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Charlotte-area schools must 'get creative' to cover classes as students return

Brandy Guiton, a long-time teacher assistant at Lowell Elementary School, prepares for her first day as a fourth-grade teacher there.
Ann Doss Helms
Brandy Guiton, a longtime teacher assistant at Lowell Elementary School, prepares for her first day as a fourth-grade teacher there.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is offering teachers extra pay to sign up for a semester of covering classes during their planning period.

Gaston County Schools brought students back Wednesday with about 4% of its teacher jobs unfilled.

Both districts say they just can't find enough teachers to meet their needs, even with federal COVID-19 money being used to provide bonuses and extra pay.

"It is not a myth in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that we are experiencing a shortage," said Christine Pejot, CMS's chief human resources officer.

CMS still has 341 classroom teacher jobs vacant, down only slightly since last week's report to the school board. That's a vacancy rate similar to Gaston County's, and WUNC reports the same for Wake County, the state's largest district. WUNC found rates as high as 11% in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and 15.6% in Durham.

Pejot said CMS recruitment will continue, but "principals are going to have to get creative with how we’re going to ensure that classrooms are covered."

Evidence begins to emerge

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic upended education there has been talk of an exodus from teaching. Anecdotes abounded, but confirmation has been slow, partly because state and national data take time to compile.

Laura Francisco, CMS associate superintendent for human resources
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Laura Francisco, CMS associate superintendent for human resources

North Carolina's most recent teacher turnover report, filed in February, showed only a small increase in attrition, but it only ran through March of 2021. CMS reported losing 854 teachers between March 2020 and March 2021.

Laura Francisco, the associate superintendent in charge of human resources for CMS, said there have been 2,693 separations between July 1, 2021, and this week. The numbers are not directly comparable to the state tally, she said, but the spike is real.

"It is more than twice what we’ve seen in previous years, including the main pandemic year when we weren’t in school," Francisco said Wednesday.

Pejot says the biggest trend she’s seeing is teachers leaving the profession. But they’re also moving among districts, with an array of signing bonuses and extra pay to sweeten the pot.

"As far as the incentives go, I feel like it’s been almost an ‘up the ante’ type thing," Pejot said. "School districts have been extremely competitive with trying to use their ARP funds to be able to not only attract but also retain their current teaching staff. "

Strategies to fill gaps

ARP funds are federal COVID-19 aid, which is available through 2024. CMS has used some of that money to offer an extra $5,000 for teachers in hard-to-fill positions, such as special education and secondary math. It’s also using federal money to pay for a new pool of permanent substitutes, known as guest teachers, who are assigned to schools to help fill gaps.

CMS has also increased the number of teachers hired from overseas through cultural exchange programs, from 32 last year to 50 this year, Francisco said.

"A lot of people are thinking that we're getting language teachers," Francisco said. "The last group that we added provided seven or eight advanced math and science teachers."

But with gaps looming, CMS is expanding its program to pay teachers to cover for unstaffed classes and absent colleagues. Last year the district offered $35 for each planning period given up to cover a class.

"This year we’ve broadened that to really be a semester-long coverage role for a teacher, where they will give up their planning, do their planning after school, and take on an additional period for the entire semester," Francisco said. They'll be paid a pro-rated portion of their state salary, without the local supplement.

In Gaston County, where classes have begun, Chief Communications Officer Todd Hagans said they're also filling gaps.

"You are relying on substitute teachers, long-term substitutes. You are relying on retirees," he said. "And you are relying on other school personnel to fill those positions — the teacher positions, the bus driver positions."

'Grow your own'

The number of graduates from teacher preparation programs has fallen short of the need for years, even before the pandemic. Even Teach For America, which recruits and trains teachers from nontraditional backgrounds, fell short of its agreement to send 80 teachers to CMS this year, Francisco said. The program usually asks if CMS can take additional recruits, she said, but this year it provided only 49 teachers.

Brandy Guiton had desks prepared for her fourth-grade students at Lowell Elementary School as she began her first year teaching.
Ann Doss Helms
Brandy Guiton had desks prepared for her fourth-grade students at Lowell Elementary School as she began her first year teaching.

Both Gaston and CMS are encouraging teacher assistants to move into teaching jobs. Gaston had hoped to recruit 40 people for its assistant-to-teacher scholarship program, but ended up with more than 50. One of them is Brandy Guiton, a new fourth-grade teacher who spent the last 18 years as an assistant at Lowell Elementary.

"As a teacher assistant I was everywhere," she said. "I subbed every day last year when COVID, COVID really hurt. But I also drive a bus, and then I just help assist in every grade level."

Guiton continues to take educator prep classes at Belmont Abbey College while taking on her new job. Because she’s familiar with her students and her colleagues, she said there’s only one thing that makes her nervous:

"The paperwork is what gets me," she said, laughing, the day before students returned. "I’m not worried about them being in the classroom, behavior, I’m not worried about any of that."

And now that she’s a teacher, she’s dropping the side gig as bus driver.

The CMS teacher residency program provides in-house preparation for assistants seeking to move up, as well as for community members interested in teaching career-tech classes. Pejot said it has been successful in developing teachers of color, and recently added a track to prepare people to become special education teachers, where shortages are especially severe. The CMS Foundation raises money for the program, which CMS hopes to expand.

Not a short-term struggle

Pejot said the pandemic amplified trends that were already shaping up, such as more people leaving the profession than entering it.

"You know, the temperature right now is reading as though it’s going to be a long-term challenge, and I think that states are going to have to look at this systemically to see what kind of major overhauls can be done," she said. "We would certainly advocate for higher salaries and continued innovative benefits for teachers."

North Carolina has a House committee looking at the future of education, and a panel appointed by the General Assembly drafting possible changes to teacher licensure and pay scales. But none of that work will bear fruit in time to shape this year’s back-to-school staffing scramble.

Updated: August 19, 2022 at 9:47 AM EDT
Updated Aug. 19 to include information from WUNC.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.