Chicago’s substitute teacher shortage is hitting Black and Latino schools especially hard

In about a third of schools, when a substitute teacher was requested this fall, no one showed up more than half of the time.

Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

Chicago’s substitute teacher shortage is hitting Black and Latino schools especially hard

In about a third of schools, when a substitute teacher was requested this fall, no one showed up more than half of the time.

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The Chicago Teachers Union is sounding the alarm about new data that shows many schools this fall aren’t getting substitute teachers when they request them, especially in schools serving Black students.

“Our teachers, clinicians and [support staff] are straining under the conditions,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey told the Chicago Board of Education this week.

Over the first two months of this school year, substitute requests were filled just 63% of the time, according to school district data analyzed by the teachers union and given to WBEZ. Certain types of schools have it much worse.

In about a third of the schools, when a substitute teacher was requested, no one showed up more than half of the time, according to the CPS data. Most of these schools serve all Black and Latino students.

Sharkey was at Frazier Elementary on the West Side this week. That school has a librarian, a rarity in a Chicago public school, but Sharkey said she spends most of her time filling in for absent teachers. Frazier’s art teacher, Christen Martin, said she does the same.

“There is a shortage in Chicago public schools, period,” Martin said. “Also our neighborhood. You can’t get people to come to the neighborhood. So if there’s nobody there, I am going to step up.”

Frazier is in North Lawndale, a community where schools are having a particularly hard time getting substitute teachers, according to CPS data. Meanwhile, the schools in Forest Glen and Mount Greenwood — two mostly white communities on the edges of the city — mostly got their substitute requests filled.

On average, schools with majority Black students saw their substitute requests filled 60% of the time. Schools serving majority Latino students had a 69% fill rate, according to the CPS data. Meanwhile, schools with a sizable white student population, more than 30%, had their requests filled nearly 80% of the time.

Pedro Martinez, CEO of CPS, acknowledged the school district is struggling more than in the past to find substitutes. He said it is a national problem stemming from the “perfect storm of COVID and a tight labor market.”

“Every large district that I’ve talked to is having similar issues,” Martinez said at a press conference Tuesday. “The good news is that this is forcing all of us to really respect substitutes a lot more, and to actually pay them more because substitutes have historically just received such low compensation rates. So, I actually think this is something that’s good for the long term.”

The school district said it’s trying to build up its substitute teaching force and get existing subs to take on more assignments. They can earn an extra $420 a month if they take on 12 or more assignments. The school district also is trying to hire more full time substitutes who are assigned to specific schools, focusing on 39 schools that have teacher vacancies.

The school district has been hosting hiring drives this fall to try to bring on more substitutes, as well other positions.

In the 2019 teachers contract, the union won yearly increases in pay for substitute teachers and $45 stipends for substitutes working in high-need schools.

The school district recently reached an agreement with the union to add $10 million to hire more of the full-time substitute teachers assigned to specific schools, known as cadre subs. Sharkey said this was a good first step, but added it is important to make sure these funds get to the schools.

While the situation has gotten worse during the pandemic, substitute shortages in Chicago are not new.

A WBEZ analysis of data from the 2019 school year showed that schools serving majority Black students had their substitute requests filled on average about 64% of the time. For majority Latino students, it was about 68%, and for majority white schools, it was 93%.

In about 60 schools, substitute requests were filled only about half the time. CPS has about 500 district-run schools.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.