At the Monday, November 8 meeting of District 65’s Curriculum and Policy Committee, Superintendent Devon Horton had a question: “Those who are District staff, how many of you, just a show of hands, if you subbed in the class this year?”
A majority of audience members raised their hands. The nationwide staffing shortage continues to be felt in school buildings throughout the District, with unmet needs for substitute teachers, paraprofessionals and tutors.
“Just looking at just what’s happening across the country, we’re anticipating this to be an issue for at least the remainder of the school year,” Horton said. “It’s going to be challenging.”
Andalib Khelghati, Interim Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, described the substitute teacher supply/demand conundrum in terms of the fill rate, or “the number of subs that come in to address absences in a particular day. So we may have 100 teachers out, and if we only had 60 subs available, our fill rate would be 60% for that day.”
Khelghati said the pre-pandemic fill rate was around 85%, which increased in the fall and spring of last school year, then dropped to around 51% this year. Despite the slight increase “in the last couple of weeks to about 60%,” Khelghati said that “across the system, there’s been a significant drop [relative to the pre-pandemic rate] in ability to recruit. And it’s not unique to ESS [Evanston Skokie School District], all the companies are facing that.”
Khelghati highlighted a flexible schedule as the primary draw for substitute teachers, but he said that “money does count.” Khelghati said he is working with the District’s Finance Department on ways to reward dedicated substitutes, such as “a certain bonus if they pick up a certain number of days in a building.”
Another component involves expressing appreciation for the work that substitute teachers do, as valued members of the school culture. “If you talk to principals who have … high fill rates, they are going to have very strong relationships with those subs,” Khelghati said. “And those subs are going to be in those buildings because of that.”
Romy DeCristofaro, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, noted the abundance of openings in paraprofessional positions. “We’re providing some opportunities for those who are still getting their licenses to become noninstructional aides so that we can utilize the support of our lunchroom supervisors to also help provide coverage,” DeCristofaro said.
DeCristofaro added that in some instances, caseload shifts have been implemented to accommodate special education teachers’ leaves, and outside agencies have been contracted to provide paraprofessionals who can bring “some behavior expertise to those roles.”
Academic Skills Center tutors
The District’s new Student Support Coordinator, Lee Hart, stated that hiring for the Academic Skills Centers (ASCs) is her “huge priority.” In July 2021, the District announced the creation of ASCs in its 16 schools, “to provide focused, small group tutoring sessions 3-5 times per week for students to address unfinished learning from previous years.”
At Monday’s meeting, Hart’s tutor metrics slide showed that only six District schools currently have 75% to 100% of their needed tutors hired, with the remaining 10 schools at 0% to 67% of needed tutors.
Notably, the three middle schools, Chute, Nichols and Haven, have 17%, 25% and 0% hired tutors, respectively. According to Horton, tutors often request the elementary level, due to a preference to work with younger learners, as well as hesitancy for the academics of middle school where “the math is a little bit harder.” Across the District, only 31 of 63 needed tutors have been hired.
Hart said that her other priority is to connect with current tutors, and she has found that they like “working with small groups of students, they’re really focusing on developing relationships, understanding what their students need.” However, she said staffing limitations hinder the implementation of scheduling small group tutoring support, highlighting the need to “get really strong tutors in there as soon as possible.”
Throughout the year, administrative staff have been stepping in to cover classrooms as needed, a stopgap approach that Khelghati and his team are in the process of formalizing, to ensure that all available personnel resources are used. Khelghati provided the example that, “a person may say, ‘Oh, I’d love to do it [serve as substitute], but I don’t have my license.’ Here’s a process to get your sub license.”
In acknowledgement of the stopgap aspect of having administrative staff take on classroom roles, Deputy Superintendent LaTarsha Green added, “one of the things that we are trying to be considerate of is when JH [Joseph E. Hill Education Center] staff does go to fill in, their work also stays and is left behind for them.”
She pointed out that the flow of communication and management of the rotation schedule is important, “because no one’s work is slowing down.”
Outreach and recruiting
Hart reported that a proposal submission is in the works, to see if an external vendor can be contracted to alleviate the tutor shortages. She asked community partners to help spread the word about ASC tutoring as a “great part-time role for folks who want to explore education, retirees who maybe want to have a part-time work schedule, [and] folks who are parents of school-aged children, who want to help in this way.”
Hart is also exploring near-peer mentoring through a partnership with Evanston Township High School, “to see if there are current high school students who may have opportunities in their block scheduling, where it might be a good match, where they could work with our employees to come in and serve as tutors, as well as connecting with any early graduates of ETHS or recent graduates as well.”
Board member Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan added that to meet the higher math level tutor needs, perhaps “we want to have a different recruitment strategy for our middle schools in terms of reaching out to math education programs that are at our colleges and universities and have partnerships there.”
Horton saw potential in identifying quality tutors who are interested in education, who could be moved “to the paraprofessional ranks, that will help us with our special education and some of the other gaps,” a strategy that he said has been successful in his past experience.
DeCristofaro said his “ray of hope” is that December will usher in a bigger candidate pool with “some new grads that we can potentially try to recruit.” Horton added that the District’s Human Resources department is already trying to contact those emerging educators.