ST. LOUIS • On one school day last month, more than 30 Hamilton Elementary students sat cross-legged on the gym floor, laughing at an episode of the ’90s television show “Recess” that was being projected on the wall.
They were watching TV because they had no gym or art teachers that day, said substitute teacher Janet Burns, who was supervising them. Those teachers were absent.
That same day, fourth- and fifth-grade math teacher Chevelle Stewart was teaching math, English, science and social studies to 26 students because the fourth- and fifth-grade English teacher was out. Some of Stewart’s students were doubled up on opposite sides of the same desk.
Hamilton is just one example of St. Louis Public Schools’ teacher shortage problem. During the school year, it’s typical for the district to have 100 or more teaching vacancies, among fewer than 2,000 total teaching positions.
When teachers are missing — either because of position vacancies or absences — it hurts student learning. Students often are funneled into other classrooms or handed over to subs. The problem is compounded by the fact that high-poverty schools in north St. Louis often have the hardest time finding and keeping teachers, said Halliday Douglas, director of talent strategy and management for St. Louis Public Schools.
District leaders believe much of the turnover has to do with the way the district hires teachers. To address the problem, St. Louis Public Schools opened a staff recruitment office last year. The district is trying to be smarter about how it searches for and selects teachers to fill its classrooms.
“If we’re not selecting the right person in the first place, of course retention’s going to be a problem,” said Anna Westlund, the district’s recently appointed director for recruitment and a former principal.
Hamilton was short on teachers from the time school began last fall, when the principal learned that a special education teacher had quit over the summer to take another job.
By May, half of Hamilton’s teaching staff, or nine people, had left the school. At one point, Principal Starlett Frenchie needed five substitute teachers, on top of the two permanent subs the district had already assigned to Hamilton for the school year. But she could get only three.
Frenchie has showered her teachers with gift bags, words of encouragement and homemade chicken noodle soup to boost morale and encourage them to stay.
“I try to send teachers out with a bag feeling very special, very good at the end of the year so that they’re thinking about coming back here next year and not looking for a job over the summer,” Frenchie said.
Frenchie said she could only guess as to why those teachers left. The district conducts exit interviews with teachers who leave, but she said she didn’t receive reports from those interviews.
She suspects pay is part of it. In the 2016-2017 school year, the median salary for Hamilton staff was $39,015 a year, which is the district’s starting salary.
But the classroom environment, specifically student discipline, may also play a role. Last year was the first year the district halted out-of-school suspensions for kindergartners through second-graders.
The policy was intended as a way to keep students in school and learning. But that year, Frenchie lost all her K-2 teachers.
Frenchie said her staff could use more resources to meet the demands of such a policy, such as training on how to manage distressed or unruly children in the classroom. She could also use more staff to handle such students in school. Hamilton has an in-school suspension coordinator whose job is to help pupils work through their problems, but the coordinator has been absent so often that there hasn’t really been an in-school suspension program.
“Teachers are coming out of college. They’re not coming from a place where they’re equipped to deal with some of these social-emotional traumas that we experience in urban education. As a result, it tends to create traumatized adults,” said Frenchie, who has been principal at Hamilton for seven years and is the district’s elementary school leader of the year.
Job offers pending
At hiring time in past years, the district’s central office would toss Frenchie more than a dozen résumés for teachers. Some would be disqualified immediately for lack of state certification. There was no standard way of hiring across schools. Frenchie remembers calling area universities, such as Fontbonne and Harris-Stowe, to ask if they could recommend any new graduates.
To hire teachers for next school year, “we built an entire selection process,” Westlund said. “I don’t know that we had a very firm or defined one before.”
This year, Westlund’s office screened all applications within 48 hours. The district interviewed candidates by phone, then brought them in for an interview with multiple principals. Candidates have to teach a sample lesson and hear feedback on their teaching.
Frenchie said she liked the new hiring process and had hopes that she would have success in keeping teachers in the coming school year. She has offers out to fill all nine teaching positions she needs for the fall.