Chicago principals say they are struggling with a severe lack of substitute teachers, spending hours a day finding substitutes or teaching themselves – even having to leave aides in charge of classes.

Several principals contacted by Catalyst Chicago say the district’s substitute center rarely, if ever, provides them with substitutes, even when requests are sent in several days in advance. The problems started in spring 2012, principals say, but got worse during this winter’s massive flu outbreak.

In November, Catalyst filed an open records law request with CPS for data including teacher absences, substitute teacher spending by school, and the steps the district is taking to reduce teacher absences. Last Thursday, the district said it could not fulfill the request because it was “unduly burdensome” and would require more than 40 hours of work to collect the data.

Another factor contributing to the shortage could be new restrictions on teachers’ ability to get paid for unused sick days. That could mean more teachers who are sick are staying home, rather than coming to work in hopes of getting money for unused sick days later.

“Every day we are without subs and we are plugging the holes [by] pulling people off schedules,” said another principal, Tamara Witzl of Telpochcalli Elementary. When the special education teacher must cover classes, students do not get their mandated services. When the world language teacher gets sub duty, students skip that class.

Witzl says she tries to book substitutes she knows in advance, but that it’s hard because they are in such great demand.

“The amount of time I am spending either plugging the holes or tag-teaming can be between an hour and two hours, almost every single day,” Witzl says. “It is extremely stressful. Day-to-day operations are being disrupted. We don’t have any subs coming out to the schools, and we don’t know why.”

One issue could be a district rule that, starting in 2010, required substitute teachers to have teaching certificates “to alleviate concerns from principals regarding sub quality,” says CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler. But, she says, existing subs were grandfathered in.

The district has roughly 3,000 substitutes, Ziegler says, including 600 that were hired in August – but CPS is trying to find “several hundred more” through job fairs and outreach to retirees.

Chicago’s substitutes are spread more thinly than those in Los Angeles, another large urban district. According to state teacher service records, Chicago has roughly 17,500 classroom teachers, or about 5.8 teachers for every substitute. Los Angeles, by comparison, has 4.6 classroom teachers per sub.

Several studies done in the 1990s and early 2000s suggest that nationally, about 5 percent of teachers are absent each school day. This would suggest CPS would need at least 1,260 substitutes each day, but that number doesn’t include substitutes who are used when teachers are released from class due to professional development and testing.

Also, teacher absenteeism can be higher in high-poverty schools like many of those in CPS. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, 15.5 percent of CPS teachers missed 10 or more school days in 2008-09, the most recent year for which data was available.

“We hope that as the flu outbreak diminishes, absenteeism due to illness will also diminish,” Ziegler says.

Head teacher Marta Moya-Leang, the only administrator at Belmont Cragin Early Childhood Center, said the shortage has been particularly hard on her school.

“There was one time we had four teachers out. I can only go into one classroom [at a time],” she points out. “We have relied on the teacher assistants and the parents to help, and that’s not good.”

But Peck Elementary Principal Okab Hassan, a veteran, says that he has learned he has to fend for himself as far as substitutes are concerned.

“If I waited for the district, they would never do anything,” Hassan says. “When we have a sub that is good, we keep them in the file. I am not going to depend on anybody to make my school run.”

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