In classrooms with missing teachers, one student said the school can feel like "a jigsaw puzzle."
As a Chicago Public Schools social worker, Emily Penn's job is to travel between two schools, making sure her special education students get the services they need. But at one of those schools, she was furious her students couldn't even get the basics: a teacher.
For two long years, her students, most of whom have learning disabilities, had no special education teacher to teach them directly or work in the regular classroom to adjust lessons and make sure they understood.
"I feel helpless," said Penn, who has been working in Chicago Public Schools since 2006. The North Lawndale school serves an all-black, high-poverty student population. Penn withheld the name of the school because she doesn't want to bring it negative attention.
On top of that, Penn said no substitute came through. So the already-stressed general education teacher tried her best, and the assistant principal, who has a background in special education, monitored their progress between other duties.
But she said it was nowhere near what these students deserved. Penn said watching these little boys and girls suffer was demoralizing. "I think about the statistics and the school-to-prison pipeline."
By contrast, Penn's other school, with mostly white and middle class students, got two additional special education teacher positions midyear and was able to fill them within a few months, she said.
This is the stark reality in Chicago Public Schools. Last school year, almost a third of 520 district-run schools — 152 — had at least one regular education or special education teacher position open all year long, a WBEZ analysis shows.
The problem is most acute at schools serving low-income and black students. They are twice as likely as all other schools to have a yearlong teacher vacancy. Chicago's 28 schools with majority white student populations had no yearlong vacancies.
And making matters worse CPS also has a severe substitute teacher shortage, a WBEZ analysis shows. At 62 schools, half the time a teacher was absent no substitute showed up.
Here, again, there is a racial disparity. When majority black and Latino Chicago public schools request a substitute to cover a class, subs didn't show up 35% of the time, data from September 2018 through March 2019 shows. That's compared to 20% at majority-white or racially-mixed schools. Substitute teachers can turn down any school assignment.
One South Side mother told WBEZ her daughter never gets a sub when her special education teacher is absent. "She does nothing ... nothing of any education value that day," said the mother, who didn't want to be identified because she fears retribution from the principal.
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Chicago Public School officials acknowledge the problems filling substitute requests and teacher vacancies. They also note that just because there's a vacancy doesn't mean students miss instruction. Principals will usually make sure students get some work and they will do their best to work with the teachers they have, officials say.
But students, parents, teachers and community organizers tell stories of students not having math, English, gym, Spanish or special education support for months at a time, if not an entire year.
One parent, who wanted to remain anonymous, said when her child's school couldn't fill one of two sixth-grade teacher positions, the one teacher took on all 57 students in that grade.
Often, when there is a long-term vacancy, students get a parade of substitutes who might give them worksheets or worse — spend time sitting in an auditorium without any school work to do.
"It was really like a jigsaw puzzle," 18-year-old Cris Hernandez said of her sophomore English class experience at Gage Park High School, an all low-income school serving kids of color on the Southwest Side. For most of the year, the class had no teacher. Students didn't know where to hand in papers or who was grading them.
A lot of her classmates failed the class, she said.
Asked why she thinks this happened, Cris had a simple answer: "We are a high-crime, low-priority school," she said.
Cris Hernandez stands in front of Gage Park High School, where her sophomore year English class went without a teacher for most of the year.
School district leaders constantly say they want to make the school district more equitable. And nothing gets to the heart of the district's inequities more than the reality that some schools struggle securing teachers while others are fully staffed, said Matt Lyons, CPS' chief talent officer.
But he said this is an outgrowth of systemic and societal issues that can't be fixed quickly. Over the past few years, the school district has started one program that helps 60 struggling schools hire teachers and another that pays extra money to subs willing to work in 75 hard-to-staff schools. It also plans to expand a program that offers alternative teaching degrees in areas like special education.
Lyons said these programs are starting to work, but acknowledges there is a long way to go.
Rachel Metz of The Education Trust, a Washington D.C.-based organization that works to close the "opportunity gap" affecting low-income students of color, said this is a problem across the country.
"We know that high poverty schools with vacancies were one and a half more times as likely to not be able to fill that vacancy in at least one field compared to low poverty schools," Metz said.
Chicago is confronting these issues against the backdrop of a well-known teacher shortage across the country. Locally, almost 3,000 positions in schools went unfilled across the state, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Experts say the shortage is the result of a confluence of factors.
"Stagnant salaries that have not kept pace with other professions, under-resourced schools that contribute to stressful working conditions and the climate of teacher bashing," said Sandra Beyda-Lorie, dean of the College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University.
An annual survey of Illinois superintendents found that in 2018 upwards of 85% said they had a problem finding teachers and substitutes. Superintendents in central and southern Illinois reported the most trouble getting qualified candidates.
But Chicago is unique, Lyons said. While those superintendents might need to fill one or two vacancies a year, he is charged with getting good, qualified people into hundreds of jobs each year. He said vacancies have grown in recent years as Chicago's finances have stabilized and principals have opened more positions.
"That is a great thing, but it also puts more pressure on us to solve some of these shortages because an open position doesn't mean anything if it is not a filled position," Lyons said.
For special education students, a missing teacher means there's no one to adapt lessons for them and support them.
The special education puzzle
Special education teacher positions are the hardest to fill. About half of all Chicago public schools had at least one empty special teacher position in each quarter of last year, CPS' employee roster shows. That record excludes charter schools.
One hundred special education positions stayed open for at least three months. Another 100 stayed open the entire school year.
On top of that, it's hard to get a special education teacher substitute. More than 130 schools got a sub less than half the time they requested one.
And teachers and parents say principals often don't even request them. Special education and general education teachers say they are sometimes hesitant to ask for a sub to cover their class so they can coach other teachers or plan with a colleague. They fear no sub will show up, and they don't want their students to miss out on learning.
And then there's the money angle. Substitutes are paid by schools out of money used for teacher positions. But school district officials say it is so little each day — less than $200 — that they don't think it is a disincentive to request them.
Making matters worse for special education students, their teachers sometimes are pulled away from their students to cover for an absent classroom teacher. That deeply frustrates the Englewood mother of the special education student who said her daughter learns nothing when her teacher is absent. She said it makes her feel as if her school doesn't value the education of students with disabilities.
But the practice is common, according to the Chicago Teachers Union and a state official who monitors the school district's special education department. In its current contract fight, the union is demanding it stop.
The teachers union also would like to see substitutes receive benefits and full-time positions in schools paid for by the school district. Currently, some schools pay for a full-time teacher who works as a substitute floater. But because the money for this position comes out of the school's budget, it means they have less for other positions, like an art teacher or a reading specialist.
When special education students are deprived of instruction, it is not only against the law, but it also is one reason they are falling behind, said Heather Calomese, the executive director of special education services for the Illinois State Board of Education.
"It has to be a priority because we see it play out on the back end," said Calomese, noting that a limited number of disabled students from Chicago Public Schools go to college.
Principal Jasmine Thurmond said the teacher and substitute shortage hits a school like hers extra hard. She works in Englewood on the South Side.
"The perception is that Englewood is a dangerous place to live and it is a dangerous place to work," she said. "And because the media does such a great job at perpetuating that, it ends up becoming an internal bias for some folks so much so sometimes they don't apply for schools that are in areas like Englewood or Austin or Roseland. If folks aren't applying, then we can't bring them on."
Two years ago, King Elementary went without a gym teacher and a math/science teacher for several months. Sometimes a substitute stepped in, but other times Thurmond or her assistant principal had to cover.
Overall, they only got sub coverage only 44% of the times they requested one, according to CPS data.
When it comes to teaching positions, she said the problem is often the quality of the candidates.
"As a principal, it is important to me that I never lead from the space of, 'I just need to get a body in here who has the endorsement,' because then you are leading from a compliance lense, as opposed to doing what is in the best interest of children," she said.
The task of finding teachers has gotten somewhat easier for her. Now, going into her fourth year, she's built relationships with universities and others that help her fill positions.
Also, her school is part of one of the school district's programs to tackle the issue of teacher vacancies. King Elementary is one of 60 so-called Opportunity Schools. The school district recruits teachers, vets them, hires them and then plays matchmaker between schools and candidates. It also supports the new teachers once they are in the schools.
Lyons said a key is that teacher candidates are brought in to tour Opportunity Schools.
"Despite what someone might read, assume or hear from a friend, you walk into these schools and they are safe, they are welcoming, students are smiling and happy to be there and happy to learn," he said.
King Elementary also will be the site of a teacher residency program that the district is expanding this year. The residency programs allows people with bachelor's degrees to be apprentice teachers at schools while they pursue an alternative, quicker path to a teaching degree.
Stressed out schools
Metz, of The Education Trust, applauds programs like CPS' Opportunity Schools and says similar efforts have reduced vacancies in high poverty schools.
But they don't get to the core of underlying problems: working conditions and the candidates the school district is attracting.
Teachers might shy away from schools where the students are dealing with the effects of poverty. This is especially true, Metz said, if the teacher has a different background than the students.
"To be frank, it is sometimes easier, particularly if you are a white teacher, to teach students who have a similar background to you," Metz said.
Chicago Public Schools officials have said they are actively trying to recruit 3,000 teachers of color to the school district over the next five years. But black teachers make up only 21% of all Chicago Public School teachers, down from more than 40% in 2000. Black students make up 37%of the student population.
Making matters worse, CPS schools serving poor students are the most under-resourced as a result of CPS' per-pupil budgeting system. They struggle to hold on to students and are therefore penalized financially for each student they lose. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot last week said the school district is going to spend a year examining whether the way money is doled out to schools creates inequities — and whether there's a better way.
Jessica Cañas, who works as for the Little Village Education Collaborative, said parents and students often tell her their schools are missing a teacher in one subject or another. She said she sees it as part of a pattern.
"Our schools in Little Village have historically been disinvested in, like every year when the budget comes out, we are waiting to see how much is going to be cut," she said of the schools in the low-income, mostly Latino area on the Southwest Side.
Chicago Public Schools also faces criticism for failing to do enough to hold principals accountable for high teacher turnover, lingering vacancies or for making sure students without teachers get a quality education.
Just two years ago, the state found Chicago Public Schools had violated the law when, in part to save money, it implemented an overhaul that led to the delay and denial of services to special education students. It appointed a monitor to oversee the department.
That monitor, Laura Boedeker, said the school district needs to mandate that principals prove special education students are getting instruction, whether they have a teacher or not.
"It is time to intensify that accountability," she said. "Principals have so much to do already, and I recognize that. But special education, you have vacancies, so you are going to have to show us what you are doing."
She said some principals do a "beautiful" job of changing teacher schedules to cover for a missing teacher. But she said over the past year she has encountered situations where principals cannot prove students are getting any of the instruction they are entitled to.
Boedeker is also frustrated at the lack of substitutes for special education students and the practice of forcing special education teachers to cover classes for absent regular education teachers. She said the school district and the Chicago Teachers Union, which represents substitutes, need to look for solutions.
The union said the school district needs to take principals to task when schools become toxic work environments that drive teachers away.
Sara Echevarria, the head of the CTU's grievance department, said Smyth Elementary in the West Loop is an example of how a school can unravel and students be hurt. She said for the last year, teachers have filed grievances and complained about what they call a bully principal. She said sometimes the school district does take action, but it takes a long time. By then, the damage is done.
"CPS may be looking into this, but if it does anything, it is delayed," she argued.
CPS data shows Smyth is among the worst schools when it comes to vacancies. In addition to one year-long vacancy, it had several shorter-term vacancies as teachers left before new ones could be hired. At any given time last school year it had at least four vacancies.
Chicago Public School officials emphasize that schools like Smyth are an exception. They say there are plenty of schools that are in poor neighborhoods, but whose principals cultivate such great environments that they have few openings.
It is unclear how aware Smyth parents are of the situation. For example, a Smyth parent who was asked about her daughter's missing math and science teacher, insisted everything was OK because almost all students passed the U.S. Constitution test.
Also, community organizations say parents don't want to complain because they worry it will make their schools look bad.
In Chicago Public Schools, where parents and students choose schools, looking bad can often spell doom. If school can't attract teachers, that could make it hard to attract students, then the school loses money and staff and it becomes even less attractive.
Principals, teachers, parents and students worry constantly about falling into this destructive downward spiral.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.