Third Week of School, Kids Still Lack Teachers | WBEZ
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Third Week of School, Kids Still Lack Teachers

This is the third week of school in Chicago. But thousands of high school students still haven't met their teachers. It's a longstanding problem that we reported on the first day of school. It happens when more students show up at a given school than the district projects. Kids get assigned to overcrowded classes, or see a revolving door of substitutes until permanent teachers are put in place. The district promised that kids would not have to wait as long for teachers this year. WBEZ's Linda Lutton checks in to see how things are going.

Related: Kids Start School Without Teachers

On the first day of school this year, Chicago's central office sent eight long-term substitutes to Amundsen High School on the North Side.

To principal Carlos Muñoz, it seemed like Christmas.

MUÑOZ: We needed three English teachers-we got 'em. We needed a social studies teacher, we got it. In past years we had to just flounder.

Muñoz says this year students are in class with consistent substitutes, though it's true that some of them are leading classes they're not qualified to teach.

MUÑOZ: Perfect? No. I mean, the perfect, ideal world would be you have the regular teacher the first day of school, OK? But it's a better solution? Yes.

Amundsen's subs were among 124 the district sent to 35 high schools- an insurance policy against a flood of extra kids. Amundsen, for instance, got nearly 200 extra students this year. The subs are meant to stand in until CPS gives schools the go-ahead to hire the extra teachers they need.

But some say this new solution is still a problem, one that CPS will have to solve if it wants to improve stubborn high school achievement scores and graduation rates.

KNOWLES: If a teacher isn't there, that's a fundamental problem.

Timothy Knowles directs the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.

KNOWLES: It's a problem for the student, particularly kids who are coming from unstable environments. It's a problem for the teacher when the teacher does finally show up, because they are going to be battling the classroom back. And it's a problem for the school culture itself.

Knowles says that, especially in tough neighborhoods,the relationship between teacher and student is really important.

KNOWLES: To get to school and find that there's no one there, or that there's somebody there who may be gone tomorrow is exactly what high schools don't need.

It's not hard to find kids who still haven't met their permanent teachers. Students even have a name for the substitutes staffing their classes.

STUDENTS: Place holder…place holders

Placeholders. That's what's written on many students' schedules when they're assigned a class without a teacher.

LUTTON: When you see that, what does that mean?
STUDENT: I don't know, really. We ain't got no teacher at the moment.

These students go to Chicago Vocational Career Academy on the South Side.

STUDENT: We have different subs like every day. It was like different subs. And they don't really teach us nothing. They just give us crossword puzzles.
LUTTON: This is happening right now?
STUDENT: Uh-huh.
LUTTON: What class?
STUDENT: American Lit.

At this school, the enrollment projections were actually correct. So maybe it's the principal who didn't plan well here. But in this system, principals never know exactly how many kids they'll have or how many teachers they'll need.

Schools chief Ron Huberman has said he wants to get better at projections,and he's sped up the process of hiring teachers when the projections are off.

HUBERMAN: We've made some tweaks to the policy for this year, but it's something that we need to watch on an ongoing basis.

Some believe more than tweaking is needed-that Chicago needs to stop guessing where kids are going to high school and ask them to state their plans, or assign them.

That's what happens in New York City, which has hundreds more high schools than Chicago. Students there choose up to a dozen schools they'd like to attend, and the district matches them to a school. New York district spokesman Andrew Jacob says most students get an assignment letter five months before the first day of school.

JACOB: It basically wouldn't be possible to send way more students to a school than there is space available. Because before we place a student somewhere we know exactly how many seats are available.

Back at Amundsen, CPS authorized principal Muñoz to hire six new teachers last week-"definitely faster" than in previous years, he says. Muñoz is interviewing teachers right now. Then there'll be paperwork. He figures students will meet their teachers sometime between the end of this week and October 1-that's four weeks into the school year.

Music Button: Thievery Corporation, "Chez Roger Boite Funk", from the CD The Outernational Sound, (ESL records)

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