Substitute teachers have long been in short supply in the Chicago public schools. As many as 1,500 requests come into the “sub center” each day, but only two-thirds of them can be filled.

Under a new human resources director, central office has resolved to do better. “It is an issue that has been creeping up on us for some time,” says Carlos Ponce, CPS director of human resources. “We have started a very aggressive recruitment program, and this year have begun to take a much closer look at how we recruit and use our substitutes.”

In recent months, human resources has hired an experienced manager to oversee the sub center and plans to clean up an outdated registry of available substitute teachers. Its most innovative effort has been actively recruiting off-duty firemen and policemen as substitutes.

The board has hired substitute teachers from the ranks of the police and fire departments in the past. But Ponce credits CEO Paul Vallas for being the first to push for a formal recruiting effort. In January, the board placed advertisements in the fire and police department employee newsletters.

Of those who responded, 24 policemen and eight firemen have registered to become substitutes. As with any sub, they must have at least a bachelor’s degree, but it can be in any subject. The pay scale for substitutes with a teaching certificate is $94.84 per day; without a certificate, $70.22 per day.

John O’Mally, a police officer from the 18th District, responded to an ad for substitutes last winter. As a master’s degree student in education at Roosevelt University, O’Mally was looking to get some hands-on teaching experience. By February, he was substituting at Roosevelt High School in Albany Park.

“When I saw the ad … I decided to go for it,” says O’Mally. “When I first went to Roosevelt, I was challenged somewhat because I was a cop, but once the students realized that I was there to teach and not discipline, their perception changed.”

Fireman James Litland from Engine 82 signed up as a CPS substitute teacher long before the recruitment ad ran. He substitutes at Cassell Elementary in Mt. Greenwood, but is a frequent substitute at Bogan High School, where he graduated in 1991.

Litland, who minored in education in college, is considering going back to school for a master’s in education. But at the moment, he says he enjoys doing both jobs.

“Substituting allows me to have the best of both worlds,” says Litland. “I am able to keep the fireman job that I love, and fulfill my teaching dream. I get my schedule for the fire department a year in advance, so I know ahead of time when I am available. I work one day at the fire department and then two days off, so I am pretty active in the schools.”

Litland’s flexible schedule is a huge plus for Bogan Principal Linda Pierzchalski. “James is a fantastic sub,” she says. “He is very accessible when I need him. If I notify him ahead of time, he will usually work his schedule around to come in on that day. This is very beneficial to me and the children. We get used to having the same substitute all the time. I have three other firemen working as substitutes here, and I can count on them too.”

Though the program has been modestly successful, Ponce concedes that recruiting firemen and policemen as substitute teachers is not “a long-term solution” to addressing the shortage. The need for substitutes in the Chicago public schools is systemwide but critical on the West Side, where safety is a concern for school staff and students.

First, the substitute center will be restructured, says Ponce. Previously, a school official would call the substitute center and request a substitute for the day. The center would respond by filling out a job ticket and posting it until a substitute was located to fill the request. But under this system, tracking who accepted which job was difficult.

By next spring or fall, the paper-based system will be automated. Substitutes must call in advance to alert the center that they are available. Their skills will then be matched against the needs of individual schools. The goal is for the center to cut down on the amount of time its takes to locate available substitutes.

The new computers will also be used to create a more efficient database of qualified substitute teachers and purge the system of outdated records. “I need for the sub center to go beyond being just a dispatch function,” Ponce says. “We are trying to establish new standards. We want to get rid of the negative idea that we will hire anyone who has a bachelor’s degree and is breathing.”

In July, the board hired Brenda J. Bell to oversee the restructuring of the substitute center. Bell has more than 20 years experience in operations management and human resources—and according to Bell, her qualifications will allow her to “recruit the right people.”

“We are focusing on customer’s needs and trying to meet them,” says Bell. “The schools are our customers. We want to ensure that they get quality and reliable substitutes.”

Ponce says the board has no master plan for closing the substitute teacher gap. Their goal, he says, is to make incremental progress.

“What we are doing is building a plane while we are flying it,” he says. ” We have no time to stop and come up with a plan to get this ready for the Fall of 1999. But what we will do is head in the direction we want to go and start making new improvements. If something doesn’t work out, we will bounce right back and try something else.”

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