Newark Schools Are Short Dozens of Teachers, Leading to Bigger Classes, More Substitutes

Patrick Wall | October 18, 2019 | Education
Despite job fairs and ads in other cities, Newark still has a teacher shortfall, and some students are being taught by substitutes year round

Despite a district campaign to staff up schools before classes started, more than half of Newark schools were still short at least one teacher nearly a month into the school year, according to district data. In some cases, that has left students with substitute teachers and crowded classrooms.

Thirty-five district schools had a total of 105 unfilled teaching positions last month, according to a count of teacher vacancies on Sept. 24, which was obtained through a public records request.

The schools averaged three teacher vacancies, the data showed. However, five schools had at least twice that many openings, and one — Barringer High School — had 17 missing teachers.

Officials said Tuesday that the vacancies are “extremely fluid,” changing weekly as teachers leave or are hired. They also said some of the unfilled positions were newly created this year to meet students’ needs. Still, the data suggests that some schools have struggled to find teachers to fill the open slots.

Subs year round

“There are some students who have subs all year right now in critical subjects,” said A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, a member of the Newark Board of Education, at a board meeting Tuesday.

Last year, the district employed about 2,900 teachers. A district spokesperson did not respond when asked how many teaching positions exist this year. But if the total is similar, then the district’s vacancy rate would be roughly 3.5% — a larger share of unfilled positions than was found in several major districts, including New York City, Los Angeles and Houston, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of 2017-18 data.

Nearly 60 percent of Newark’s vacancies were for special-education and bilingual education teachers, who are typically the hardest to recruit. Schools in New Jersey and across the country often struggle to find educators with the special training and skills needed to fill those positions, and Newark is no exception.

Newark schools had 36 unfilled positions for special education teachers, as of Sept. 24, the data shows. Schools were also short 26 bilingual education teachers, who work with students still learning English.

Schools may eventually fill their openings — but evidence suggests that midyear hiring may harm students’ learning. One reason is that the teachers hired later have less time to plan lessons and form relationships with students than teachers who start on the first day of school, according to a study by researchers at Brown University. The other reason is that many of the strongest teachers are snatched up before the school year starts, leaving schools to choose from less accomplished candidates midyear, said Matthew Kraft, who co-authored the study with John Papay.

“It’s hard to overemphasize the huge costs of starting the school year with an unfilled classroom,” Kraft said. “It’s really detrimental to student achievement and the development of a healthy classroom culture.”

No takers among teachers

District officials went to great lengths to recruit teachers before the school year started: They organized job fairs, ran hiring ads in other cities, and offered signing bonuses. But with dozens of teaching positions still empty more than a month into the school year, officials are now considering stopgap measures.

One option is paying teachers to take on additional classes, including at multiple schools, said Dr. Yolanda Méndez, the district’s human resource services chief, at Tuesday’s board meeting. In exchange for more pay, teachers would replace one of their planning periods with an extra class, reducing the need for substitute teachers, Méndez said.

The district is also continuing to recruit aspiring teachers from colleges, with a focus on hiring teachers of color, Méndez added. And in the longer term, it is taking steps to encourage graduates of the district’s high schools and substitute teachers to pursue teaching credentials.

Meanwhile, district officials have spoken with their state counterparts about potentially restoring an “emergency certification” option, which would allow the district to hire some teachers who lack the usual credentials, said Superintendent Roger León.

“I do think they’re at least entertaining the idea of how to assist us in moving forward,” León said about state education officials at Tuesday’s board meeting.

One factor behind Newark’s teacher shortage has typically been its high turnover rate. About 18% of Newark teachers left the district or retired between the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years, according to the most recent data — nearly twice the statewide rate.

Another culprit, León said Tuesday, are teacher-training programs at colleges that “are not producing bilingual-certified teachers and special-education teachers to address our needs.”

He also suggested that some of the vacancies are the result of the district creating new teaching positions this year at schools that were understaffed. However, he did not explain why some of the newly created positions have yet to be filled.

“While the vacancies are obviously high,” León said, “these vacancies exist because we’ve budgeted for them.”

Unmet demand for bilingual teachers

The need for bilingual teachers is most severe at Barringer, where nearly a third of students last year were still learning English. León said the district added eight new teaching positions this year to Barringer’s bilingual program, which he said had been woefully understaffed. Yet, as of Sept. 24, seven of those bilingual positions were still unfilled.

When schools are unable to hire enough teachers, they can be forced to cancel courses, bring in long-term substitutes or cram more students into existing classes.

“My classes have also gotten much bigger and, because of that, they’re more hectic,” said Jacob Caban, a 10th-grader at the North Ward school.

Desmond McGoldrick, a former English-as-a-second-language teacher at Barringer who was let go after last school year, agreed that “class sizes are horrendous.” In addition, he said, many classes are led by substitutes, who are not required to have the same training and credentials as regular teachers.

“You have classes where most of the year they have substitute teachers who are not teaching them anything,” McGoldrick said. “They are just keeping them quiet, keeping them under control.”

A student from a different school echoed that complaint at a board meeting last month. Isaiah Thorton, a senior at American History High School, said a few of his classes had been taught by substitutes since the start of the school year.

“We are tired of having long-term substitutes where we should be having teachers,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been neglected as a student.”

— Devna Bose contributed reporting