Intensive English teacher Negial Kemo talks with his students at the International Student Center, a DeKalb County School District school in Decatur. (AJC FILE PHOTO)

DeKalb Schools: District will no longer use uncertified teachers

More than 100 DeKalb County School District employees are losing their positions as the district eliminates teacher certification waivers, a practice decried by education advocates who say it puts unprepared teachers in front of students.

Often, those uncertified teachers end up at struggling schools.

District officials said they told teachers on certification waivers in May 2018 they needed to be certified through the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, the state agency that certifies teachers. Officials then decided to give uncertified teachers through the end of the 2018-2019 school year to achieve certification, seeing that many of them were in programs that would have seen them meet requirements before the current fiscal year ended.

“The data supported the decision to extend the date of phasing out the use of these waivers,” officials said in a statement.

At the start of the 2018-2019 school year, about 300 DeKalb teachers were on certification waivers. As of June 4, about 96 had resigned from the district. District officials said 76 will stay on as teachers, having achieved certification. Another 41 were still working to meet certification requirements by June 30. Eleven have been reassigned as paraprofessionals, and another 62 are awaiting placement as paraprofessionals.

“The district has exhausted all possibilities to assist the teachers who are not certified in finding positions that are aligned to their current credentials,” officials said.

Hiring teachers in Georgia has become harder as districts increase starting pay to become more competitive and the number of people wanting to become teachers in Georgia shrinks. During the 2007-2008 school year, 12,436 students received teaching certificates for the first time, according to Georgia Professional Standards Commission data. That number currently is closer to 8,000. A similar trend exists nationally.

Districts have leaned on uncertified teachers as well as increasing class sizes or canceling courses to handle the demand. Data suggests uncertified teachers often exacerbate the problems. Many leave the district at two to three times the rate of certified teachers, according to data from the Learning Policy Institute, a policy research nonprofit.

“Would you let someone who wasn’t a doctor operate on you?” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, a teacher advocacy group. “Using uncertified teachers is, effectively, malpractice.”

In late 2016, when DeKalb first began heavy use of certification waivers to fill classrooms, then-chief human capital management officer Leo Brown said many of the uncertified teachers had classroom experience or content knowledge that made them qualified for the job.

“Certification is, of course, valued,” he said. “But we understand there are individuals with content knowledge who can come in immediately and teach. We see the value in content knowledge available to help our students.”

The district began leaning heavily on “waiver teachers” in 2016, amid a national teacher shortage, citing its newly-gained strategic waiver system status, which allowed some flexibility from state standards. Other metro Atlanta school districts employed an average of about 25 waiver teachers. Clayton County Public Schools never used waivers, citing a need for certified teachers in every classroom.

DeKalb Schools officials said in early 2017 they would work to create a pathway toward certification for their waiver teachers. In 2018, newly hired chief human capital management officer Bernice Gregory said the district was supporting uncertified teachers in their efforts toward certification, while working to phase out the waiver program.

“I definitely came in, looked at the waiver numbers and said we need to get something in place,” Gregory said last year. “We’re looking at all the data from the teachers, and we want them to be successful.”

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