The William Penn School District is feeling the sting of the 61 percent decrease in teaching certificates handed out by the state between 2013 and 2015. A memo addressed to the school board in October lists 17 retirements and 26 resignations across the district.
Human Resources Director Joe Conley called the number of departures “exceptionally” high since the average is between three and five a year.
“This is extremely unusual. We had a lot of teachers who started together and retired together. I don’t think it’s a number we will see again for many years,” commented Conley.
According to Conley the criteria for retirement varies and the district offers an attractive retirement medical program. Most of the vacated positions have been filled. Currently there are postings for a school nurse, speech therapist, and long-term subs for employees on leave.
The number of U.S. college students graduating with education degrees slipped from 106,300 in 2004 to 98,900 in 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The numbers are worse in Pennsylvania as it suffered a 61 percent decrease. In 2013, the state awarded 18,590 teaching certificates. In 2015, it handed out 7,180.
School board members have spoken candidly about financial restraints and underfunding. Many of them commented during previous meetings about not being able to compete with the compensation packages offered by other districts.
“We have to value teachers and get them to come into this profession. We have to dig deep and offer things other districts perhaps can’t. We can’t touch them on money, so we have to break bread and do some things out of the box,” said Board President Jennifer Hoff.
Conley said the district’s Human Resources Department regularly attends job fairs and visits colleges, especially local institutions with alumni, in an effort to recruit.
“Over the next five years or so it’s going to be an emergency situation for staffing. We find the lack of students for subs or open positions is alarming. It’s going to continue to be an issue over the years. Students were told not to go into education. You can make better money in the private sector. We have to work and make sure we attract students to the district. There is less in the pool that we have to find,” said Conley.
During the business meeting of the school board last week, board member Charlotte Hummel mentioned the exodus of teachers. According to a survey of all the people who left the district in the past year, the top three reasons for departure were financial, benefits, and teaching conditions.
She also said accountability for a cause of departure. Teacher accountability has been a topic of discussion at recent meetings with parents pushing for more of it and the board making a push to improve on test scores and a fidelity to curriculum.
“When you hold people accountable to do their job, when you hold their feet to the fire and they can’t perform or don’t want to perform, they leave,” said Hummel.
“This is not just a problem unique to William Penn School District. This is an issue across the county and the state. We developed the Guest Teacher Program in immediate response to concerns brought to our attention in human resources directors meetings throughout the 2015-2016 school year by all districts,” said Nikki Borradaile, professional learning supervisor for Delaware County Intermediate Unit (DCIU).
In response to the teacher shortage crisis affecting local school districts, DCIU began offering a guest teacher service beginning with the 2016-17 school year to help participating school districts attract substitute teachers.
A second round of training for the program will be held Jan. 25. The program offers people with a bachelor’s degree from any accredited university the necessary training required to become day-to-day substitutes with an emergency permit used by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), that enables them to work day-to-day in any participating school district and career and technical school.
According to a study published in the American Educational Research Journal, student test scores in both math and English language arts suffer when teacher turnover is high. Previous research has shown that in the first five years of teaching, 30 percent of new educators leave for alternative career paths. Unfortunately, much of this turnover takes place in low-income schools. Turnover rate in high-poverty areas is 50 percent higher than in financially stable districts.
“Kids need a system. Something they can rely on. If there is a carousel of teaching, it impacts the students. The carousel of teachers has definitely hurt us. My daughter (who attends Evans Elementary), her teacher is going on maternity leave and it’s causing me anxiety because she is a creature of structure,” said board member Raffi Cave.
“Teacher vacancies affect the student a lot. It can become a very detrimental situation. When you have vacancies you have to move around and get coverage. You lose wisdom with teachers leaving,” said board member Monique Boykins.
WPSD had the most diverse staff in Delaware County. The Staff Ethnicity Report for 2015-16 reported a makeup of 64 percent white, 33 percent Black, two percent Asian, one percent Hispanic, and 77 percent of the staff female. For professionals and professional assistants – out of 430, 21 identified as Black males.
However, parents and the board are aiming for improvement. Board member Robert E. Wright, Sr. formed a diversity subcommittee several months ago as a part of the ongoing process. He reiterated the importance of recruiting from local schools, especially ones with high non-white enrollment.
“One area we have done well is our instructional assistance and our security (in terms of diversity). An area where we have not done well in is hiring (non-white) educators, in particular Black males. We need to improve on that,” said Wright. Less than five percent of professional or professional assistants in the district are African-American males.
“I am very concerned about diversity in this district. Most people who teach and work in this district look like me and most people who go to the school district look like you and that’s not right,” said Hummel, who is white, during a recent meeting while addressing parents who expressed concerns about the lack of diversity.
“However, we also know the facts about the drop in teaching certificates. Those who are coming from minority communities aren’t coming here. They are going to the same districts where there is a better benefits package.”
Like the decrease in teaching certificates, staff diversity is a national issue. According to Education Week, students of color make up about half of all public school students, yet just 18 percent of teachers are of color. Researchers and analysts from the Brown Center on Education Policy and the National Council on Teacher Quality found that the chances of significant progress in this realm are realistically very slim, even looking forward nearly 50 years.
“The DCIU works closely with each program supervisor to ensure that our recruitment strategy highlights the most qualified candidates for positions within the organization. We promote diversity as part of the overall DCIU brand. Encouraging greater diversity is less about increasing numbers; it’s really about enriching the services we provide across the county, and demonstrating that our employee population is inclusive of workers of all backgrounds. Having a heterogeneous workforce ultimately enables us to reflect the entire population we serve here in Delaware County,” added Rosemary Fiumara, DCIU director of Human Resources.
A diversity subcommittee chaired by Wright hopes to address the issue as it meets on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 6:30 at 100 Green Ave., Lansdowne.
“It’s been an ongoing problem. It’s true we have the most minority educators in the county but we can do a lot better. If we take a proactive position we can hopefully move forward and make this happen,” said Wright.