Centre County schools cope with shortage of substitute teachers

When Bellefonte Area Middle School Principal Sommer Garman can’t find a substitute to replace an absent teacher, she resorts to backup options.

About half of the teachers at the school have “team planning” time built in to their schedules. This is used for teams of teachers to plan collaboratively, focus on student needs and work on curricula together, Garman said.

When there is no substitute, Garman may pull teachers from this planning time to help cover classes.

If there are no teachers who can be pulled from team planning time to help, another teacher may be asked if he or she is willing to replace personal planning time with covering a class.

And if they are still in a bind after that, Garman or Vice Principal Rebecca Michaels will step in.

These are scenarios that occurred several times during the 2014-15 school year.

“We did have this occur quite a bit in the fall,” Garman said. “Then, things were better in the winter. Once the spring weather hit, we started to see a spike in a shortage of subs again. April and May are probably the toughest times of the year for finding subs.”

Centre County school administrators said they are in a similar predicament that they call a shortage of substitute teachers.

It’s a trend that’s been ongoing for about five years, and stretches beyond Centre County.

“Our staff is wonderful people and understand some of this and make accommodations to work around the problem,” Bald Eagle Area School District Superintendent Jeff Miles said. “It continues to be a problem. When I first got here 26 months ago it was a problem and has only magnified since.”

Sub sources

As a way to get a larger pool of substitute teachers, Bellefonte Area School District opted in the 2014-15 school year to hire a company to provide substitutes, Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger said.

“There is a shortage of subs across Pennsylvania from what I understand by talking to educators at different districts, and something that’s affecting schools nationwide,” Potteiger said. “That’s why we went to a sub service, Source4Teachers, that advertises a bigger pool of (substitute teachers) to choose from. We work with them closely.”

The 2014-15 school year was the first year Bellefonte Area used a contracted substitute teaching company.

And it’s costing the district $40,000 to $50,000 less a year than providing substitute teachers in-house, according to Ken Bean, the district’s director of fiscal affairs.

Bean said that in 2014-15, Bellefonte paid about $548,000 to Source4Teachers.

“Our big savings is the potential costs we could have had in health insurance,” Bean said.

By contracting out, substitute teachers are not provided insurance through the district, but rather the company they’re hired by.

Bald Eagle Area School District also uses Source4Teachers.

Penns Valley works internally to find substitutes from a pool of about 35 candidates.

“We do it in-house with our own internal application and work process,” Penns Valley Area School District Superintendent Brian Griffith said. “The reason we maintain it internally is it is still more cost efficient and effective for us, and are able to increase pay for subs.”

On May 4, after a 7-1 vote by the school board, the State College Area School District changed its policy, making it similar to the Penns Valley model.

Spokesman Chris Rosenblum said the district switched from contracting with Substitute Teachers Services to creating a district substitute-coordinator position.

The move was done for “financial and administrative reasons,” Rosenblum said in an email.

“By taking back the responsibility of hiring substitute teachers and filling vacancies, the district anticipates a more efficient and cost-saving process,” he said.

The district hired Shelbi Smeltzer as the substitute coordinator, said Linda Pierce, director of human resources.

Smeltzer is contacting former STS substitute teachers, notifying them that they must apply for positions through the district and fill out necessary state Department of Education-required clearances.

Under the planned system, substitute teachers will sign up for vacancies online. Smeltzer will be responsible for filling unclaimed assignments by calling those on substitute rosters, Rosenblum said.

Becoming a sub

To become a substitute teacher in Pennsylvania, an individual must have at least a bachelor’s degree in education and hold a Pennsylvania teaching certificate, Central Intermediate Unit 10 Executive Director Hugh Dwyer said.

CIU 10, in West Decatur, oversees 12 public school districts in Centre, Clearfield and Clinton counties.

Different certificates are administered to eligible candidates.

Level 1 and 2 certificates allow substitute teachers to work for any length of time in any subject area.

An emergency certificate only permits an individual to substitute teach under limited circumstances.

Under the emergency certificate, substitutes can teach on a day-by-day basis under a Type 6 permit that will not exceed 20 days, or a Type 4 permit that allows them to teach long term.

Type 4 emergency substitute teachers are only used when the school district has attempted all possible options to find a “quality sub,” including finding a Level 1 or 2 substitute, and advertising the vacancy if the position is expected to be open for more than 20 days, Dwyer said.

Student impact

Change on any given day affects learning. That’s why “consistency is the best scenario,” Potteiger said.

If a teacher has only been out for one day, they play catch-up for a day by checking assignments, reviewing notes from the day before and then are back into their routine, Garman said.

“Our students are pretty resilient; they can bounce back pretty quickly from a teacher being out for one day,” Garman said. “Most teachers hate missing school, because it is a lot of work for them to prepare everything that the substitute will need for the day.”

Griffith said Penns Valley averages about 15 staff absentees a day, which includes education and support personnel.

Recruiting subs

District administration said the shortage of substitute teachers has become more prevalent in the past five years.

“I don’t think as many people get into teaching like they once did, or are retiring sooner,” Potteiger said.

According Penn State College of Education spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz, the number of graduates with education degrees has declined from 499 in the 2004-05 school year to 304 this spring.

“Penn State’s figures do decline, but they have not declined quite as much as many other institutions,” Mountz said in an email. “The downward trend is not unique to Penn State. It also is not unique to Pennsylvania, but rather reflects a national trend that is due to a number of compounding factors including the decrease in the number of college-bound high school graduates.”

Miles said retired teachers can be a great resource for school districts.

And it’s one way to help boost the number of substitutes.

“People retire and might not be sure what to do next,” Miles said. “This is a perfect avenue for them because it’s not full time, but they are able to still participate in something they love.”

Griffith said that, to recruit more subs, Penns Valley takes a two-pronged approach — to motivate people to stick with subbing by providing a good atmosphere and increasing pay.

At Penns Valley, a substitute teacher can make $95 a day. That’s a $10 increase in the 2014-15 school year from the previous year, Griffith said.

Bald Eagle Area has the same daily stipend.

“Becoming a substitute teacher means that every day is different,” Garman said. “You are exposed to many different levels of learners, different ages and different ways to approach teaching. Being a sub means you can set your own schedule and work as often or as little as you like. I have heard many people say over the years that they love the variety that substitute teaching provides.”