent. The company is the sole source of substitutes this week; earlier in the school year, some of the absences were filled by District staff.
In September, the firm’s fill rate was as low as 11 percent. Though rates have improved somewhat, the firm is nowhere near the 75 percent fill rate promised for the month of September and the 90 percent target for January. The fill rate is still barely half of last year’s rate when the District managed the substitute pool.
Citing the disarray that these staffing issues have caused in schools, with teachers sacrificing their own class preparation time to fill absences, many have called for the District to end its contract with Source4Teachers, which it can do at any time with two weeks’ notice.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan has repeatedly called for the District to cancel its contract and revert to the previous system of assigning substitutes, which he has said "performed vastly better than the fiasco we are witnessing today."
Hite maintains that a return to the previous, District-run system would not be prudent.
"People ask, ‘Why don’t you just cancel the contract and go back to the old way?’ My answer: It would not be a good approach for our students or schools," wrote Hite.
"Returning to the old way does not solve the problem either. It would take months to recreate the previous system, which had considerable shortcomings."
The substitute pool is now at 265 teachers, he said, with over 400 more in the pipeline waiting for their work clearances.
"If we cancel the S4T contract, we would lose this pool of teachers. Canceling the contract does not generate any savings: S4T is only paid for the substitute positions it fills," wrote Hite.
Hite’s email can be read in full below.
For many years, we have struggled to find enough substitute teachers to fill vacancies, especially in our most challenging schools. Last school year, more than 280 classrooms did not have a teacher in front of students on a daily basis. And that was on a good day.
I am writing today to update you on our efforts to solve this long-standing problem and also to acknowledge and thank you for your hard work and sacrifice. I know you have endured this problem for years and faced further challenges due to current efforts not working well quickly enough.
As a sign of appreciation, teachers who have given up their preparation or “prep” periods to cover classes will have the opportunity to receive their earned prep payback at mid-year, providing some earlier financial recognition for their additional efforts. We will send information soon on procedures for this.
Without a doubt, our efforts this year to ramp up substitute teacher recruitment and hiring by contracting with Source4Teachers (S4T) have not worked as anticipated. People ask, “Why don’t you just cancel the contract and go back to the old way?” My answer: It would not be a good approach for our students or schools.
Right now, there is a pool of 265 eligible substitute teachers, with another 400-plus people in the pipeline once their required clearances are complete. If we cancel the S4T contract, we would lose this pool of teachers. Canceling the contract does not generate any savings: S4T is only paid for the substitute positions it fills.
Returning to the old way does not solve the problem either. It would take months to recreate the previous system, which had considerable shortcomings. Despite having many dedicated substitutes, close to 70 percent of the pool was unavailable on any given day. Available substitutes frequently turned down jobs in certain schools and neighborhoods. Absences were not accurately tracked and there were not nearly enough eligible or interested candidates. And, unfortunately, rules were taken advantage of.
For example, under the old system, substitutes could sign up for jobs on expected snow days and still be paid when school was canceled. The average fill rate for last year’s four snow days was over 91 percent, while our average daily fill rate hovered around 66 percent. This situation was even worse at our harder-to-staff schools. One middle school, for instance, had a 100 percent fill rate for snow days this past March; its overall fill rate for the month was 8 percent.
Our new approach includes the following:
• Narrowing the scope of S4T’s responsibilities to focus on our daily teacher absences.
• Bringing in-house the responsibility for recruiting and employing both long-term substitutes for absences exceeding 89 days and administrator substitutes. • Reducing the number of vacancies by recruiting recent and mid-year graduates and partnering with our retired teachers who want to return to the District. Our vacancy rate is less than 1.5 percent (approximately 134 positions) and we have hired more than 100 new teachers in the past three weeks. We are seeking approval to use retirees to fill some of our remaining vacancies.
• A commentary by S4T about its related actions to improve performance was published by The Notebook. We are confident our combined actions will steadily increase the number of covered classrooms each day and we will continue to improve the substitute teacher staffing process.
Our priority remains ensuring more students have teachers in front of them – each and every day.