Schools look to novel strategies to fill substitute teacher needs |

Schools look to novel strategies to fill substitute teacher needs

Deb Erdley

Low pay, an economy approaching full employment and dramatic decreases in enrollment in teacher education programs at colleges have produced something few ever thought they’d see in Pennsylvania: a teacher shortage, specifically a shortage of substitute teachers.

Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the problem has been growing quietly in recent years.

“It is a critical issue across the commonwealth. Most superintendents say they are having trouble meeting their day-to-day needs. There are not that many people willing to substitute,” DiRocco said.

Local school districts typically pay substitutes $90 to $105 a day, but the lack of benefits, the uncertainty of daily assignments and the need for a regular paycheck have moved some to consider other options or to seek employment with a staffing agency that sends them out to various schools.

As recently as last week, about half dozen school districts were still listing vacancies for substitute teachers on, the online education employment site that serves more than 200 Pennsylvania schools.

Diverse employment pool

Across the region, schools have turned to a variety of strategies to fill classroom vacancies. Some have outsourced it to employment agencies such as Kelly Services and ESS, which are actively engaged in recruiting their own stable of substitutes. Some large districts that can anticipate regular absences have hired building substitutes, which are long-term subs who go wherever they are needed in a specific building every day. Still other school districts have turned increasingly to people who possess a college degree but lack teaching credentials.

This summer, the North Allegheny School District hosted a forum for those interested in exploring options to work as a substitute teacher on an emergency certification.

At a district’s request, the Pennsylvania Department of Education will certify individuals with a bachelor’s degree to teach for a year on an emergency certification, provided the person has completed the school or intermediate unit’s orientation-training program. Department of Education records show the number of emergency certifications doubled from 8,753 in 2014-15 to 17,327 last year.

Like North Allegheny, the Norwin Area School District actively recruits candidates to serve as substitute teachers on emergency certifications.

Norwin, with 5,200 students and more than 300 teachers, is among a dwindling number of districts that still maintains its own pool of substitutes. The district uses a combination of long-term full-time substitutes and day-to-day subs on emergency certifications.

Last year, state records show Norwin had 79 subs with emergency certifications.

Emergency certifications accepted

Assistant Superintendent Natalie McCracken said the district would love to staff all teacher absences with certified teachers. But they’ve become harder and harder to find. So, about three years ago, the district began recruiting candidates with emergency certifications.

The district must offer all substitute openings to certified teachers first. If none are available, it can pull from individuals with emergency certifications.

“A lot of our subs are parents or people within our local community. We’ve had great success with that. And then there are two other groups that fall into that category. Some are retired teachers and others are people who once had a certification but allowed their continuing education requirements to lapse,” she said.

Officials in the Deer Lakes School District in Allegheny County tell a similar tale.

Deer Lakes Assistant Superintendent Bobbi-Ann Barnes said that two years ago, when finding substitutes became “a huge struggle,” the district outsourced the job to ESS, an agency that specializes in school staffing.

The district that enrolls 1,950 students has partnered with the agency to recruit local residents on emergency certifications at open houses and other events.

“This is working out far better than the system we had before,” Barnes said.

The Mt. Pleasant Area School District contracted with ESS to provide substitute teachers beginning in 2015-16.

“This helps us maintain a broader pool of substitute teachers,” said district Assistant Superintendent Anthony DeMaro.

Filling last-minute absences is the biggest challenge.

“Our fill rate last year was 78% for teachers. When we have 24 hours notice, it is a 93% fill rate. At 12-24 hours, it drops to at 62%, and 0-12 hours, it is 31%. It’s tough at times, but our faculty and administrators find ways to fill it,” DeMaro said.

Partnership with Saint Vincent

The Hempfield Area School District came up with a new strategy to meet the growing demand.

Like Norwin, Hempfield has its own pool of substitutes. Despite the growing difficulty of recruiting substitute teachers, Superintendent Tammy Wolicki said the district has stopped short of looking to emergency certifications.

This year, the district came up with a new strategy to ease daily demands.

“For the 2019-20 school year, we have an agreement with Saint Vincent College for a fellowship program in which five individuals with a bachelor’s degree in education and working on their master’s degrees serve as day-to-day substitutes for the school district,” Wolicki said.

Each of the elementary schools has an assigned fellow for the year to rotate through absences in that building. In turn, Hempfield pays their tuition at Saint Vincent.

DiRocco said it won’t be surprising to see schools increasingly turning to novel arrangements to fill teacher absences.

Although an economic downturn or increase in unemployment could make such jobs more attractive, he worries that there will be an ever-shrinking pool of certified teachers willing to step into them.

Reports of teacher shortages in many surrounding states, coupled with dramatic declines in teacher preparation programs in Pennsylvania, suggest that may be the case.

Until a decade ago, Pennsylvania colleges minted far more new teachers than the state’s schools could absorb. That began to change in 2011, when Pennsylvania schools furloughed an estimated several thousand teachers in the wake of the economic downturn.

Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities, all of which were once classified as teachers colleges, are a case in point. They saw enrollment in such programs decline by nearly 45% — from 31,142 in 2011 to 17,408 last fall. New teacher certifications likewise dived from 25,788 in 2012-13 to 6,459 in 2016-17.

DiRocco and others say those numbers could foreshadow yet other changes in the education landscape and a day when schools will have to compete for new teachers as well as school leaders.

“When you see a reduction of 60-70% in teacher prep programs, it reduces enrollment into your principal and superintendent programs,” he said.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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