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Outsourcing substitute teachers deemed a success

St. Louis Public Radio file photo

After 25 years as a gym teacher, AnnaleeZweig knows a lot of different exercises. But she had never encountered the hoops she had to jump through to get jobs as a substitute teacher.

Zweig subs in Parkway, where she taught at four elementary schools before retiring five years ago. This past year, Parkway — along with Normandy and Maplewood Richmond Heights — contracted with a division of Kelly Services, the temporary help company, to recruit, place and employ substitute teachers.

Both Kelly and the districts say the system worked pretty well. But for Zweig, who was used to a smooth system where she was requested by certain teachers when they knew they were going to be absent, it took a little getting used to.

“They had to learn a new system, for how to put me in and get requested,” she said, “and there were problems if they didn’t do this or that. If they got confused, or they didn’t put it in at a certain time, or didn’t do it a certain way, then they couldn’t get me. That was a negative with Kelly.

“Most of them figured it out, but still, every once in a while, one of them would do something — they didn’t even realize what they were doing — that caused confusion.”

What would she change? For subs like her, who just want to work occasionally to stay involved with education, the answer is increase simplicity.

“Make it easier for teachers to request you,” Zweig said, “and not so many hoops to jump through. Make it just a real simple process. That’s just my personal issue. If you go with a big company, that’s what happens.”

From Kelly’s point of view, the new arrangement went smoothly. Scott Apsey, vice president of Kelly Educational Staffing, said that in Normandy, where the rate of filling classrooms with substitutes had been in the 55-60 percent range, that figure rose to around 90 percent.

Parkway’s rate had already been substantial, he added, but in all the districts, Kelly provided a benefit that the schools had not been able to take advantage of before.

“The key is the administrative burden that we’re taking out of the district,” Apsey said, “from the standpoint of this not having to be something that they have to worry about on a day-to-day basis. The recruiting, training, hiring, scheduling and just general running around in the morning trying to figure out what to do with an empty classroom, that’s all been taken care of by us at this point.”

With Kelly, he added, school officials can get back to their main job.

“We’re allowing them to focus on some of those other challenges that they have,” he said, “by taking the substitute teacher piece and being successful in getting them into the classroom. That frees them up to focus on other elements.”

No complaints

The districts that Kelly is partnering with give the service very good grades. Roxanna Mechem, assistant superintendent in Maplewood Richmond Heights, says the district’s fill rate was up substantially, and subs were able to work more steadily. Amy Joyce, the director of human relations at Parkway, said Kelly was able to work so well that, on some days, the district’s fill rate for subs was 100 percent.

“We have been completely satisfied in every area,” Joyce said, “from the financial piece to the staffing process, customer service and responsiveness. I don’t have one negative thing to say about Kelly. They’ve done everything that we’ve asked them to do.”

One more benefit is the fact that under the new arrangement, the substitutes work for Kelly, not for the school districts. Retired Missouri teachers who want to keep their full pension benefits may work only 550 hours for a school district, but they can work as many hours as they want under Kelly.

'I don't have one negative thing to say about Kelly. They've done everything that we've asked them to do.' — Amy Joyce, head of HR in Parkway

And provisions of the Affordable Care Act required for subs who average 30 hours a week in the classroom, districts either had to offer them health insurance or pay penalties that could add up quickly.

Kelly provides substitutes in thousands of schools in three dozen states nationwide. Now that its first year of serving districts in the St. Louis area is complete, Apsey said it’s time to figure out what worked, what didn’t and what changes should be made.

“We’re going to be really analyzing where were we not able to fill classrooms as much as we wanted to,” he said, “then targeting our recruiting for the new year to solve those fill rate areas where maybe we didn’t have enough subs to go into those particular places.”

For the coming school year, Affton schools will also be using Kelly for substitutes, and all three districts the company worked with this past year have renewed their contracts for the fall.

Mid-career switch

From the substitutes’ point of view, the service appears to be equally satisfying.

Robert Phillips is leaving a 16-year career in business law for a new life as a teacher, and he figured subbing would be a good way to see what life in the classroom is really like.

This past school year, he worked in all three districts where substitutes are handled by Kelly, as well as schools in St. Charles. Phillips saw a definite difference in the two situations.

“St. Charles was fine,” he said, “because they had a person in their HR department who handled it, and she obviously considered it a vital part of her job and she was on top of it. But as a business lawyer, I could see a potential for problems if a school district didn’t have an experienced person handling it, or if you had a single experienced person who became ill or left or retired or what have you. You would potentially have chaos.

“When you dealt with Kelly, there was perhaps a primary contact, but there were three, four, half a dozen people that you could speak to at any given time who had the same database, knew what was going on and could answer questions. I think if nothing else, the fail-safe was there if anything went wrong.”

As a newcomer to education, was Phillips tripped up the stereotypical problems that can afflict subs who have to face students with mischief on their minds? He said the situation varied, depending on how the class respected its everyday instructor.

“With a teacher you didn’t like,” he said, “you’re more likely to not want to listen to the sub, because maybe you were barely being held under control by the primary teacher anyway. The classes I had where the teacher was liked and respected by the kids, you didn’t have a problem.

“This wasn’t an honors versus non-honors kind of set up. There were teachers who clearly demanded the respect of their students, and those students would behave for the substitutes because they did not want to get bad report back and they liked the class because they respected the teacher.”

'You kind of chomp at the bit to want to do things your way and have control and see the same kids day after day.' — Substitute teacher Robert Phillips

His time as a substitute did nothing to dissuade him from his plan to seek a full-time teaching job, Phillips said. He’s eager to continue with his own classroom

“I enjoyed teaching,” he said, “and I loved the kids, but after a while being in someone else’s room, using someone else’s plan, kind of grew tiresome to a degree. It’s not your room. They’re not your kids. It’s not your school. You’re just kind of a guest helping out.

“You kind of chomp at the bit to want to do things your way and have control and see the same kids day after day.”

With her experience as a full-time teacher and a sub, Zweig can relate to that point of view. The Kelly experience might have thrown her a few curves, but it was worth it.

“I enjoy the children,” she said. “In the end, I’ll jump through the hoops, because the big picture is, I want to come in once a week and get my kid fix.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.