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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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In Miami-Dade Schools, all you need to be a substitute teacher is a GED degree

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Karina Bermudez, who works with Kelly Education, leads an online orientation class for people looking to become Miami-Dade Schools substitute teachers through Kelly Education at their offices on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023, in Miami. (Matias J.
Karina Bermudez, who works with Kelly Education, leads an online orientation class for people looking to become Miami-Dade Schools substitute teachers through Kelly Education at their offices on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023, in Miami. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS) Photo Gallery

Barbara Hochman, a retired physical therapist, decided she wanted to become a substitute teacher. After applying for the position, submitting her college transcript and completing the necessary training, she started working in Miami-Dade County Public Schools about a year and a half ago.

Over the summer, Hochman received an email from the district alerting her that all hiring and management of substitutes, also known as temporary teachers, would be outsourced to a company called Kelly Education. Soon after, as she began seeing ads on Facebook from the company for open positions, she noticed something odd: the requirements to be a substitute teacher had changed.

Now, candidates needed only a high school diploma to apply, rather than the 30 college credits — one year of college — that had been required just a week before.

What Hochman didn’t know was that in the face of a persistent teacher shortage, Miami-Dade County Public Schools had quietly lowered the requirements for substitute teachers for the second time in six years.

Historically, the district had required subs to have completed at least 60 hours of college credit — approximately equivalent to an associate’s degree — and be at least 19 years old. In 2017, the district lowered the college requirements to 30 hours of credit and the age to 18 for K-8 positions, and 19 for high school positions.

In August, the district loosened requirements once again: now, anyone who meets the age requirements and has a traditional high school diploma or has passed the GED exam is eligible to apply.

Hochman said she was “appalled” by the change — both as an educator and as a grandparent of elementary school students in the district.

“I’m horrified to think that someone who barely graduated high school can now sub for my grandchildren,” she said.

Hochman understands the district is struggling to hire substitute teachers, but she believes the solution is to raise the pay to attract more qualified candidates. With today’s pay, she said, even if you subbed every day that’s available, “you’d be at the poverty level.”

A Miami-Dade substitute teacher with a bachelor’s degree or higher makes $117.72 a day; those without a degree make about $4 less. Those who fill in for special education teachers or teach at an alternative education site are paid an additional $17 per day. (A substitute teacher who worked all 180 school days would make just over $21,000 annually, about $2,000 below the federal poverty level for a family of three.)

“They needed to raise the rate to attract people — not drop the requirements,” Hochman said.

Broward requires college credits

In making this change, Miami-Dade County joins six of the 10 largest school districts in Florida that require a high school diploma as the minimum level of education for short-term substitute teachers. (This meets Florida state requirements.)

Only Broward, Orange and Duval counties — of the 10 largest districts — require 60 college credits. To be a long-term substitute teacher in Miami-Dade — such as filling in when a teacher is on maternity leave — full teacher certification, including a bachelor’s degree and demonstrated mastery of subject area knowledge, is still required.

A Broward County Public Schools spokesperson said the district has still been able to “maintain a pool of qualified substitute teachers to meet the needs of our schools.”

The two largest school districts in the country, New York City and Los Angeles Unified, respectively, require short-term substitute teachers to be four-year college graduates. In New York City, substitutes make about $200 a day, as of May 2021. Miami-Dade is the third-largest school district in the nation; Broward is the sixth-largest.

Miami-Dade is not alone, though, in loosening minimum qualifications. “Nationwide, we are seeing changes to both teacher and substitute teacher credentialing requirements to combat the ongoing teacher shortage,” said Danielle Nixon, director of public relations for Kelly Education.

There were approximately 200 teacher vacancies in Miami-Dade as of last week, according to the district.

Miami-Dade Schools: Opportunity for recent grads

“We’re not seeing this as a lowering of the standards,” said Dawn Baglos, chief human capital officer at Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Instead, she argued, the change in standards was to allow recent high school graduates of the district to quickly return to the classroom as educators.

When asked why the district had failed to announce the change, Elmo Lugo, media relations director for the district, said any announcement would have come from Kelly Education, because the district had already signed the contract with the company once the decision was made. (The Herald submitted a public records request to the district asking for the Kelly contract, but the district had not provided it as of Friday afternoon.)

Kelly Education, though, does not have ownership over the district’s website which, as of Thursday, still had not been updated to reflect the new minimum qualifications that went into effect two months ago.

‘Our children deserve better than this’

The lowering of standards is part of a larger trend, said Chonika Coleman-King, assistant professor of education at the University of Florida, citing the recent statewide bill that would allow veterans to receive a 5-year temporary teaching certificate, even if they had not completed a bachelor’s degree. (The Military Veterans Certification Pathway was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in June 2022.)

“There are lots of ways that we could go about trying to fill slots in schools with highly qualified people if that’s something we were invested in doing right,” Coleman-King said. “We know that teacher salaries are generally low. We know that substitute pay is generally low. If we wanted to incentivize highly qualified people to fill these spaces, we could devote resources to these positions.”

And hiring inexperienced teachers as substitutes can impact a student, she noted.

“Research says that having a highly qualified teacher is the single most important thing that affects a child’s performance in an academic year,” she said. “And so when we lower the qualifications for teachers and for substitutes, inevitably, we resign certain kids to a poor education and that means that their future prospects are also affected by those decisions.”

The notion that anybody, regardless of education or training, can be a substitute teacher is a false one, she added.

“Anybody can do it, but not everybody can do it well,” Coleman-King said. “… If we actually care about children — and if we actually think education is the cornerstone to a successful life and being able to contribute to society — then we need to recognize that we need highly qualified teachers in classrooms, whether they are substitute teachers or full-time classroom teachers.”

Hochman, the substitute teacher, agrees: “Our children deserve better than this.”

How did we get here?

Returning from the pandemic, Miami-Dade County’s substitute teacher fill rate was just 35%, meaning for every 100 needed subs on a given day, the district was only able to find about 35.

The result: Full-time teachers were pulled from their prep periods to cover or classes were canceled and combined.

“Some schools had auditoriums filled with students because they didn’t have enough subs to cover classes,” said Karla Hernández-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, the teachers union. “Not only was that negligent — obviously to the students who aren’t getting the education that they need — but it was also a huge pressure on teachers.”

The district acknowledges the substitute teacher shortage.

By 2022, the shortage in Miami-Dade was so acute that the union negotiated a deal with the district. If no short-term sub were available to cover a class, and a full-time teacher had to step in, they were guaranteed compensation for the extra work.

In January, the Miami-Dade School Board established a task force to study best practices for recruiting and maintaining substitute teachers. It included principals, substitute recruiters and teachers.

A few months later, they presented their findings, including a recommendation to contract with an outside organization and to provide benefits. Historically, the district had allowed subs only to work eight out of every 10 days to avoid providing them with full-time benefits.

District signs contract with Kelly

By July 26, the district signed a contract with Kelly Education, which will become the employer for all Miami-Dade County substitute teachers on Oct. 16. The Miami Herald requested the Kelly Education contract through a public records request; as of Friday, the district had not given the Herald the contract.

Once Kelly takes over, substitute teachers will be able to work five days a week, but will no longer be eligible to join the teachers union, said Hernández-Mats, since the district will no longer be their employer.

Although some teachers expressed hesitancy about the partnership with Kelly Education, Hernández-Mats described the arrangement as much more efficient than the district’s former “archaic substitute platform.”

“It’s a win for the district because they’re going to be staffed,” said Hernández-Mats. “It’s a win for teachers. It’s a win for students. And obviously having a workforce that can work five days a week is a win for them, too,” she said.

Kelly Education

Kelly Education, a division of the parent company Kelly Services, got its start in 1997 in Gulfport, Mississippi. Their mission was to place teachers in classrooms. Twenty five years later, they have a footprint in 42 states.

The company works with 10 districts in Florida, including Broward and Orange counties. During the 2022-23 school year, the company filled more than 846,000 absences in Florida and annually it fills 4 million absences nationwide, according to Nixon, Kelly’s spokeswoman.

One of their goals, said President Nicola Soares, is to bring in qualified substitute teachers, who can eventually transition into full-time roles. Broward County was able to hire 108 Kelly-employed substitute teachers into their full-time ranks, according to Soares.

All substitute teachers who work for Miami-Dade can be rehired by Kelly Education, pending a background check. The goal is to eventually hire 6,000 substitute teachers, said Kathie Martin, senior implementation manager at the company. Currently, there are about 2,400 substitute teachers who are active in the district and of those, about 1,600 have come over to Kelly so far.

Once new substitute teachers are hired, they have to complete a six-hour training, either in person or virtually, and then take an exam. The training was developed with the school district and includes modules on classroom management and ethics.

About 60% of substitute teachers in Miami-Dade hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to Baglos, the chief human capital officer at the district. And only 14 subs are younger than 20.

Martin said that concerns around lowering the minimum requirements for substitute teachers are “valid” but that hiring personnel at the company “know what to watch out for.”

One prospective substitute teacher, 31-year-old Shekaria Williams, said it’s a good thing to offer the opportunity to people who have a passion for children but perhaps can’t afford to pursue a higher education.

“With the training, I feel like it should put everyone where they need to be so they can effectively be a sub or a paraprofessional,” she said.

Williams wants to become a substitute teacher as a “test run” to make sure she enjoys being in the classroom before pursuing her master’s degree.

Other educators, though, insist that instead of lowering the standards the district should pay teachers more. (A representative from the district said that within the last few years they have boosted compensation by 8%.)

Millie Perez, a former banker working as a substitute teacher in Miami-Dade, said she doesn’t understand how someone with no formal training or higher education could deal with the issues that arise in a classroom.

Marta Zayas, a 28-year teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, echoed this point. “Right now, it almost feels as if it’s a toss of the dice: Maybe you’ll get somebody who is prepared and who can actually teach a class.”