City teachers are leaving at a higher rate than usual — part of an overall trend of more absences and vacancies in schools this year — and the trend lines show possible continuing staffing problems in the coming years, a key topic in a marathon school board meeting Thursday night.
Between Dec. 1 and Feb. 15, 169 Philadelphia School District teachers quit, a 200% increase over the 57 resignations during the same time frame in the 2020-21 school year. Pre-pandemic, in the 2019-20 school year, 93 teachers resigned. The district has about 9,200 teachers overall.
When teachers quit late in the school year, the chances of securing a permanent replacement to fill that empty classroom are slim, education research shows.
The district started off the 2020-21 school year with relatively few open teaching jobs, but resignations accelerated as the year wore on. Its fill rate is now 96.5%, with vacancies in areas that are typically tough to fill, including special education, math, and science, but also in areas where candidates are usually abundant, elementary schools and English classes.
Chief talent officer Larisa Shambaugh provided a full, and challenging, staffing picture to the school board at a meeting where a “historic” voter registration resolution passed, paving the way for more 18-year-olds learning about civics and signing up to vote at schools across the city.
A tough labor market set the table for staffing challenges in city schools, but the pandemic exacerbated it, Shambaugh said. And the picture is not even across all schools — while some have no open jobs, seven district schools have a teacher fill rate below 85%. The majority of schools, 162 of the district’s 216, have a 95% fill rate.
High absence rates — because of COVID-19 cases, quarantines from close contacts, and the stress of a historically difficult school year — bring further complications. Last year, 68% of teachers had 95% attendance, down from 93% last year, when educators taught from home for most of the year.
And when teachers are out, substitutes are rarely available. The “fill rate” is a dismal 42%, meaning 58% of open sub jobs go unfilled, most often forcing teachers to give up preparation periods to cover absent colleagues’ classes.
“We do think that the problem is exacerbated at schools that already have vacancies, and then there may be for a variety of reason individuals who are out. Then that problem feels like a water-main break,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. told the board Thursday night.
Why are teachers leaving? Shambaugh said the pandemic and national labor trends.
But teacher Kristin Luebbert, who works at the U School, told the board it wasn’t about the students, or the neighborhoods where they work.
“Teachers leave because of bad administration, crazy stupid paperwork requirements, and toxic working conditions,” Luebbert said.
“As a result of the changing labor market, we are seeing a larger number of vacancies across many positions,” Shambaugh said.
The trends are likely to continue, as the “great resignation” plods on and education schools turn out fewer and fewer graduates. Pennsylvania, for instance, has seen a 66% drop in graduates from its schools of education since 2010, Shambaugh said.
Philadelphia is taking a multipronged approach to staffing up, everything from offering $5,000 in bonuses at hard-to-staff schools and allowing some schools to begin hiring early, to advocating for changes for reciprocity in other states’ teacher credentials. The district will also offer some $1,000 reengagement bonuses and begin reimbursing candidates for the cost of state permits and certifications.
The district is also trying to diversify where it finds teachers. The board was considering Thursday night approving programs that would help paraprofessionals get college degrees and certifications and become teachers. Programs with La Salle University, Cheyney University, and College Unbound will help build those pipelines.
Four hours into its meeting, the board had not yet voted on a landmark resolution that would formalize efforts to register all 18-year-olds — some 8,000 young people — to vote, and encouraging all students to be active participants in their democracy.
It eventually unanimously passed the resolution, which was universally hailed and the work of three years of youth and community advocacy.
Laura Brill, director of the Civics Center, a national nonprofit, said that the resolution was “potentially transformative” and that Philadelphia’s efforts could “be a model for other school districts across the country.”
The resolution also garnered healthy support from the City Commissioners.
Commissioner Lisa Deeley, the city’s top elections official, offered the full support of the commissioners for all voting activity and education.
“We want students not only to register to vote but to be active participants in their democracy and voters for a lifetime,” Deeley told the board.
Commissioner Omar Sabir said more people will vote because of the board’s likely action, labeling it a “historical policy” and seminal moment in Philadelphia Black history.
“This action will open up the doors to democracy,” Sabir said.
Ibithal Gassem, 17, a Central 11th grader, said some of her peers say voting is pointless.
“This is only because they don’t have enough information about it in order to care,” Gassem said.
Now, she said, that will change.