Staffing grows in Chicago Public Schools even while enrollment drops

The increase is meaningful in a district that has often had to do without. But vacancies are still a challenge, especially in schools with many low-income students.

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Preschool teacher Erin Berry greets students as they walk into their first day at Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side, Monday morning, Jan. 11, 2021.

Preschool teacher Erin Berry greets students as they walk into their first day at Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side, Monday morning, Jan. 11, 2021.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

At a small elementary school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, members of the local school council this summer kept hearing about a crisis-level national teacher shortage. Worried about their school, they cornered the principal, Folasade Adekunle, to see what may lie ahead.

“They are like, ‘Are we good’?” Adekunle recalled. “And I said, ‘By all accounts, everyone is coming back, and if we had a position I was mostly able to fill it.’ So I am both knocking on wood and patting myself on the back.”

Adekunle isn’t the only one. The number of jobs in CPS is on the rise — despite painful layoffs each spring, including a round this year affecting schools that lost enrollment, a WBEZ analysis of Sept. 30 CPS employee data shows. The number of jobs has been growing over several years, but the number is up over the past two years in particular because the district is flush with federal COVID-19 relief money. That money runs out in 2024.

There are more adults working in schools this year, and budgeted staff positions have grown by 10% over the past two years. CPS posted 40,344 staff positions in fall 2020. Currently, there are 44,347 positions in district-run schools. Most charter school positions are not included.

This comes even as enrollment has dropped by 18,500 students during that same period.

Positions Chart

This growth is meaningful in a district that has always had to do without.

“I believe more is more,” said Adekunle, who has seen staffing at her school, Sayre Elementary, grow significantly over the last few years even while enrollment has remained around the same. She has more classroom and special education teachers, as well as a teacher freed up to provide case management for disabled students. She now has a social worker in the building every day,

“We are able to sort of expand the services that we have for students,” she said.

Over the last six years, CPS has seen an increase in key positions, including classroom teachers and teachers assistants, but other positions too — including coaches who help teachers improve instruction, nurses and staff to support homeless students, WBEZ’s analysis shows. CPS notes it continues to hire, including filling some additional positions since Sept. 30.

But the number of jobs doesn’t tell the whole story. Chicago’s teacher vacancy rate isn’t at crisis levels seen in some school districts, but vacancies remain a major issue, particularly in certain fields and schools.

CPS still has hundreds of openings in key support staff roles, including bus monitors and lunchroom workers. The school bus aide vacancy rate is 20%, data from Sept. 30 shows. For cooks, the vacancy rate is 18%.

And CPS is still short teachers. The teacher vacancy rate is 4%, up one point over last year. There were nearly 800 special education and regular teacher vacancies as of late September.

Vacancy chart

CPS leaders say the district tries to fill those holes by hiring year-round in nearly every job category, from lunchroom workers to security guards.

“Our team really works as matchmakers to help folks get a sense of what their skills and strengths are and find the right role, the right school, the right department in the district where they can do their best work for kids,” said Christine Murphy Judson, director of talent acquisition at CPS.

School leaders set out to hire more teachers this year than in 2021 to help recover from remote learning and the trials of the pandemic. But because of vacancies, there are roughly 200 fewer teachers in schools this year compared to last year, WBEZ’s analysis shows. CPS officials note that the school district has added almost 200 “lead coach” positions in schools. These are certified teachers who are charged with supporting and helping their peers improve instruction.

 

Overall, vacancies are most acute in schools with largely low-income students. Among those schools, the teacher vacancy rate is about 5%, compared to 2% among those in which the majority of students aren’t low income. To cover, teachers and administrators step in for double duty or classes are covered by a substitute teacher.

Why does CPS need more staff?

Chicago Public Schools has long been understaffed compared to better-off districts with more resources to draw on. That’s something the state of Illinois has repeatedly documented. According to the state’s most recent analysis, CPS has only 75% of the financial resources required to provide students an “adequate” education.

The Chicago Teachers Union has homed in on the staffing issue for years, especially the shortage of nurses, social workers and others who help make sure students are physically and emotionally prepared to learn. In the 2019 teachers contract, the school district agreed to increase hiring in these areas.

CTU President Stacy Davis Gates called the boost in these support staff “absolutely necessary,” especially as students have returned to school in person amid the pandemic. But she said the district’s student-based budgeting system, where schools get a base amount tied to each student enrolled, continues to encourage schools to accept as many students as they can and overcrowd classrooms while others struggle and are left without enough students.

CPS’ hiring efforts

This school year, district leaders focused on increasing staffing levels for a key reason: to help students recover from the pandemic, said CEO Pedro Martinez. At the Chicago Board of Education meeting this week, Martinez shared low state test results for CPS students.

That’s why extra staff in schools this year is critical, he said.  “What I love is that when you look at the investments that we’ve made, we feel [we are in a] very, very strong position for this year.”

Work started before the pandemic put the school system in a good position to hire up, said Ben Felton, CPS’ deputy chief talent officer. The district has helped teacher assistants and others already working in schools to earn education degrees through a variety of financial and mentoring supports. The district also partners with universities to increase the flow of nurses and social workers.

The district also hosts job fairs for support staff once a month across the city, targeting high-vacancy roles in areas including transportation, nutrition and security. The fair this month was in East Garfield Park on the West Side. Next month, it will be in Woodlawn on the South Side.

CPS says it’s aware certain schools, particularly those serving mostly low-income students, have ongoing struggles filling positions. That’s why the school district has worked to give those schools an advantage in hiring, Felton said.

Through the Opportunity Schools program, the human resource department vets and funnels candidates to these schools and they are allowed to hire earlier than other schools. Once new teachers are in place, they also get extra mentoring.

Sayre, the Northwest Side school that has added jobs over the last few years, is an Opportunity school — which Principal Adekunle said has been a game changer. Once candidates are in the school, she works extra hard to try to get them to stay.

“We try to make sure that teachers feel like they are at home and like they would recommend us to others,” she said.

Sarah Karp and Nereida Moreno cover education for WBEZ.

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