As schools reopen Monday, CPS struggles to fill key jobs

Most of the more than 500 new interventionist positions created to help kids recover from pandemic learning loss haven’t been filled, CPS data shows.

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Lee Hodges hands out backpacks full of supplies to parents and students that have gathered at William F. Finkl Academy at a Back to School Bash earlier this month. Classes start Monday for Chicago Public Schools.

Lee Hodges hands out backpacks full of supplies to parents and students who have gathered at William F. Finkl Academy at a Back to School Bash earlier this month. Classes start Monday for Chicago Public Schools.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

As schools nationwide grapple with a teacher shortage, Chicago Public Schools officials say they are set to at least maintain last year’s staffing levels when the district’s 300,000-plus students return Monday, but they’re falling short in hiring for newly created positions meant to help kids recover from the pandemic.

Entering his second year at the helm of the nation’s third-largest public school system, CEO Pedro Martinez has declared this a “recovery year” for students, going so far this week as predicting it would be “our strongest year ever” with a marked focus on academics.

Though there’s unlikely to be a complete return to the pre-pandemic normal that has been so deeply disrupted by COVID-19, this year looks to be the closest yet. Virus anxiety for most is at its lowest in two years, masks are optional, labor peace between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union is imminent and children have had far more chances to socialize than when they returned a year ago.

And in classrooms, CPS officials had looked to expand staffing to move to a new normal in which students are supported academically through pandemic-era struggles.

Yet CPS records as of last week show many of the more than 500 new interventionist positions — one for every school — haven’t been filled. Those jobs were expected to be filled by teachers who weren’t assigned a class but would step in to provide extra help to students who need it.

Martinez said last week that the district has more teachers employed at the start of the year than at the same time last year, but he admitted overall staffing is still a worry.

“It’s a very tight labor market,” he said. “Supporting each of our schools means that we’re ensuring they’re adequately staffed.”

“We brought our principals together in a summit and we asked them, ‘What are you most anxious about for the upcoming school year?’ The most common response was adequate staffing. Which is a stress point being felt [by] districts across the country.”

State data has shown metrics such as attendance and test scores have worsened over the past couple years, leading to efforts to re-engage students academically.

Barnard Elementary Principal Kathleen Valente said her interventionist is a teacher who shifted to the new position and has created a schedule to work with a select number of kids. The school has had an intervention program for about six years, finding students who need support and pulling them for about 15 minutes a day for concentrated skill building. But more district resources and support were needed, particularly with student needs higher during the pandemic.

“I’m really happy we have this money and this position,” Valente said. “I’m lucky we have someone who’s really smart and knows how to do this work.”

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez attends a Back to School Bash at Fenger Academy High School in Roseland in mid-August.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez attends a Back to School Bash at Fenger Academy High School in Roseland in mid-August.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Teacher resignations double

Ben Felton, the deputy director of CPS’ human resources department, said the district is facing problems that preceded the pandemic — fewer people entering the profession, with schools in low-income communities bearing the brunt of shortages — plus more resignations and retirements in the pandemic era.

By the end of last school year, resignations had surpassed 2,300 employees, according to data obtained in a public records request. That was almost double the prior year, when 1,342 people left, and the highest in at least five years. Teachers drove the spike in attrition, but departures were up across the board.

Work conditions, the desire to work from home, right-wing attacks on the teaching profession and career changes have all been cited as reasons educators are leaving their schools.

Nevertheless, Felton said CPS has been able to hire at an appropriate rate to backfill the jobs left empty by resignations. While the rate of unfilled positions will be a notch higher this year, Felton said that’s largely because the district has had trouble filling those new positions added to the rolls this year to help with pandemic recovery — not regular classroom teachers.

Principals will have to adjust, Felton said.

“Principals are going to have to figure out exactly how they want to structure their schools,” Felton said. “In many cases they’re going to structure their schools exactly how they intended, probably the majority. Some schools are going to have to figure out how do they best allocate the teachers they have staffed against the positions they have.”

CPS officials are centrally funding the interventionist positions as a district priority rather than making principals spend funds out of their school budgets. But the reality on the ground is that a school missing a 4th grade teacher, for example, can’t take advantage of an interventionist — it needs that classroom teacher.

A Southwest Side elementary school principal, who asked not to be named to share their plans openly, said they have a 6th grade class without a teacher. So they’re assigning the interventionist to cover the class even though the district has advised against those moves.

Another South Side principal said the district hasn’t given guidance on how to use the interventionists or provided training.

“For something that’s costing so much money, there’s been no support,” the principal said, asking to remain anonymous to speak freely. They were frustrated that principals rang alarm bells about staffing at the start of the summer — predicting a shortage because of the short break and return two weeks before Labor Day — but didn’t feel heard until this month.

Felton said the district is aggressively recruiting teachers and staff and is leaning on pipeline programs created before the pandemic to ensure new educators are streaming into CPS buildings to fill remaining open teaching and the new positions. Officials note that about half of new teachers this year are Black or Latino. Five years ago Black and Latino educators made up about one-third of new hires.

While teacher vacancies might not end up being higher than past years, new Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates said the high attrition and officials’ difficulty filling the new positions is the result of a “thousand paper cuts” by the district that hurt retention. That ranges from an inequitable school funding formula to poor treatment of educators, she said.

“You have to create loving, responsive, liberating school communities” to make them better places to work and learn, she said. “And if they’re loving, they’re going to have what students need in them” with proper staffing levels.

In addition to recruitment, Davis Gates says the district should put more effort into ensuring the one-third of 443 teachers and staff laid off at the end of last school year who still have not found new jobs get rehired.

A new law that allows retired teachers to return to classrooms as substitutes without losing a share of their pension benefits will also help, she said, and leaders are exploring whether that can apply to paraprofessionals, too. And current paraprofessionals would make great teachers since they’re already invested in their school communities, she said.

“If you ask the people in the school what they need, and then you begin to direct resources based on the data and the experience, then you don’t have turnover,” Davis Gates said. “You have people who have agency, who are partnering, who see their voice in the manifestation of resources.”

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