District 153 at full staff despite growing statewide teacher shortage

When physical education teacher Marge Laskero retired from Homewood School District 153 earlier this year, she told the Chronicle she had plans to stay active and maybe find some coaching jobs.
Work has begun to hook up utilities to four mobile classroom units that arrived Monday, Aug. 12, at Churchill School in Homewood. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
  Work has begun to hook up
  utilities to four mobile
  classroom units that arrived
  Monday, Aug. 12, at Churchill
  School in Homewood.
 
(Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
 

The job she found? Teaching physical education at Churchill School. 

At the regular Board of Education meeting on Monday, Aug. 12, Superintendent Dale Mitchell said administrators turned to Laskero after they were unable to find a female PE teacher for Churchill. 

"Marge is coming back to handle our first semester while we continue to look," he said. "Marge is really helping us out. She said yes, thank goodness."

Mitchell said it's not unusual for retired teachers to stay involved in the schools, but in most cases they serve as substitute teachers or classroom assistants. 

Board President Shelly Marks said the district values retirees' continued involvement. 

"They are good teachers," she said. "They know the rhythm of the day and the spirit of the school."

However, Mitchell said the need to seek help from a retiree for a full time teaching spot is a sign of a worsening teacher shortage that is affecting the whole state.

Teacher movement is normal as people retire or relocate for various reasons, he said, but this year has seen an uptick in the number of staff positions that had to be filled, and it was tougher to find candidates who meet the district's high standards.

He said the process had been stressful, but he thanked the district's administrative staff for rising to the occasion. The district will begin the school year on Aug. 21 with a full staff.

In the region, a number of schools have not been as fortunate. He said a number of districts in the area are starting the year with unfilled positions and will depend on substitutes to get by. 

"It's a major issue," he said, and is worse than he's seen in more than three decades as an educator.

The state took action last week in an effort to address the problem. Gov. JB Pritzker signed Public Act 101-0220 on Thursday, Aug. 8, which eliminates the basic skills test requirement for teacher candidates. The test had become a barrier to otherwise qualified teachers, according to  State Superintendent of Education Carmen I. Ayala. 

“The State Board of Education supports high standards for the professionals in our classrooms," he said in a statement lauding the move. "However, the test of basic skills did not advance teacher effectiveness. Rather, it created a financial and practical barrier that prevented highly skilled and passionate potential teachers from beginning their careers in Illinois.”

The news release from the state noted that there were more than 1,400 unfilled teaching positions in the state at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

Mitchell said there has been little change in the reasons for teacher departures. He said the problem is the result of fewer high school graduates going into education, so there aren't enough new teachers to fill the gaps.

He noted that every year, James Hart School invites Homewood-Flossmoor High School seniors to visit the junior high they graduated from, and staff asks what the students plan to major in. 

"We've had only a few say they are going into education," he said.

He attributes the situation to broad social changes in attitudes toward the profession. Teaching is not viewed with the respect it once was, and the pay remains too low.

"We have to change that tune somehow," he said. "Salaries are going to have to go up."

In the meantime, he said District 153's reputation as a good place to teach is helping keep the staff at full strength. 

In other business, the board got an early look at the proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. An updated version is expected to be on the agenda for the board's September meeting. There will be a public hearing at 7 p.m. on Sept. 16 in the James Hart media center, 18220 Morgan Ave.

The tentative budget is on display in the district office, which is located on the west side of James Hart School.

Mitchell also reported that four mobile classroom units were delivered Monday, Aug. 12, to Churchill School, where plumbing and electrical hook-ups are beginning. 

He said the project is on schedule. The target date for occupying the units is Oct. 1. They will be used for technology, social/emotional learning and physical therapy classrooms, plus there will be flex space for teacher use. 

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