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As the start of the school year looms, teacher vacancies remain. One Philly-area district may farm out its students to community college.

Turnover isn’t a new issue. But in the past, “you had hundreds of people” applying to fill the spots, said Dan McGarry. “Now, there aren’t people coming out qualified to do these jobs."

Classroom desks at Upper Darby High School. Upper Darby is having difficulty filling teacher vacancies and will have some of its students attend community college as a way to fill gaps.
Classroom desks at Upper Darby High School. Upper Darby is having difficulty filling teacher vacancies and will have some of its students attend community college as a way to fill gaps.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

A little more than a month before students were to return to Upper Darby High School, Dan McGarry wasn’t sure he’d have enough teachers.

Earlier in the summer, the Delaware County district had whittled the number of teaching vacancies at its 4,000-student high school from 10 down to one or two. But then more teachers resigned. At the end of July, vacancies had climbed back up to nine.

With 29 class sections requiring coverage, McGarry, the district’s superintendent, didn’t know whether he’d be able to fully staff planned courses, or whether the district would offer an unprecedented alternative: paying for some students to instead attend Delaware County Community College.

“The problem is, we can’t even put them in a study hall,” McGarry said in a recent interview. “We won’t have a substitute teacher or staff” to run it.

He attributes Upper Darby’s staffing struggles primarily to a phenomenon that school leaders have been sounding alarms about: a dwindling pipeline of new teachers. Last month, Pennsylvania officials said the educator shortage had reached “crisis” levels — with 6,000 new teachers certified last year, down from about 20,000 a decade ago — and announced a plan to drive up the state’s numbers by 2025.

To McGarry, that isn’t soon enough. “It’s a month-to-month stress. It’s not a year-to-year stress,” he said, noting that midyear resignations further complicate the staffing picture. And while Upper Darby is paying teachers extra to handle additional classes, that presents its own problems: If too many staffers call out, the district is vulnerable, as substitute teachers have also been in short supply.

“Are we going to be able to open school on a Friday, or not?” said McGarry, whose district is also capping the number of classes incoming freshmen can take during high school — a shift that will limit student course loads in junior and senior years, or require early graduation — to ease its staffing burdens.

About this series
We know a lack of teachers strained so many schools this past year, but we wanted to home in on why it was happening, whether it was getting worse, and how it could be helped. In addition to this story about the difficulty filling teacher vacancies at individual districts, we’ve also written about the dwindling higher education pipeline, as well as one way to attract more teachers of color. If you’re a teacher, student, parent or administrator who has a story to tell about how the teacher shortage has impacted you or your school, please contact education editor Cathy Rubin at

Teacher shortage data is limited

Calculating the extent of teacher shortages — and just how individual school districts are affected — is a challenge. While Pennsylvania tracks the supply of new teachers, it doesn’t collect data on the demand — such as vacancy rates in school districts and what subject areas are most needed.

Most other states don’t publish that information, either. “We know there have been acute shortages for some localities,” said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research group based in Washington. But “we really need better data at the state and district level” to effectively address the problem — targeting incentives to where the greatest needs exist.

» READ MORE: Building a Black teacher pipeline for Philly and beyond — one Freedom School at a time

Part of the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s plan for addressing teacher shortages will be working with school districts to gather data on unmet demand, said spokesperson Casey Smith.

“That doesn’t currently exist, and we know it’s a problem,” Smith said.

But state data do show that the rate of teachers who left public education jobs in Pennsylvania crept up last year, according to Ed Fuller, an associate professor in the education policy studies department at Pennsylvania State University.

Fuller, who analyzed state teacher staffing data, found that the attrition rate in 2021-22 was 6.2%, up from 5.4% the year prior. Although that’s lower than rates seen in 2015 and 2016 — which were above 7% — the uptick represents 1,057 additional teachers leaving Pennsylvania public schools compared to the year before, at a time when the supply of new teachers has continued to drop.

“The increase in attrition is just exacerbating existing shortages,” Fuller said. He noted that wealthier communities tend to retain teachers at higher rates than poorer ones — which “need a stable cadre of teachers the most.”

While the Philadelphia School District had filled approximately 97% of its 9,000 teacher positions by the end of July, according to a spokeswoman, it still has 270 vacancies for the 2022-23 school year.

Turnover isn’t new, but the difficulty in finding replacements is

After two months of advertising for a special education teacher at its high school, the Pottstown School District received zero applications. Other positions garnering low application numbers: an eighth-grade math teacher, drawing fewer than 10 applications, and another special education position that received six.

» READ MORE: The declining pipeline of educators-to-be has experts worried the teacher shortage will only get worse.

While superintendents say special education is a field that’s previously been tough to hire for — along with STEM positions, educators certified in teaching English learners and other specialized roles — the number of applications the district is receiving is “far lower” than in the past, said Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez.

And it’s not just applicant quantity, but quality: “The caliber of candidate has definitely gone down. We are offering jobs and contracts to kids with no experience,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve not had a couple of months in a classroom.” He added that some applicants are pitching themselves from out of state — as in, “‘I live in Ohio, but thanks to Zoom, I can still do this job effectively, and if given the job I’ll get the certification,’” Rodriguez said. “Well, that’s not how this works.”

Last year, Pottstown shut down a sixth-grade classroom after rotating through three teachers by November. On average, the district has lost about 10% of its teachers annually over the last three years, which Rodriguez attributes in part to its inability to match salaries offered by more affluent communities.

“Our system right now is a little upside down,” he said. “You get paid the most to work in the school districts that have the most money, the most resources in individual homes, and quite frankly, the easiest jobs.”

While that isn’t to say money is the driving factor, “without question, it makes it difficult to recruit,” Rodriguez said, noting that one day last month, he lost two teachers to better-paying Montgomery County districts.

In Bucks County, Dana Bedden has been doing some of that hiring. “We’re literally robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Bedden, the superintendent of the Centennial School District, which has been able to manage a recent increase in teacher turnover by hiring educators from other communities.

But that isn’t solving the problem, said Bedden, who, like a number of superintendents, voiced concern about the demands placed on teachers during the pandemic and the “increased politicization” of public education. “It’s not like there are more people coming in. We’re just taking people from other districts,” he said.

In Upper Darby, where on average 11% of teachers have been leaving the district each of the last three years, officials say turnover isn’t a new issue. But in the past, “you had hundreds of people” applying to fill the spots, said McGarry, the superintendent. “Now, there aren’t people coming out qualified to do these jobs. I can’t impress this on people enough.”

How Upper Darby will cover for vacancies

He and other district leaders faced upset parents during a May school board meeting that focused on the district’s plan to potentially steer students to community college for classes it couldn’t offer at the high school and its capping of high school course loads. Some questioned whether it was appropriate to put high school students in a college setting, and how “rushing” children out of school might affect their social development. Others worried about losing opportunities that had made the high school attractive.

“We’re here having a conversation again tonight about the attack on public education,” McGarry said, citing a “lack of respect for public educators” and inadequate funding.

On July 28, the district informed parents that high school staff would work with families “to adjust schedules and plan for enrollment in Delaware County Community College.”

The money to pay for the courses would come from what the district would have spent on teacher salaries: Hiring 10 teachers could cost about $700,000, McGarry said, while dual enrollment for 300 students — the number who expressed interest last year and qualified based on assessments — would cost $277,000. The district would also pay for transportation and materials.

“We are always going to try to hire a full-time teacher. We are not giving up on that goal,” McGarry said in an interview. But he said he doesn’t want to promise families something he can’t deliver.

To that end, Upper Darby is scaling back the number of courses students can take during their four years at the high school, from 32 to 28. With limited staff, McGarry said, the district has to ensure it can deliver the courses students need to graduate; the district previously reduced that requirement to 21.

As he faced parents in May, McGarry told them that “no one wants to be in the situation we’re in in Upper Darby.”

But, he later said, “What do we do when no one wants to go into the profession?”

Update: This story has been corrected to clarify that the attrition rate of 6.2% in 2021-22 represents 1,057 additional teachers leaving Pennsylvania public schools compared to the year before.