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Lack of substitute teachers leaves local officials frustrated

Oriana Cadman helps students in a Spanish class Wednesday at Mark Morris, where she's been substituting for several days.

Mark Morris English teacher Chris Coffee is on the run more than usual these days.

In addition to his regular full-time load of classes, he’s been supervising four to five classes a month for teaching colleagues who are sick, out for training or off for personal reasons.

On those days, he gives up his planning period. The sacrifice hasn’t been “overly burdensome” for him, he says, but it means he’s unavailable to help students with homework or administer make-up tests. It also means he’s taking more work home.

“Missing a prep makes it that much harder to help those kids who need extra help,” Coffee said recently. “It just makes it a lot more chaotic or hectic.”

Educators and administrators around Cowlitz County have found themselves in similar situations as they deal with a shortage of substitute teachers. The shortage is so acute that in some cases principals have had to step into classrooms, and some districts are hiring uncertified teachers on an emergency basis. Educators say the shortage has, at times, taken focus away from principals’ regular responsibilities, reduced teachers’ availability to students and caused additional strain on full-time teachers asked to substitute.

Karen Kickabush, who arrives at her office at Mark Morris at 6:30 a.m. every day to line up last-minute subs, said she keeps phone numbers of retired teachers on hand for emergencies and has, at times, knocked on the door at 24 Hour Fitness in the wee hours of the morning hoping to approach potential substitutes during their workouts.

“There’s a few mornings where I’ve been standing there pulling my hair out,” she said.

A shallow sub pool

The Longview, Kelso, Castle Rock, Woodland and Toutle Lake school districts have all reported at least some drop in the size of substitute teacher pools, sometimes coupled with an increased demand for subs.

Longview has 158 teachers in its regular sub pool for the 2013-14 school year, of which 69 have worked 14 or more days. During the 2012-13 school year, Longview had 194 teachers in its substitute pool, 85 of whom worked 14 or more days. Last month, Mark Morris had to cover 48 class periods using full-time teachers, said Kickabush. Regular, full-time teachers usually have to cover 20 to 25 class periods in a given month, she said.

“Things have just been exasperating this year because there’s been fewer people that are qualified on our substitute list,” Longview Assistant Superintendent Chris Fristch said.

A recent shift to full-day kindergarten in local districts and efforts to push down class sizes have driven down the substitute pool, Fristch said. The Longview District hired 8.5 new teachers to support full-day kindergarten and 14 to reduce class sizes, with some of the hires coming from the district’s sub pool.

Fritsch said the district felt more comfortable hiring teachers who’d previously worked in the district, and many of them were subs.

“The more you know about someone, I think the better off you are,” Fritsch said. “At the same time, it took away from those people we need to cover classes.”

Kelso School District Human Resources Director Jenae Gomes said hiring to reduce class sizes and adoption of full-day kindergarten also has affected Kelso’s substitute pool. But she cited another factor: Many teachers left the local area to look for work following the economic downturn in 2008. Districts have begun increased hiring as the economy has improved during the last two years, and Gomes said she thinks some substitutes have found full-time work.

Kelso has about 130 to 135 teachers in its substitute pool during a typical year, but this year the district has only 95 to 100, Gomes said.

Full-time teachers or administrators in the Woodland District have been needed to cover classes on only four or five days this year, Superintendent Michael Green said. However, administrators there and in the Toutle Lake District say demand for substitutes has increased as recent changes in curriculum and teacher evaluation require full-time teachers to spend more hours in training.

In January, the Castle Rock District had only 10 substitutes to cover three schools, and Castle Rock Elementary Principal Angela Bacon said she and her dean of students have been teaching classes about twice in a typical month.

Like Coffee, the Mark Morris English Teacher, Bacon said she has to work late or come to school early to make up for time spent substituting.

“The challenge is there’s an awful lot right now the building principals are responsible for,” Bacon said. She spends most of her day working on the rollout of a new, state-mandated teacher evaluation system and new curriculum standards.

“When you step into a classroom to sub for the day, you’re not able to do that work,” she said.

Full-time teachers who step in as substitutes get extra pay.

Teachers of last resort

If the Longview district can’t find enough subs, it first asks full-time teachers to step in, with principals next on call. The district then turns to librarians, literacy specialists or other staff members who don’t have regularly assigned students. Principals or staff from other buildings are called in to teach.

As a last-ditch alternative, many local districts are using an exception to normal state rules and signing up “emergency substitutes” — people with bachelor’s degrees in their subjects (English, math, science) but who do not have teaching credentials. Longview has already approved about four people to serve as emergency substitutes, Fritsch said, and most local districts use emergency substitutes to some extent. Gomes said Kelso received about 10 applications after advertising open emergency sub positions, though it hasn’t yet trained or hired any applicants.

Bacon said the situation has improved, at least at her school, since the Castle Rock District recruited non-teaching staff members to become emergency substitutes.

“I think the district has done a nice job of doing the emergency (substitutes) and working to recruit (regular) substitutes,” said Bacon, who added that she’s had to cover one class since the emergency substitutes came on board in January.

Woodland’s Green said his substitute pool swelled following the 2008 recession but has now shrunk to pre-recession size. He can’t predict with certainty what will happen to the pool in the future, but says the recent dip in substitute numbers might be a return to what was considered normal in 2007 and 2008. He was also unsure how the Portland School District’s plans to hire 150 new full-time teachers for the next academic year might impact his sub pool.

“During the deepest part of the recession there were so many teachers coming out and no jobs for them that we got used to pretty broad availability,” Green said.

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