At a small elementary school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, members of the local school council this summer kept hearing about a crisis-level national teacher shortage. Worried about their school, they cornered the principal, Folasade Adekunle, to see what may lie ahead.
“They are like, ‘Are we good?’ ” Adekunle recalled. “And I said, ‘By all accounts, everyone is coming back and if we had a position I was mostly able to fill it.’ So I am both knocking on wood and patting myself on the back.”
Adekunle isn’t the only one. The number of jobs in CPS is on the rise — despite painful layoffs each spring, including a round this year affecting schools that lost enrollment, a WBEZ analysis of Sept. 30 CPS employee data shows. The number of jobs has been growing over several years, but the number is up over the past two years in particular because the district is flush with federal COVID-19 relief money. That money runs out in 2024.
There are more adults working in schools this year, and budgeted staff positions have grown by 10% over the past two years. CPS posted 40,344 staff positions in fall 2020. Currently, there are 44,347 positions in district-run schools. Most charter school positions are not included.
This comes even as enrollment has dropped by 18,500 students during that same period.
This growth is meaningful in a district that has always had to do without.
“I believe more is more,” said Adekunle, who has seen staffing at her school, Sayre Elementary, grow significantly over the last few years even while enrollment has remained around the same. She has more classroom and special education teachers, as well as a teacher freed up to provide case management for disabled students. She now has a social worker in the building every day,
“We are able to sort of expand the services that we have for students,” she said.
Over the last six years, CPS has seen an increase in key positions, including classroom teachers and teachers assistants, but other positions too — including coaches who help teachers improve instruction, nurses and staff to support homeless students, WBEZ’s analysis shows. CPS notes it continues to hire, including filling some additional positions since Sept. 30.
But the number of jobs doesn’t tell the whole story. Chicago’s teacher vacancy rate isn’t at crisis levels seen in some school districts, but vacancies remain a major issue, particularly in certain fields and schools.
CPS still has hundreds of openings in key support staff roles, including bus monitors and lunchroom workers. The school bus aide vacancy rate is 20%, data from Sept. 30 shows. For cooks, the vacancy rate is 18%.
And CPS is still short teachers. The teacher vacancy rate is 4%, up one point over last year. There were nearly 800 special education and regular teacher vacancies as of late September.
CPS leaders say the district tries to fill those holes by hiring year-round in nearly every job category, from lunchroom workers to security guards.
“Our team really works as matchmakers to help folks get a sense of what their skills and strengths are and find the right role, the right school, the right department in the district where they can do their best work for kids,” said Christine Murphy Judson, director of talent acquisition at CPS.
School leaders set out to hire more teachers this year than in 2021 to help recover from remote learning and the trials of the pandemic. But because of vacancies, there are roughly 200 fewer teachers in schools this year compared to last year, WBEZ’s analysis shows. CPS officials note that the school district has added almost 200 “lead coach” positions in schools. These are certified teachers who are charged with supporting and helping their peers improve instruction.
The staff vacancies affect all students, including those with special needs students, a group hit especially hard by the shortcomings of remote learning. The school district planned to hire 200 more special education teachers and 630 more special education classroom assistants. As of Sept. 30, it had hired 80 of those additional teachers and 500 additional assistants compared to last year.
Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle urged school district leaders to do their best to fill vacancies. “We budgeted them because they are needed,” he said.
Overall, vacancies are most acute in schools with largely low-income students. Among those schools, the teacher vacancy rate is about 5%, compared to 2% among those in which the majority of students aren’t low income. To cover, teachers and administrators step in for double duty or classes are covered by a substitute teacher.
The hiring story at Richards Career Academy in the Back of the Yards neighborhood illustrates the promise and peril this year holds.
Principal Ellen Kennedy added 20 positions over the last five years, including five classroom teachers, three security guards and a youth intervention specialist.
She did this with the help of a district hiring program she called “pivotal.” The Opportunity Schools program supports schools that have historically had trouble hiring.
“The impact really has been about the school experience for our young people, us being able to offer a few more courses than we normally had been able to offer, being able to bring some of the class sizes down a bit,” Kennedy said.
But Richards still needs a full-time math teacher. They’re managing with the existing math teacher covering the position, but it’s not a long-term solution.
“So how we’re gonna fully handle it all year long is still in progress, because I’m counting on finding a math teacher in the next two months,” Kennedy said. “Fingers crossed.”
Why does CPS need more staff?
Chicago Public Schools has long been understaffed compared to better-off districts with more resources to draw on. That’s something the state of Illinois has repeatedly documented. According to the state’s most recent analysis, CPS has only 75% of the financial resources required to provide students an “adequate” education.
The Chicago Teachers Union has homed in on the staffing issue for years, especially the shortage of nurses, social workers and others who help make sure students are physically and emotionally prepared to learn. In the 2019 teachers contract, the school district agreed to increase hiring in these areas.
CTU President Stacy Davis Gates called the boost in these support staff “absolutely necessary,” especially as students have returned to school in person amid the pandemic. But she said the district’s student-based budgeting system, where schools get a base amount tied to each student enrolled, continues to encourage schools to accept as many students as they can and overcrowd classrooms while others struggle and are left without enough students.
“The unevenness of what’s going on is still attributable to student-based budgeting,” she said. “It’s unfair. It exacerbates inequities that are already there, then you have this legacy of understaffing, this legacy of underfunding. And so even though you have more positions, per se, you don’t have enough.”
CPS’ hiring efforts
This school year, district leaders focused on increasing staffing levels for a key reason: to help students recover from the pandemic, said CEO Pedro Martinez. At the Chicago Board of Education meeting this week, Martinez shared low state test results for CPS students.
“It is not a reflection of our staff’s hard work, but it is the challenges that our families face during this pandemic,” he said.
That’s why extra staff in schools this year is critical, he said. “What I love is that when you look at the investments that we’ve made, we feel [are in a] very, very strong position for this year.”
Martinez and Chief Education Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova demanded that every school get an “interventionist” teacher position devoted to working with struggling students one on one or in small groups. They also gave some schools instructional coach positions.
Ben Felton, CPS’ deputy chief talent officer. CPS Felton said most interventionist positions have been filled, but because they are counted as regular teachers it is hard to get an exact count.
Work started before the pandemic put the school system in a good position to hire up, Felton said. The district has helped teacher assistants and others already working in schools to earn education degrees through a variety of financial and mentoring supports. The district also partners with universities to increase the flow of nurses and social workers.
“I have talked to colleagues from across the country, who just don’t have these pipeline strategies, they don’t have these sort of acquisition strategies, and they’re sort of subject to whatever the kind of traditional teacher preparation programs are giving them,” he said. “We’ve discovered that’s just simply not enough.”
The district also hosts job fairs for support staff once a month across the city. The fair this month was in East Garfield Park on the West Side. Next month, it will be in Woodlawn on the South Side.
The October fair, nearly two months into the school year, targeted high-vacancy roles in areas including transportation, nutrition and security. CPS was recruiting for roles like teacher aides, or paraprofessionals, and substitute teachers. Candidates also could sign up for a teacher residency for people who want to enter the classroom and need a structured pathway to get there. About 300 people registered for the fair.
Themesia Martin was among the candidates waiting in lines at the fair at CPS’ Garfield Park office to hand in resumes and learn about job openings. Martin, who lives in Wicker Park, attended a CPS job fair in 2018 and got hired in nutrition support. She’s now switching gears because she loves kids and hopes to land a job as a teacher assistant working with diverse learners. She recently earned her paraprofessional license.
“It’s been a learning experience, but I love it,” Martin said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
CPS says it’s aware certain schools, particularly those serving mostly low-income students, have ongoing struggles filling positions. That’s why the school district has worked to give those schools an advantage in hiring, Felton said.
Through the Opportunity Schools program, which the Richards principal cited as a big help, the human resource department vets and funnels candidates to these schools and they are allowed to hire earlier than other schools. Once new teachers are in place, they also get extra mentoring.
Sayre, the Northwest Side school that has added jobs over the last few years, is also an Opportunity school — which Principal Adekunle said has been a game changer. Once candidates are in the school, she works extra hard to try to get them to stay.
“We try to make sure that teachers feel like they are at home and like they would recommend us to others,” she said.
Vacancies remain a problem
Despite CPS’ efforts, many schools are still struggling to fill jobs and make due without enough staff.
One principal of a high school that serves mostly low-income students said he doesn’t have a science teacher and doesn’t expect to fill the job all year.
And that’s not it, said the principal, who asked not to be named because CPS requires principals to get permission to speak to the media. He is also working to hire several special education teachers and teacher assistants. Until that happens, he is staffing separate classes for students with more significant disabilities. That leaves special needs students who attend regular classes without support.
He’s also frustrated because he doesn’t have enough lunchroom workers to serve dinner to students who go to evening school or participate in after-school activities.
On the North Side, Principal Eric Steinmiller of Lincoln Park High School has also had some vacancies. He relies on full-time substitutes assigned to individual schools called cadres to cover any openings. Cadres sometimes end up filling full-time teaching positions, something that happened this year.
“If people are already in the CPS system, then it’s an easier [hiring] process. So if the cadres are already in our building, we can immediately start the process of onboarding since they’ve already done background checks,” he said.
The school was fully staffed at the beginning of the year, but had to add a social science teacher and pay existing teachers extra to cover 11 new classes due to overcrowding. It was also able to hire an additional social worker to meet the needs of students.
Teachers, students and department chairs all participate in the hiring process at Lincoln Park. Steinmiller says it’s not just about filling a space or position — it’s about finding the right fit for the school.
“Everybody’s feeling the weight of the last two to three years, coming out of remote learning and COVID,” Steinmiller said. “But we have to be able to work together.”