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Why some St. Louis schools are looking to substitute their substitute teachers

teacher in classroom
Provided| U.S. Department of Education

Lloyd Little spent more than three decades in public education in outstate Missouri, so he knows how difficult the job of a substitute teacher can be.

But in retirement, that hasn’t stopped him from taking temporary gigs in classrooms in the Parkway school district.

“It's going to be hard to pull the wool over someone's eyes who has spent as many years as I have in education,” Little says. “Kids can tell who can control the classroom, and I think they appreciate having subs who come in and know what they're doing and show them respect and also expect respect back at the same time.

“I've seen horror stories where subs have been eaten alive.”

Now, as with many other facets of education, the substitute teacher’s job is changing in part because of requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Instead of working directly for the district where they are taking charge of classrooms, substitutes in Normandy work for a division of Kelly Services, a company that has provided temporary workers in other sectors for years. For the coming school year, Parkway will use Kelly as well.

Besides relieving districts of the pressure of finding subs to fill last-minute absences, the outsourcing will also eliminate a limit on the number of hours that retired Missouri teachers, who make up a large contingent of substitutes, may return to work in the schools and still claim their full pension. Because they aren’t working directly for a district any more, no restrictions apply. And there’s no worry about running afoul of the health-care law’s new mandates, either.

Still, outsourcing substitute teachers won’t solve all of a district’s worries about making sure there is an adequate teacher in every classroom. Normandy has discovered that challenge when it comes to tough-to-fill positions, such as someone to take over a high school physics class, or even to take over for routine absences.

“We haven’t gotten as large a substitute pool from Kelly as we were told at the time that we made the switch,” says Peter Kachris, who is the district’s liaison with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We’re still not getting the numbers, which was really the first issue.”

Whether the company’s subs are really equipped to handle a classroom is another issue, but Scott Apsey of Kelly says they put prospective substitutes through what he terms a “behavioral interview” to see how they would handle classroom situations.

“You’re looking for folks that are going to be calm under pressure,” he said. “They’re going to be able to work with the lesson plan that is delivered, and to basically maintain good classroom management skills.

“It does take a fair amount of recruiting to find the right folks to place within a school district. One of the things that we don’t want is to just kind of watch the class.”

Sink the sub

From Cheech and Chong’s Sister Mary Elephant to Key and Peele’sMr. Garvey, the difficult dynamic between substitutes and students has been a subject of comedy that often rings true. Kids aren’t kidding around when they play a game called “Sink the Sub.”

That challenging atmosphere — coming in on short notice into a situation rife with potential pitfalls — is one of the areas where Apsey says Kelly can help, using its long-time experience in a different way.

“In the traditional business, it’s much more of a situation where you get a request from the customer, then you have time to search your existing database or go out and recruit for new folks," he said.

“The substitute business is very fast-paced. The average assignment is a day to two days, so really it’s more about having enough subs who are available to go to work to meet the demand of a school, versus placing an administrative assistant for the next three months. You have to have the pool in place, hired and ready to go, and then you have to deploy that pool based on the demand.”

Plus, Apsey said, because every state and every district has its own regulations and requirements, the sub market is a tough one. He said Kelly now serves 5,400 individual schools in 36 states, filling 2 million classroom assignments every year. In Missouri, it works with 23 districts. Normandy was the first in the St. Louis area.

Apsey added that an outside company like Kelly can bring business expertise plus a hometown perspective.

“We’re in the community,” he said. “Our kids are in the schools. We’re connected, providing jobs in other elements of the community. We have all of those recruiting and networking elements associated with us, plus we take on the employer’s costs. We are the employer of record.”

Obamacare considerations

That last point is relevant because of new rules brought on by the Affordable Care Act, often known as Obamacare. Besides the 550-hour annual limit for retired Missouri teachers who want to keep their full pension, the new federal health-care plan requires that companies provide health insurance for all employees who work at least 30 hours a week on average.

That was one of the factors discussed when Parkway voted last month to approve a one-year contract with Kelly to provide substitute teachers and nurses for the coming school year. The district noted that its current substitute program, handled in-house, requires covering 110 absences a day, with two full-time employees handling logistics, at a cost of more than $2.5 million a year.

The Affordable Care Act’s provisions would require the district to either offer health insurance to subs who average more than 30 hours a week or pay penalties that could total more than $4 million a year.

With more than 400 substitutes on its roster, Parkway officials said they could make changes that would comply with federal law, limit costs and probably restrict its sub pool. But that restructuring brings possible effects on student learning. The other option was for the district to outsource the substitute function. It received five proposals, narrowed it to two, then chose Kelly’s plan to present to the board.

Though the Kelly contract, for $2,893,000, was $58,000 higher than the projected costs for keeping the program in-house, the district said avoiding possible penalties and shedding the administrative and logistical responsibility for subs would be worth the money. The board agreed and approved the plan unanimously.

Normandy’s experience

At Normandy, Kachris said the second-semester experience with Kelly handling the substitute program hasn’t always met expectations.

Just as with regular teachers, he explained, some substitutes work out fine, some are clearly mismatched and some might get better with time and training.

“There are some substitutes that come in and they may not be particularly effective at the beginning,” he said. “But if you work with them, they may improve enough so you can say, I want to keep these people.”

That situation can become particularly troubling, Kachris added, in a class like physics. A recent Post-Dispatch storythat found students sleeping in their physics class prompted strong reaction. Kachris said that class was being handled by a substitute because that was all the district could find.

“That teacher was viewed as working hard, improving. [She was] someone we felt was effective, given her capabilities,” he said. “She was probably the best person we could have in there now to get us through the end of the year.”

That situation, Kachris added, can be common when dealing with substitutes, particularly those on long-term assignments.

“You’re working with someone that’s in front of you,” he said, “and you’ve said, ‘I’ve had this person for six weeks and they’ve improved.’ They’ve got a relationship with the kids. The judgment that was made was that she has improved a lot. Physics is difficult to fill in any case. And they were satisfied. The judgment was made that she was effective and working hard.”

So districts are happy to find subs like Little, the retired educator who has stepped in to handle elementary and middle school classes in Parkway. He said he likes to keep his hand in education and use his experience. Besides, subbing keeps him occupied in the winter months, when he can’t enjoy his other passion.

“When it's cold,” he said, “you can't play golf.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.