Potential drop in quality of instruction cited

By Marquita Brown/The Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON — Illness, having babies, family emergencies, National Guard deployment and jury duty draw teachers out of classrooms and away from students.

In fiscal 2011 alone, districts in the Jackson-metro area paid more than $3.7 million to substitute teachers, according to information The Clarion-Ledger obtained through public records requests.

In the U.S., from the time they start kindergarten through 12th grade, students average a full year with a substitute, said Bo Hynes, human resources director for Rankin County schools.

“We want to do better than that,” he said.

With the emphasis on boosting student achievement while working with tighter budgets, school districts are focusing on teacher attendance and making sure when teachers are gone their substitutes do more than baby-sit.

“We want to make sure that substitute is prepared to make a difference in the classroom,” Hynes said.

A state average and substitute teacher costs for all of Mississippi’s 152 school districts were not immediately available.

But in general, local districts’ substitute teacher costs have declined. For example, Hinds County schools paid $455,733 in fiscal 2009. That amount fell to $436,701 last fiscal year, said Earl Burke, the district’s chief financial officer and director of business services.

The exception is Jackson Public Schools.

Jackson Public Schools’ substitute teacher costs have risen over the past three years, costing the district $1,358,474 in fiscal 2011. With more than 30,000 students, JPS is the largest district in the area and the second largest in the state.

In DeSoto County schools, which has an enrollment of more than 31,000 students and is the state’s largest district, the amount paid for substitutes fell from almost $1.7 million in fiscal 2009 to more than $1.2 million last year.

“There’s a very delicate balance act there in terms of when to approve leave, when not to approve leave,” said Kevin Gilbert, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators. “And as much as possible, the school is going to want the teacher to remain in the classroom.”

But there are situations such as JPS recently encountered. Carol Dorsey, JPS’ executive director of human resources, said she got a leave request from a teacher who is a guardsman going to the East Coast to help clean up damage from Hurricane Irene.

At DeSoto Central High School in 2010, two teachers had cancer and four were on maternity leave, according to the district. DeSoto Central High is still a star school, the state Department of Education’s top designation.

The success or failure of students hinges on ensuring the teacher is “highly trained, highly qualified and effective,” Gilbert said.

Ideally, the substitute hired would be knowledgeable of the subject they’re teaching “so the students won’t lose anything,” Gilbert said. “But that’s in a utopian society.”

It’s important the substitutes have training on classroom management and other skills needed to hold things together until the regular teacher returns, Gilbert said.

Substitutes come from a range of professions. A general requirement is that they have at least two years of college.

JPS has a new policy that substitutes must have a bachelor’s degree, Dorsey said. Existing substitutes with associate’s degrees were grandfathered in, she said.

“We just feel that if someone has taken the time to go through and complete their four years of education, they may be a little more committed, a little more apt to follow through the requirements that we have,” Dorsey said.

The district also has had a pool of substitutes who were working toward getting teacher licenses, so it is an opportunity for recruitment, she said.

Officials from the local school districts all said they are cutting back on teachers’ travel for training and instead offering professional development at the school whenever possible.

Having the regular certified teacher in the classroom makes a big difference, they said.

“If a teacher’s out of the classroom for 10 or more days, learning is significantly hampered in that classroom, so we make every effort we can to keep our teachers in there,” Hynes said.

Teachers are allowed eight sick days and two personal days. With extended absences, school officials said they try to find a substitute or a retired teacher who is licensed and, if possible, certified in the area they will teach.

In Pearl, officials shared with teachers that they spent almost a quarter of a million dollars on substitutes. Some of the cost was incurred because teachers were away on training, Superintendent Ray Morgigno said. But he said they stressed “it’s just important that you be here, and we’ve got to give our kids our best.”

That means educators have to be present giving their best, he said.

Pearl schools now offers various types of training, such as classroom management, online. That way, teachers can use some of their free periods or personal time to get extra training they need, Morgigno said.

The district also has a new initiative to recognize a school of the year, and teacher attendance is one factor, Morgigno said.

Training is offered in-house, and teachers learn and study together, he said. “We do a lot of collaboration, and we do it every week.”

That has paid off, even when a substitute was used, Morgigno said.

Last year, a substitute teacher who was certified in Spanish filled in in an English II class, one of the courses included in standardized tests high school students must pass to graduate. The English Department chairman worked with the substitute during the planning periods and modeled lessons. The teachers use common lesson plans, so they worked on that together, Morgigno said.

In the end, “it worked out really, really well,” he said. “They (students) didn’t miss a beat.”