Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Florida Schools Struggle to Hire Teachers By The Start Of School

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Students at DeSoto County High School started the year without their permanent leadership, Spanish or French teachers. In the meantime, Ronnie Padilla -- typically a math tutor -- is filling in as the substitute. Only he doesn't speak any French or Spanish.

Schools have been open for a couple of weeks across much of Florida, but not all of the students know who their teachers are yet.

There’s typically a lot of teacher turnover during the summer break, and schools can’t always get vacant teaching positions filled by the time school starts.

At DeSoto County High School in Southern Florida, Ronnie Padilla, a math tutor, is filling in as the French teacher. There’s only one problem: He doesn’t speak any French. Across from his classroom, Alma Cendejas — the school’s front desk receptionist — is filling in as the Spanish teacher until the school can find one.

Principals across Florida say the summer break just isn’t enough time to fill every open teaching position. Some numbers bear that out.

  • In Broward County, 119 teachers weren’t hired by the first day of school.
  • In Hillsborough County, about 150 teaching slots were vacant.
  • Miami-Dade schools started about 100 teachers short.
  • Orange County schools started with 36 vacancies
  • In Duval County, 33 teachers weren’t hired on time.

School officials say that’s not unusual for large school districts with tens of thousands of teachers — Miami-Dade has 22,000.

Still, the vacancies mean thousands of students are starting the school year without permanent teachers. In a school year that is only 180-days long and filled with high-stakes tests, these students are getting a late start.

Doug Peden, executive director of the American Association for Employment in Education, says it’s an age-old problem, and one not limited to Florida.

“In every state, school districts — they hire late,” Peden says. “And we know those classes can stay empty for a long time.”

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Shannon Fusco is the principal of DeSoto County High School, one of the Florida schools struggling to replace teachers who resigned over the summer break.

At DeSoto High, principal Shannon Fusco had to re-fill 35 teacher positions this summer. That’s half of her teaching staff. It took Fusco all summer to fill the vacancies, but she still came up three positions short.

“For some reason foreign language has been an exceptionally difficult area for us to hire,” she says.

Students at the small-town school, such as sophomore Eve Pence, have been patient about the situation. “Last year, I had four different Spanish teachers in one year because they all left,” Pence says. “And I still learned Spanish.”

But Pence says she would prefer to have one permanent teacher with a consistent style.

Principal Fusco acknowledges its a difficult situation for everyone.

“We don’t like putting students in those positions at all,” Fusco says. “But when we’re unable to find someone with the certification, or even the ability, we do the best that we can and we all pitch in.”

Principals can decide to not offer classes if they can’t find the right teachers.

Fusco cut the Advanced Spanish program, which was set to begin this year. But she says her goal is to expand the academic course offerings at her school. “I didn’t want to go backwards,” she says.

Teachers Resign At The End Of The Summer

One reason some schools find themselves in this bind is because teachers sometimes wait until the very end of summer to notify schools they won’t be coming back.

That’s partly due to a misconception. Some teachers think they won’t get their health insurance over the summer if they quit in June, even though they do. 

Carol Kindt is senior executive director for Human Resources in Orange County schools. She says not all teachers understood their benefits run through the summer.

To address the problem, the district changed its contract to reflect that the end date for employment was Sept. 1, rather than the last day of school.

“So there should be no confusion as to whether they’re employed or not employed,” Kindt says.

The district with more than 12,000 teachers started the school year with 36 teacher vacancies –24 resigned late.

In Broward County — the nation’s sixth largest school district — more than 500 teachers resigned just two weeks before the start of the school year.

“It’s very difficult for any district to meet that challenge,” says Gracie Diaz, who is in charge of hiring teachers in Broward. “I think we all want to have every teacher by the first day of school.”

Diaz says lots of people apply —- just not in the fields they’re looking for. The district held a last-minute teacher job fair, hoping to fill all the vacancies. Some 800 candidates showed up, but only seven of those candidates taught math or science.

“Mathematics, science, speech and language pathology, some of the special ed areas, those are where we’re seeing the need,” Diaz says. “Especially science this year.”

‘You Learn It’

At DeSoto High last year, students went without a teacher certified in physics or chemistry for three months. Substitute teacher Sue Knight filled in for those classes. As a sub, Knight says you just “wing it.”

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Sue Knight is a substitute teacher at DeSoto High. Last year, she filled in as a science teacher for three months. This year, she's teaching Spanish until the principal can find a permanent teacher. She doesn't speak any Spanish, though.

“If it’s a subject that you don’t know, then you take the book home every night and you do homework,” Knight says. “And you learn it.”

The entire science department helped out by creating lesson plans for Knight. The school principal even brought in a retired physics teacher to help out in the classroom.

Florida schools are expected to have permanent staff in place for all core subject classes by early October, when the Florida Department of Education checks to see if schools have met class-size requirements.

But when schools have a hard time attracting teachers, there’s little the FLDOE can say or do.

Defending Teachers

Jeremy Glazer is a former teacher in Miami and Philadelphia. He says he doesn’t defend teachers who wait until the final days of the summer break to notify schools they won’t be returning – because he believes it has a negative effect on students.

But he says volatile staffing situations cut both ways: Teachers often don’t know what their role will be at a school — or if they’ll even have a role — until just before classes begin.

“At the last minute, you can be told you’re not coming back,” Glazer says. “Or that you’re teaching something that is completely different. And the message you get is that you’re expendable.”

Not only do many teachers not get to choose which subjects they’re teaching, they also don’t get much time to prepare if they find out weeks before the start of the school year.

StateImpact Florida recently interviewed a first year teacher who had just over a week to prepare his curriculum for the year.

“And that’s not good for anybody,” Glazer says. “It’s not good for morale, it’s not good for the teacher, it’s not good for the students, it’s just not a smart way to do things.”

Editor’s note: Broward County schools updated their numbers on teacher vacancies. An earlier version of this story published an out-of-date number. 

Our story on Florida schools starting the year with hundreds of teacher vacancies is helping one high school fill teaching positions that have been empty for weeks.








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