This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For Djervin Uylimos, the beginning of his high school career has not been what he expected.
Not at all.
In September, the Northeast High School freshman was signed up for seven classes – English, world history, algebra, physical science, Spanish, health, and gym.
A typical roster. What is not typical is that for much of the semester so far, he has had no teacher in four of these classes.
So he has spent hours in the classroom with whatever staff member can fill in – doing busywork or turning to his smartphone.
“Some of the classes, they don’t even bring any teachers,” he said. “Sometimes they bring a teacher, but they don’t teach us because they don’t know the course.”
It has been a bewildering, scary experience for the 15-year-old, who immigrated from the Philippines six years ago.
“I thought in America education is very important,” he said. “In the Philippines, there are not a lot of schools that are good.”
Uylimos has been caught up in the District’s latest crisis – an inability to find enough qualified teachers to fill the available jobs. The problem is recurrent, but this year it was compounded by the District’s ill-fated decision to outsource its substitute service to a private company that has had trouble coping.
As of mid-November, the District had 138 teacher vacancies – an unusually high number of unfilled jobs. That means that thousands of students have had to deal with not having an appropriate teacher.
Some years, the District is able to compensate with a pool of long-term subs ready to fill in. But not this year.
The inability to get even daily fill-ins has made the situation untenable.
“We never had a problem getting subs,” said Northeast roster chair Dan Lynch. “Last year, I could count on one hand the times we didn’t have a sub for a class.”
Since September, he said, the school has barely had any.
In July, the School Reform Commission hired Source4Teachers to take over its substitute service, which had been spotty – just a 55 to 65 percent fill rate on any given day. The need to provide “coverage” would affect the whole school as other teachers gave up their daily preparation periods or other duties to staff the empty rooms.
Source4Teachers promised a 75 percent fill rate by September and 90 percent by January, despite offering pay rates far below what unionized subs had been receiving as District employees.
The firm has yet to come close. It finally managed to surpass a 30 percent fill rate in mid-November after boosting pay rates.
“Without a doubt, our efforts this year to ramp up substitute teacher recruitment and hiring by contracting with Source4Teachers have not worked as anticipated,” Superintendent William Hite acknowledged in November. He announced that the firm would no longer handle finding subs for long-term absences, just per diems.
But Hite has stuck with Source4Teachers despite calls to end the contract. He says that cancellation could leave the District with no subs at all because it would take time to restart the District’s operation.
Source4Teachers has also offered an apology. Its CEO, Kendley Davenport, addressed the Nov. 19 SRC meeting but could hardly be heard over the catcalls and boos.
“I want to publicly acknowledge that we have underperformed. We’ve got to do better. We will do better,” Davenport said.
Hite reminded people of shortcomings in the District’s sub operation, declaring in a letter to employees that some subs had abused the system. He said that there were schools that were never able to find subs – except on snow days, when they had 100 percent “coverage” but no classes to cover. The teachers’ contract requires that substitutes, once assigned, get paid, regardless.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard chided those who only now are complaining when for years schools routinely lacked adequate substitute coverage.
“For years, this has gone on and no one talked about it,” he said, “not even in the District. Now because we’re trying to fix it and the fix is not done as quickly as possible, everyone is up in arms.”
The substitute problem has highlighted a deeper issue, a chronic shortage of qualified teachers in city schools.
Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an authority on the teaching profession, said that the vacancy problem is largely due to excessive turnover rather than to a dearth of qualified people.
“The big story is not on the supply side, but on the turnover side,” he said. “It’s not that we produce too few teachers, but that we lose too many.”
Each year, between 300 and 400 Philadelphia teachers, out of about 8,000, leave and must be replaced, according to District data. (The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says that nearly 500 teachers left on June 30.) The exception was in 2013, when draconian state budget cuts caused layoffs, and more than 900 left.
The inability to hire enough qualified teachers is worsened by the District’s bureaucratic hiring process. Most recently it has been exacerbated by the lack of a teachers’ contract and wages lagging further behind suburban districts.
“I see it as a two-pronged problem,” said PFT vice president Arlene Kempin, who works on staffing issues for the union. “The District has been painted with such a negative brush – the line is growing shorter of people wanting to come here. There is a lack of resources in the schools; the salaries have been frozen.”
In addition, she said, this year the administration did not plan well for the extended absences due to illness or maternity leave. Source4Teachers was responsible for that and dropped the ball, she said.
The District’s process of allotting teachers to each school based on estimated enrollment can also cause problems. When the real numbers settle in, by late October, teachers are shuffled around to meet the need. Some schools lose teachers and others gain them in a process known as “leveling.”
A combination of all these circumstances contributed to the problem that Djervin Uylimos is facing.
In most years, the 3,100-student Northeast High, with a teaching staff of 150, quickly fills its vacancies and has per diem substitutes willing to work there. Located in a diverse, bustling neighborhood, it is regarded as one of the city’s best comprehensive high schools.
But this year it opened with several teacher vacancies. Coupled with no per diem coverage, the result is chaos, said Lynch, the roster chair.
“How is the staff being impacted? For the first month and a half, all the teachers lost their preps every other day. We haven’t had one common planning time for our small learning communities. That’s a big thing. People haven’t had time to talk to colleagues. … They’re constantly covering classes.”
Lynch said that the District brass underestimated total enrollment for the year and didn’t provide enough teachers in September. Students were crowded into larger classes until more teachers could be assigned in October during leveling.
When Uylimos started the year, he had no teacher in Spanish, English, or world history. He had teachers for physical science, algebra, health, and gym.
In October, he was switched out of his physical science class into a new one created by leveling. But there was no teacher immediately available to take it over – so now he had four classes with no teacher.
Panicked, he sought help from the head of his small learning community, who was able to find him another class with a teacher.
“She was nice to me,” he said.
He has since gotten a Spanish teacher. But at the end of the first marking period in mid-November, he still had no permanent teacher in English or world history. He has gotten no grades in those subjects, which makes him nervous.
“I want to be an architect one day and make houses,” he said. “I think about my future. My heart sometimes felt fear when I think about if they don’t accept me in college because there was no teacher in my class.”