Retired Gwinnett County Police Major Jonathan ‘Keybo’ Taylor stands for a portrait at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Wednesday, February 13, 2019. Taylor often substitute teaches in at Gwinnett county schools in addition to coaching the 9th grade football team at Central Gwinnett High school. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

DeKalb struggles to find substitutes amid teacher shortage

Amid a national shortage of teachers, finding substitutes when teachers are absent is a challenge for metro Atlanta school districts but  it’s an especially big problem for DeKalb County Schools.

Atlanta Public Schools and Gwinnett county manage to fill most of the slots, but DeKalb doesn’t find a substitute about a third of the time when one is needed, according to district records.

In December alone, about a third of 8,034 classes where regular instructors were absent did not get substitute teachers. District officials said 2,623 of those classrooms, about 32 percent, did not receive a substitute. That could mean other teachers cover that classroom during their planning periods, that a teacher goes between two classrooms at a given period, or that students go without an instructor — either for the whole day or some part of it.

District officials have pointed to a shortage of available substitutes. They are trying to address the problem with a job fair this week specifically seeking substitute teachers.

DeKalb has filled classrooms on an average of about 68 percent of the time since the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year. Other major metro Atlanta school districts have filled classrooms at least 87 percent of the time, or more.

“We’ve had a lot of bad press over the years and I think, coming in, teachers want to know a system has their back,” DeKalb County Board of Education member Joyce Morley said. “We’ve got to do something to rectify our image in many ways.”

A parent wrote last month in an email to the DeKalb school board that he had a conversation with a student from Tucker High who went for coffee and doughnuts after his math teacher did not come to class one day recently. The next day, the man relayed in a subsequent email, the students were without a teacher for most of the math period until the teacher arrived 10 minutes before the period ended.

“His math class is held in a trailer and, according to this student, there was no guidance for the students on reporting anywhere for supervision,” wrote the parent, who was previously employed by the district and asked not to be named fearing retaliation. “The math students were left alone in the trailer. This is not acceptable.”

District officials would not say how often classes are left without adult supervision.

Metro school districts handle substitutes in different ways.

At Gwinnett County Public Schools, feedback from a teacher advisory group led to program changes including substitute coordinators at each school and customizing the mandatory training substitutes undergo as well as lowering education requirements.

“We have a fantastic substitute management department, and a really strong recruiting program,” said Hunter Blackburn, the district’s executive director for human resources systems.

Not outfitting classrooms with substitutes worries Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, who said students suffer when they don’t have quality teachers. Worse, she said, state and local education leaders seem unwilling to address issues that could affect teacher recruitment and retention efforts. “The pay is poor. Teachers are emotionally battered and overloaded with work, mandates and duties that are not related to teaching children at all.”

Atlanta Public Schools’ substitute services program underwent an overhaul under current Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and Chief Human Resources Officer Skye Duckett, going from filling 88 percent of classrooms during the 2014-2015 school year to 96.6 percent during the 2016-2017 school year and 97.5 percent during the 2017-2018 year. District officials touted establishing a substitute management program, increasing substitute pay and using data to dictate other potential changes.

Substitute teachers are hired and paid based on various criteria, according to policies at metro Atlanta school districts. Atlanta Public Schools, for example, pays substitutes with a high school diploma $82.05 per day, but as high as $114.98 if the person is certified to teach. Gwinnett County pays $91 for subs with at least two years of postsecondary instruction. DeKalb’s substitute teachers make $95 per day.

Currently, in DeKalb schools, when a teacher is going to be absent, he or she is responsible for submitting a request for a substitute using a districtwide computerized system that keeps tabs by need.

Former Chief Human Capital Officer Bernice Gregory said recently she started developing a strategy for the district’s substitute teacher success rate when she arrived in April 2018, which included identifying a team in her department specifically to handle substitute teachers, as well as looking at representatives at each school to lead efforts on the school level. Through December of this school year, the district has filled 71 percent of its classrooms, up slightly from the previous two years.

A recent Learning Policy Institute study, “Taking the Long View: State Efforts to Solve Teacher Shortages by Strengthening the Profession,” mentioned an ongoing national teacher shortage and offered suggestions to eliminate shortages through policy changes, including including scholarships, student loan forgiveness and competitive salaries.

Amid about 60,000 teacher vacancies nationwide, districts seek to fill vacancies with uncertified teachers and long-term substitutes, which puts more pressure on an already stressed substitute teacher pool.

“If we could stem attrition and bring teachers in the right way – with adequate preparation and mentoring and reasonable compensation and working conditions – we could solve teacher shortages,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the Learning Policy Institute’s president, when the study was released. “History has shown that was the case in many states in the past and cities where shortages with the right policy moves were solved in 2-3 years.”

DeKalb and Clayton County Public Schools appear to be the only metro Atlanta districts not filling classrooms more than 90 percent of the time. In the last two school years, Clayton County Public Schools has filled classrooms with substitutes an average of 87.5 percent. Cobb County Schools officials responded to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s information request with a bill for $436.55 for the last five years of substitute teacher data.

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