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December 2015 Vol. 23. No. 3 Focus on Standardized Tests

District news

Staffing woes plague District schools this year

A breakdown in providing substitutes, on top of a surge in teacher vacancies, has left some students doing busywork.


Dale Mezzacappa

on Nov 24, 2015 04:28 PM
Superintendent William Hite (Photo: Brianna Spause)

For Djervin Uylimos, the beginning of his high school career has not been what he expected.

Not at all.

In September, the Northeast High School freshman was signed up for seven classes – English, world history, algebra, physical science, Spanish, health, and gym.

A typical roster. What is not typical is that for much of the semester so far, he has had no teacher in four of these classes.

So he has spent hours in the classroom with whatever staff member can fill in – doing busywork or turning to his smartphone.

“Some of the classes, they don’t even bring any teachers,” he said. “Sometimes they bring a teacher, but they don’t teach us because they don’t know the course.”

It has been a bewildering, scary experience for the 15-year-old, who immigrated from the Philippines six years ago.

“I thought in America education is very important,” he said. “In the Philippines, there are not a lot of schools that are good.”

Uylimos has been caught up in the District’s latest crisis – an inability to find enough qualified teachers to fill the available jobs. The problem is recurrent, but this year it was compounded by the District’s ill-fated decision to outsource its substitute service to a private company that has had trouble coping.

As of mid-November, the District had 138 teacher vacancies – an unusually high number of unfilled jobs. That means that thousands of students have had to deal with not having an appropriate teacher.

Some years, the District is able to compensate with a pool of long-term subs ready to fill in. But not this year.

The inability to get even daily fill-ins has made the situation untenable.

“We never had a problem getting subs,” said Northeast roster chair Dan Lynch. “Last year, I could count on one hand the times we didn’t have a sub for a class.”

Since September, he said, the school has barely had any.

In July, the School Reform Commission hired Source4Teachers to take over its substitute service, which had been spotty – just a 55 to 65 percent fill rate on any given day. The need to provide “coverage” would affect the whole school as other teachers gave up their daily preparation periods or other duties to staff the empty rooms.

Source4Teachers promised a 75 percent fill rate by September and 90 percent by January, despite offering pay rates far below what unionized subs had been receiving as District employees.

The firm has yet to come close. It finally managed to surpass a 30 percent fill rate in mid-November after boosting pay rates.

“Without a doubt, our efforts this year to ramp up substitute teacher recruitment and hiring by contracting with Source4Teachers have not worked as anticipated,” Superintendent William Hite acknowledged in November. He announced that the firm would no longer handle finding subs for long-term absences, just per diems.

But Hite has stuck with Source4Teachers despite calls to end the contract. He says that cancellation could leave the District with no subs at all because it would take time to restart the District’s operation.

Source4Teachers has also offered an apology. Its CEO, Kendley Davenport, addressed the Nov. 19 SRC meeting but could hardly be heard over the catcalls and boos.

“I want to publicly acknowledge that we have underperformed. We’ve got to do better. We will do better,” Davenport said.

Hite reminded people of shortcomings in the District’s sub operation, declaring in a letter to employees that some subs had abused the system. He said that there were schools that were never able to find subs – except on snow days, when they had 100 percent “coverage” but no classes to cover. The teachers’ contract requires that substitutes, once assigned, get paid, regardless.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard chided those who only now are complaining when for years schools routinely lacked adequate substitute coverage.

“For years, this has gone on and no one talked about it,” he said, “not even in the District. Now because we’re trying to fix it and the fix is not done as quickly as possible, everyone is up in arms.”

The substitute problem has highlighted a deeper issue, a chronic shortage of qualified teachers in city schools.

Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an authority on the teaching profession, said that the vacancy problem is largely due to excessive turnover rather than to a dearth of qualified people.

“The big story is not on the supply side, but on the turnover side,” he said. “It’s not that we produce too few teachers, but that we lose too many.”

Each year, between 300 and 400 Philadelphia teachers, out of about 8,000, leave and must be replaced, according to District data. (The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says that nearly 500 teachers left on June 30.) The exception was in 2013, when draconian state budget cuts caused layoffs, and more than 900 left.

The inability to hire enough qualified teachers is worsened by the District’s bureaucratic hiring process. Most recently it has been exacerbated by the lack of a teachers’ contract and wages lagging further behind suburban districts.

“I see it as a two-pronged problem,” said PFT vice president Arlene Kempin, who works on staffing issues for the union. “The District has been painted with such a negative brush – the line is growing shorter of people wanting to come here. There is a lack of resources in the schools; the salaries have been frozen.”

In addition, she said, this year the administration did not plan well for the extended absences due to illness or maternity leave. Source4Teachers was responsible for that and dropped the ball, she said.

The District’s process of allotting teachers to each school based on estimated enrollment can also cause problems. When the real numbers settle in, by late October, teachers are shuffled around to meet the need. Some schools lose teachers and others gain them in a process known as “leveling.”

A combination of all these circumstances contributed to the problem that Djervin Uylimos is facing.

In most years, the 3,100-student Northeast High, with a teaching staff of 150, quickly fills its vacancies and has per diem substitutes willing to work there. Located in a diverse, bustling neighborhood, it is regarded as one of the city’s best comprehensive high schools.

But this year it opened with several teacher vacancies. Coupled with no per diem coverage, the result is chaos, said Lynch, the roster chair.

“How is the staff being impacted? For the first month and a half, all the teachers lost their preps every other day. We haven’t had one common planning time for our small learning communities. That’s a big thing. People haven’t had time to talk to colleagues. … They’re constantly covering classes.”

Lynch said that the District brass underestimated total enrollment for the year and didn’t provide enough teachers in September. Students were crowded into larger classes until more teachers could be assigned in October during leveling.

When Uylimos started the year, he had no teacher in Spanish, English, or world history. He had teachers for physical science, algebra, health, and gym.

In October, he was switched out of his physical science class into a new one created by leveling. But there was no teacher immediately available to take it over – so now he had four classes with no teacher.

Panicked, he sought help from the head of his small learning community, who was able to find him another class with a teacher.

“She was nice to me,” he said.

He has since gotten a Spanish teacher. But at the end of the first marking period in mid-November, he still had no permanent teacher in English or world history. He has gotten no grades in those subjects, which makes him nervous.

“I want to be an architect one day and make houses,” he said. “I think about my future. My heart sometimes felt fear when I think about if they don’t accept me in college because there was no teacher in my class.”

About the Author

Contact Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa at; on Twitter @dalemezz.

Comments (27)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 24, 2015 4:37 pm

My sympathies go out to those valiant teachers doing 4 months of constant coverage during their preps. But my gut tells me that at term's end, there will be no money available to pay them for their sacrifice.

Submitted by Annoy (not verified) on November 24, 2015 4:14 pm

Gallard is arrogant.  If he hadn't heard complaints about the District's poor HR office, he hasn't been listening.  Gallard's kids go to school in Swarthmore - I'm sure they have teachers.  I'm sure he wouldn't be as arrogant if it affected his kids.  

Hite / Rosotti / Wyatt have created a "perfect storm."  There are thousands of students without a permanent teachers.  That is a crime.  It also should trigger law suits - and then Hite, Rosotti and Wyatt should resign in disgrace. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 26, 2015 11:02 am

It is Hite, Wyatt, Rosati and Burns that must go on January 1, 2016. Jim Kenney are you reading this or not?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 24, 2015 4:03 pm

The district's handling of this crisis is unacceptable.  Source4teachers should immediately be removed because they repeatedly failed to perform. The old system was more effective than the current one, so it should be revivied even though it needed improvement. The balance of the amount that will be saved from the out sourced contract should be used to improve the old system. The future of Philadelphia is at stake! The District should contact the Community College of Philadelphia and make arrangements for seniors to take courses that will fulfill the graduation requirements. If the District is really serious about educating all students it could revive a version of the, now defunct, extremely effective dual enrollment program.  This project, the largest of its kind in the state, provided 1,400 free college courses per year to 11th and 12th grade students.  The courses were taught by actual college professors and offered valuable transferable college credit. All of our students deserve exceptional opportunities to succeed. The, now extinct, Office of College and Career Awareness offered this program to every student with a C average and regular attendance. It was a tremendous success systemwide and it did not focus on the smaill group of elite students in the special admit schools.. When we provide opportunities and support to all schools more students will be successful.  This isn't rocket science.

Submitted by Public Schools Matter (not verified) on November 24, 2015 6:50 pm

If Hite / Rosotti / Wyatt weren't "so busy" trying to bust the PFT they might have had the accuity to address this self made disaster. The lack of democracy personified by the SRC which is neither responsive nor identified with Philadelphia's students needs to end now. SRC disband NOW!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 24, 2015 6:57 pm

Let's hire more top level goons and see what they can do.  Hite usually says he is totally unaware of the issues. Thinks that make you say hmmmmmmm. These are not subs.  These are vacancies.  So why is he still employed?  The buck stops at the top.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 26, 2015 11:13 am

Yeah $300,000 bucks plus benefits. Plus all the administrative morons you can hire.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2015 6:31 am

Don't forget the $10,000 bonuses those guys at the top got for "doing extra work."  Too bad about the teachers who, in addition to doing extra work, have to buy every pencil and piece of paper for their students out of their shrinking paychecks.

And the district wonders why no one wants to work for them? Unbelievable.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2015 7:07 am

Oops, you forgot they got raises of 15,000 in addition to the 10,000 bonus.  HMMMMM


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2015 7:33 am

I think the technical term for this type of management as a district or business goes under is "loot and pillage."

Submitted by Lisa Haver on November 24, 2015 7:34 pm

Thanks for this, Dale.  I am truly appalled by Gallard's comment.  The district did nothing about this for years, but it is now the fault of the people complaining about the debacle the district has caused by outsourcing?

In a public meeting in early November, I asked Dr. Hite why the SRC could not cancel the Source 4 Teachers contract at the November 19 meeting.  That would give the district about 6 weeks to make a transition which would get it back to the previous 65% fill rate, or close to it.  This is about getting rid of union workers at the expense of the students. It is criminal.  The SRC and Hite should take responsibility for this, not blame others who come to the defense of the students and staff.   They should resign so we could bring in people who would not use students  as collateral damage while they further their anti-teacher, anti-union agenda. 

Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on November 24, 2015 8:37 pm

I'm concerned that they will use the teacher shortage to justify a shift to a blended learning model with online instruction and larger class sizes in coming years. This is a manufactured crisis.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 24, 2015 8:40 pm

If I ran my classroom like Hite is running the district, I would be fired.  It's his job to plan appropriately.  The fact he's made so many poor decisions is evidence that his performance is unsatisfactory.  Who exactly is in charge of evaluating and overseeing this man?  They need to do their job and get rid of him.  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2015 5:06 am

Guess who will get the blame for poor test scores this year? THE TEACHERS.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2015 5:28 am

This is Hite's plan all along. To make the SDP look as bad as he can so that more parents will demand charter schools. Who does he really work for? We know what entity pays his paycheck, the SDP.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 24, 2015 8:18 pm

The teacher turnover problem is simple -- it is the way teachers are treated in the School District of Philadelphia.

When teachers are treated as professionals with dignity, respect and collegiality, the best and most talented choose to stay and dedicate their professional lives to the district, its students, its parents and each other. Many dedicated teachers choose to stay in spite of it all -- just because they care about their students and their schools.

We can't have "community schools" unless you have a sense of community and function as a healthy school community.

What the district has become is what is known as "an unhealthy organization." It does not function as a community.



Submitted by Deborah Grill (not verified) on November 24, 2015 9:43 pm

  Gallard is disingenuous. Does he really consider 11 to 30 percent substitute coverage a fix? Outsourcing sub service to Source4Teachers was never meant to be a fix.  It was an attempt to weaken the union.

How long is Dr. Hite willing to let students learning conditions and teachers working conditions deteriorate before he admits his mistake. How many more teachers is he willing to lose (because teachers won't be able to work under these conditions much longer), before he cancels Source4Teachers' contract and has the District takes back responsibilty for procuring substitutes.

It is hard to believe that this fiasco is not a deliberate attempt to destroy public education. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 25, 2015 6:52 am

Gallard is just doing his job. Calling out a PR flack for twisting the truth in the defense of his or her company is like getting mad at water for being wet. The real question here is whether these screw ups are genuine incompetence or part of a Broad "churn" scheme. Either way, it's not good. Hite strikes me as more greedy and dishonest than incompetent and our children are going to continue to suffer as long as he is in power with his Broad agenda. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 25, 2015 7:20 am

This is a manufactured crisis with a privatization agenda. Look at this blog post by a former Philadelphia substitute teacher to see how this churn was created.

Cutting Substitutes Pay For an Alleged Substitute Teacher Shortage?

And Gallard has the nerve to blame the people on the front lines that have been holding the District together despite no support and being blamed for the Hite administration's incompetence!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 25, 2015 8:44 pm
Gallard does seem smug considering his insignificant job.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 25, 2015 9:39 pm

You try twisting the truth enough to make an Edsel like the SDP look good. And on top of that knowing that your rich charter uncles can replace you at any time with someone much more qualified. Have some mercy on poor Fernando. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 25, 2015 9:46 pm

You try twisting the truth enough to make an Edsel like the SDP look good. And on top of that knowing that your rich charter uncles can replace you at any time with someone much more qualified. Have some mercy on poor Fernando. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 25, 2015 9:19 pm

Doesn't surprise me they don't have teachers. You can't offer these people who are educated close to nothing to help our children.  I personally have a B.A. in Spanish and did emergency long term substituting eleven years ago.  Now I can't be considered for a long term position because I am not certified though fluent in the language and have a four year degree with experience.  They won't have it.  I would rather get paid a little better and help out.  Sad state of affairs fo Philadelphia.  Source 4 Teachers is a waste of money.  Poorly run organization.  It took them almost two months to on board me from first scheduling my orientation a month out and then losing my papers after that initial meeting.  Sitting on a desk for two weeks as I kept calling to see what the hold up was.  No sense of urgency there. Front desk was annoyed I was inquiring about my status. 

Submitted by Public Schools Matter (not verified) on November 25, 2015 10:06 pm

Thank you for you for your account. I am sorry of the trevails they have put you through. Indeed, no sense of urgency, well put... Their plan is clear as water, FRUSTRATE the remaining veteran teachers and spike inner strife in buildings. Please dont fall for it and whatever you do, don't believe the HITE! They "fail" on purpose with the full understanding that their backs are covered by the no investigative reporting media, the Broad, Gates, foundations and by an OBLIVIOUS and moribond PA Republican party that would rather starve a state than "tax" their masters, the frackers. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 30, 2015 8:29 am

this is a joke another ploy to make teaching look unattractive... Edison has plenty vacancies as well as a host of other schools ... the retired people working for S4T are merely bodies some are older than my grandmother and have hair greyer than George Washington on the dollar bill. No raises no resources yet we are all the problem.... hedge funds are raking up doe while pensions operate at a negative ... lord bless the educational system 

Submitted by Tom McDonald (not verified) on November 30, 2015 1:55 pm

The bigger student issue is the slow progress that the district has made integrating 21st century learning into the district.

If the district was on the ball, they currently would have educationally innovative deep learning technology that would do the heavy lifting for individual learning, so the students wouldn't be sitting around doing nothing

Just another example of leadership incompetence, putting the institution first, at the direct expense of the students and their student success outcomes.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 3, 2015 10:08 am

I am a substitute in the Philadelphia School District and let's be clear here. We cannot solely blame the lack of teachers in the district on this Source4Teachers company. They are not responsible for hiring full time qualified teachers for the schools that's the districts responsibility. How can we expect a company to full almost all classrooms when our district can't even hire the appropriate number of teachers. Grant this company did promise a very high fill rate for the district but the pay is not great. Now last year retired teachers were making over $200 a day. This year the rate has been cut a great deal. Now I'm no business major but I'm sure in their contract with psd the two companies had to come to an agreement on pay rates. I'm sure this company did not come right in and say "hey we're going to cut your rates but $80+ dollars" this contract was an agreement. The school district agreed to pay the lower rates. What made them think most of the subs especially retired teachers would want to come back to work for them. We have to hold the district to some fault here. They aren't doing and have not been doing that great of a job for some time now. Things have been going down hill but not that they've decided to outsource it's automatically the new companies fault. They would have as many vacancies to fill if the psd was capable of hiring the teachers they need.

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