Board hires a record 3,000 but still needs more

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For this school year, the Board of Education recruited a record 3,000 teachers, double the number of newcomers hired three years ago; yet, as of mid-December, 1,100 vacancies remained unfilled.

In addition, the board signed up about 3,000 additional teachers for the system’s substitute pool, allowing the central administration to fill nearly 100 percent of substitute requests, according to Chief Human Resources Officer Carlos Ponce. “When I came on the job [in 1998], we were lucky to fill 60 percent of job orders for subs,” he says. “Schools on the West Side and other areas that had problems getting substitutes are now getting them.”

He adds that part of the improvement is due to schools submitting their requests earlier, giving central office more time to follow up.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union is preparing state legislation to reduce class size in schools with a large number of low-income students, which would increase the school system’s need for more new teachers.

Of Chicago’s 1,100 vacancies in regular teaching positions, 496 are in the perennial, critical-need areas of special and bilingual education, math, science, library and counseling. Ponce says the situation is better than that total suggests because “not every vacancy has an empty classroom behind it.” For example, an overcrowded school may be entitled to 100 teachers, based on CPS class-size formulas, but have classrooms for only 80.

Ponce maintains that job orders submitted by principals are a more accurate reflection of hiring needs. As of Dec. 13, 326 job orders remained unfilled.

The department began using job orders three years ago to get a better handle on schools’ staff needs. “If I send you [resumes for] six candidates, and you don’t interview anyone, I want to know why,” Ponce says. “Or if you did, I want to know what happened. Did you hire them? Because if you don’t want them, we can quickly send them somewhere else.”

Ponce acknowledges that many of the new regular teachers are full-time-basis substitutes, or FTBs, who are not yet fully certified for their assignments. He says the system lost out on some fully certified candidates because of tardy hiring decisions by principals.

“We lost people not because they weren’t interested in Chicago, but because some principals still think it’s the old days, when we had all these teachers, and they could take their time hiring,” he says.

More help

However, principals say they are getting more help than ever before in filling vacant slots.

Principal Deborah Jackson of Aldridge Elementary in the Riverdale community says retirements and transfers left her with a record eight openings to fill this year, including three in special education. She filled all eight.

“I’ve gotten a lot of support [from Human Resources],” she says. “They were constantly calling to see if I needed help. They would tell me a little about [an applicant] and, at times, when they had the person right there with them in the office, they set up an appointment for an interview right then.”

Even with more help, though, prospects dwindled after the start of the school year. By that time, says Principal Janice Preston of Ryder Elementary in Auburn Gresham, “The better candidates have been selected. You just don’t have that many out there.”

Experienced teachers became especially scarce. Of the five candidates she had for one slot, only two had tenure. “You prefer someone with experience, but I do hire new teachers because some of them are dedicated,” Preston says.

Annie Camacho, principal of Northwest Middle School, agrees. “I did hire a few [new teachers], but it’s always better to get teachers with a least a year under their belt at the grade level you need.”

Camacho is also concerned about hiring teachers from alternative certification programs. “I think you have to be a little careful about it,” she says. “They come in without having any methodology of how to teach children at specific grade levels, a lack of knowledge about classroom management, and so forth.”

“I’ve had the experience of people lasting all of two weeks, even with the best intentions,” she adds. One new teacher she hired, a former Marine, “left after two weeks in tears. With him having a Marine background, we thought it would be a help [for class management], but it wasn’t.”

Of the 3,000 teachers hired this year, only about 240 were recruited from alternative certification programs, Ponce says.

He acknowledges that the department needs to do more, especially in recruiting teachers for schools in troubled neighborhoods.

“Candidates back out of schools in certain areas,” he says. “They think because they’re going out to the West Side, they’re taking their life in their hands.”

Sometimes, a Department of Human Resources staff member will take a candidate out to a school to let her judge for herself. “Once they see the neighborhood and get in the school, we have a chance [at hiring them],” he adds.

Ponce and others stress that the much publicized teacher shortage is more a supply-and-demand mismatch, with too many teachers in such areas as English, history and social science and too few in such areas as special and bilingual education, math and science.

In response, the Board of Education recently yielded slightly on its city residency requirement. Teachers qualified to teach special education, math and science, along with librarians, counselors, social workers and speech pathologists, are eligible for temporary waivers from the requirement.

But waivers bring with them several restrictions. One allows the board to place teachers in schools of its choice, and a second requires teachers to move to the city within six months if the board decides not to include his or her teaching specialty on its list of critical needs.

Union agenda

Chicago Teachers Union President Deborah Lynch maintains that because of the restrictions, the new waiver policy will do little to ease teacher shortages. The union has long considered the residency requirement a significant recruiting barrier and plans to lobby state lawmakers to eliminate it completely.

Residency requirements were abolished last year in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Providence, R.I. For the Pennsylvania districts, it was the state legislature that pulled the plug.

Also on the union’s spring lobbying agenda is lowering class size, which would increase the demand for teachers even more. The union is tackling this issue on two fronts. First, it wants a change in state law to restore the bargaining rights that were taken away by the Illinois Legislature in 1995, including the right to bargain over class size.

Second, the union wants a separate law mandating smaller classes in schools with the most low-income students. The union is taking this approach to ensure that even if it does not get its bargaining rights back, teachers who most need smaller classes get some relief, Lynch explains. “In survey after survey, we’ve found that class sizes continue to be the No.1 concern of our members,” she says. The union is still working on the proposal, including the class sizes it will seek and the schools it will target.

The union also wants the law to reactivate a dormant board-union panel that would tackle the issue of overcrowded schools.

Many large classes are in these overcrowded schools, which lack space for additional classrooms. Prior to 1995, the teacher contract required the board to hire teachers according to negotiated staffing formulas, such as one teacher for every 28 primary students. As a result, overcrowded schools with inescapably large classes would have “extra” teachers who could be teamed with the main classroom teachers or used for pull-out classes for students needing extra help. Lynch says that a legislated class-size limit would have the same effect.

Under current board policy, elementary classes are to have no more than 23 students, she says. In reality, she adds, many classes have as many as 33. The last contract that included negotiated class sizes set limits of 28 to 30 students in primary grades and 30 to 32 students in intermediate grades and high schools.

Housing incentives

Given the high cost of housing in Chicago, the city also is exploring the idea of offering some sort of financial incentive to attract and retain teachers, says Hilton Clark, manager of teacher retention.

The board, the city’s Housing Department and the non-profit Local Initiative Support Corp. teamed up to commission a $120,000 study on housing initiatives. So far, Maryland-based housing consultant UniDev Corp. has found that the idea is uncharted territory; there are no substantive programs in other cities.

It also has conducted focus groups with teachers, who indicated such incentives are likely to be more effective in retaining experienced teachers, who may have gotten married or had children and are looking for affordable homes in middle-class neighborhoods. But, Clark points out, “We’re still looking at ways it might be used to recruit teachers.”

UniDev is still reviewing possible recommendations, such as rent vouchers, low-interest mortgages and down-payment assistance, including the cost of each and who might be eligible.