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Amid substitute shortages, school specialists are filling in while juggling their own work

A teacher leads an introductory exercise with students sitting crossed legs in a circle on a colorful mat.

A teacher leads an introductory exercise with students during the first day of school at Virginia Court Elementary School in Aurora.

Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

The fight to rebuild school communities after two years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

When Amie Seese moved into a new job at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora last spring, the goal was for her to spend this school year improving special education programming.

She created a spreadsheet and was eager to track which students were struggling the most and in what areas, after last year’s disruptive learning. She said it’s been trickier this year to identify students who have special needs —  it’s sometimes unclear if a student has a disability or just needs more learning time to catch up after an unconventional year.

But her work this year hasn’t been what she anticipated. For the past three weeks she’s been substituting for a special education classroom whose teacher left mid-year. She said it’s unclear if the school will actually be able to hire a replacement so she can return to her data work.

“It feels a little bit hopeless,” Seese said.

In a year when so many students are struggling, specialists like Seese, including those who pull students out of class to give them more targeted teaching, are essential to getting them back on track. But as Aurora deals with the nationwide struggle to find enough substitute teachers, the district’s interventionists and learning specialists frequently are being asked to lead classrooms instead of working individually with students or helping teachers tailor their lesson plans.

The Aurora district knew that intervention work was going to be critical to helping students catch up. Some schools hired additional specialists, and many are offering tutoring on weekends or after school.

The district also is trying to alleviate some of the pressures on school staff. Every school has a different district staffer assigned to come in each day of the week. The superintendent is spending Tuesdays helping out at a middle school. If the district person is licensed, they can substitute teach; if they are not, they watch students during lunch or recess or do office work.

The district also announced that beginning after winter break, students will start later on Mondays to allow teachers more time for planning. 

The district’s school board also voted recently to step away from ambitious goals to make up learning in the next couple years, citing overburdened teachers and a need to focus on other priorities, such as social-emotional learning. But the superintendent warned the board that the state was unlikely to step back from high expectations as the accountability systems return to normal.

Aurora officials estimate that substitute teachers are filling approximately 52% to 58% of teacher absences this school year. But because the district uses a contractor, Kelly Educational Services, to manage substitute teachers and fill absences, the district doesn’t have exact data. District officials expect to have an updated report from the company in January. 

At Dartmouth Elementary, Principal Moran Stone said she’s continuing to prioritize improving literacy. She said she’s had to be creative but has been able to protect the time of her reading interventionist and freed up other staff to offer extra reading support for small groups. 

“I’ve covered more this year than I have in my life,” Moran said. “But it’s OK. Our reading interventionist provides critical academic support, so because that is a protected time we do not pull her to substitute. Other staff step in.”

The district administration staff who come to the building have helped, Moran said.

Peter Zola who does math coaching and intervention work at Laredo Elementary is supposed to spend his days coaching math teachers, observing their lessons, and sometimes working with small groups of students who need extra help. 

But this school year, Zola has been filling  in for teachers at least a day and a half per week. He said it’s unfortunate that he’s lost  time to work with students or coach teachers, but he knows that other staff have been pulled away from their roles more than he has.

“We have kids in our fourth and fifth grades that are reasoning mathematically at a kindergarten level,” Zola said. “Teachers are struggling with the same thing: How do I support all these kids while meeting their individual needs without support and coaching?” 

Abbey Winter, a reading interventionist at Yale Elementary school, said she’s only had to fill in as a substitute teacher a couple of times per month. But when it happens, she has to cancel her reading groups.

“My schedule is not open enough to change them or reschedule them,” Winter said. 

Overall, she said, her school is doing more intervention work than in the past. Last year there was just one reading interventionist, and now she is one of two. Each of them works with about 45 to 50 students per day.

“Definitely more students are benefiting from the intervention model,” Winter said. But she also sees that more students need help.

Stone, the Dartmouth principal, said she wants people to understand that teachers and school staff are working hard to meet student needs, but that it will take time.

She said it would help if some other duties, such as those required by the district or by state law, were adjusted or temporarily removed.

“Right now it’s all hands on deck in order to support our students,” Stone said. “Some of the other stuff that we’re expected to do can take away from that.”

For example, she said, returning to regular practices for teacher evaluations has added stress and takes up a lot of time. Teacher evaluations are one of those things directed by state law and district policies.

“It’s important work,” she said. But “if we could have maybe shifted that this year, that  would have been helpful.”

For now, Aurora specialists and school leaders say everyone is doing their best, and they are hopeful mid-year data will soon show students making significant growth in learning despite challenges. Longer term solutions still remain to be seen.

“My goal is really to improve systems for our students,” Seese said. “We’re just kind of putting Band-Aids on things this year.”

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