Schools have been open for a couple of weeks across much of Florida, but not all of the students know who their teachers are yet. There's typically a lot of teacher turnover during the summer break, and schools can't always get vacant teaching positions filled by the time school starts.
At DeSoto County High School in southern Florida, math tutor Ronnie Padilla is filling in as the French teacher. There's only one problem: He doesn't speak any French. Across from his classroom, Alma Cendejas — the school's front-desk receptionist — is filling in as the Spanish teacher until the school can find one.
Principals across Florida say the summer break just isn't enough time to fill every open teaching position. Miami-Dade County Schools, for example, started about 100 teachers short. School officials say that's not unusual for large school districts with tens of thousands of teachers — Miami-Dade has 22,000.
Still, the vacancies mean that thousands of students are starting the school year without permanent teachers. In a school year that is only 180 days long and filled with high-stakes tests, these students are getting a late start.
Doug Peden, executive director of the American Association for Employment in Education, says it's an age-old problem, and one not limited to Florida.
"In every state, school districts — they hire late," Peden says. "And we know those classes can stay empty for a long time."
Teachers Resign At The End Of Summer
One reason some schools find themselves in this bind is because teachers sometimes wait until the very end of summer to notify schools they won't be coming back.
That's partly due to a misconception: Some teachers think they won't get their health insurance over the summer if they quit in June, even though they do. To address the problem, one district changed its contract to reflect that the end date for employment was Sept. 1, rather than the last day of school.
In Broward County — the nation's sixth-largest school district — more than 500 teachers resigned just two weeks before the start of the school year.
"It's very difficult for any district to meet that challenge," says Gracie Diaz, chief human resources officer for Broward schools. "I think we all want to have every teacher by the first day of school."
Diaz says lots of people apply — just not in the fields they're looking for. The district held a last-minute teacher job fair, hoping to fill all the vacancies. Some 800 candidates showed up, but only seven of those candidates taught math or science.
'You Learn It'
At DeSoto High last year, students went without a teacher certified in physics or chemistry for three months. Substitute teacher Sue Knight filled in for those classes. As a sub, Knight says you just "wing it."
"If it's a subject that you don't know, then you take the book home every night and you do homework," says Knight. "And you learn it."
The entire science department helped out by creating lesson plans for Knight. The school principal even brought in a retired physics teacher to help out in the classroom.
"It's very difficult, and we don't like putting students in those positions at all," Principal Shannon Fusco says. "But when we're unable to find someone with the certification, or even the ability, we do the best that we can, and we all pitch in."
'Not Good For Anybody'
Jeremy Glazer, a former teacher in Miami and Philadelphia, believes waiting until the final days of summer break to notify schools can have a negative effect on students.
But he also says volatile staffing situations cut both ways: Teachers often don't know what their role will be at a school — or if they'll even have a role — until just before classes begin.
Not only do many teachers not get to choose which subjects they're teaching, they also don't get much time to prepare if they find out weeks before the start of the school year. StateImpact Florida recently interviewed a first-year teacher who had just over a week to prepare his curriculum for the year.
"And that's not good for anybody," Glazer says. "It's not good for morale, it's not good for the teacher, it's not good for the students. It's just not a smart way to do things."
This story is part of the StateImpact Florida project. StateImpact is a collaboration between NPR and member stations examining the effect of state policy on people's lives.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some other news, as students have gone back to school in recent days, many have arrived in classrooms lacking what seems like a pretty basic requirement - a teacher. Education officials say the summer months just are not enough time for them to fill every open position. As Sarah Gonzalez of member station WLRN tells us, schools in Florida still have hundreds of vacancies.
SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: It's Spanish class at DeSoto County High School in South Florida, so I speak to students in Spanish.
(Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yep.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Some of us do.
GONZALEZ: At least some of the understand me - but their teacher, Sue Knight, shoots me a confused look.
Ms. Sue, do you understand what I just said?
SUE KNIGHT: Not a word. I don't know any. Hola.
GONZALEZ: The school doesn't have a Spanish teacher yet, so Ms. Sue - as the students call her - is filling in until the principal can find one. Across the hall, the school's math tutor has become a French teacher. Ronnie Padilla doesn't speak any French and he's feeling the pressure.
RON PADILLA: I want to make things right. And I think everything will turn out right.
GONZALEZ: The school had to refill 35 teacher positions this year, half of the teaching staff. Principal Shannon Fusco took all summer to do that and still came up three positions short.
SHANNON FUSCO: It's very difficult and we don't like putting students in those positions at all. But when we're unable to find someone with the certification, or even the ability, we do the best that we can and we all pitch in and help out as much as we can.
GONZALEZ: Now, is just not offering the classes an option for you? If you don't have a physics teacher, can you just say, well, we're not going to offer physics this semester or this year?
FUSCO: It can be, and there have been times that we have made a decision to change. But I didn't want to go backwards.
GONZALEZ: Part of the problem is that teachers wait until the very end of summer to notify schools they won't be coming back. There's partly due to a misconception. Some teachers think they won't get their health insurance over the summer if they quite in June. In Broward County, the nation's sixth largest school district, more than 500 teachers resigned just two weeks before the start of the school year.
Doug Peden, with the American Association for Employment in Education, says it's an age-old problem.
DOUG PEDEN: In every state, school districts, they hire late, and classes could stay empty for a long time.
GONZALEZ: Peden tracks teacher supply and demand. He says some states have attempted to hold teachers accountable, taking away teaching certificates if they wait too late to tell schools they're resigning. But when districts are dealing with tens of thousands of teacher, he says there will always be movement. There isn't a teacher shortage, they're just not all in the right places.
PEDEN: Wyoming, they only have one state university that produces teachers. Then you have some place like Michigan where they're producing way too many. So it's the typical problem. People aren't as mobile as we'd like to think.
GONZALEZ: And they don't all teach the subject that are high in demand. Gracie Diaz is in charge of hiring teachers in Broward. She says lots of people apply -just not in the fields they're looking for.
GRACIE DIAZ: Mathematics, science, speech and language pathology, some of the special ed areas - those are where we're seeing the need, especially science this year and in physics and chemistry. It's been a challenge.
GONZALEZ: The district held a last minute teacher job fair hoping to fill all the vacancies. More than 800 candidates showed up, seven taught math and science.
ALMA CENDEJAS: I'm not sure when she will be here. But for the time being, I'm here with you guys. Yay.
GONZALEZ: Back at DeSoto High, freshman Sergio Valencia is already getting attached to his temporary Spanish teacher, Alma Cendejas, who happens to be the school's receptionist.
SERGIO VALENCIA: She seems like another teacher I had in the middle school and I absolutely loved her. And I'd really like to have another class with her if she's not in the office.
GONZALEZ: He's hoping he doesn't get a new teacher soon and that may be end up happening. The longer you get into the school year, the more difficult it becomes for principals to find replacements. Two more teachers have already resigned from DeSoto High since the start of the year.
For NPR news, I'm Sarah Gonzalez, in Miami.
INSKEEP: Hey, that story is part of NPR's StateImpact Florida project. The StateImpact projects across the country examine the effect of state policy on American lives.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.