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To Plug Its Massive Teacher Shortage, San Francisco Is Doing Everything but the Obvious

The SFUSD is getting creative in its efforts to address the city’s chronic teacher shortage. But the real answer to the problem is strikingly clear.

When both her kids were finally old enough to start preschool last year, 42-year-old Judy Espino, a former preschool teacher, decided it was time to get back into teaching. With no formal training, Espino applied to the San Francisco Unified School District to be a substitute, thinking it’d be a good opportunity to gain experience over time. “Then I got a phone call from HR saying I qualified to be an emergency teacher,” she recounts. “I said sure, not really realizing what I was getting myself into.”

Already more than a month into the school year, Espino found herself the lead teacher of a third-grade class at Buena Vista Horace Mann K–8 Community School in the Mission. One of the district’s nearly 200 emergency teachers—educators holding substandard credentials for the roles they fill—Espino had to learn her new profession on the fly while at the same time gaining the trust of her students, who had been without a permanent teacher for nearly five weeks. With the help of other school staff, Espino made it through the rest of the year without any major hiccups. Though she still doesn’t have her credential, she’ll be back at Buena Vista this fall to once again teach third grade. But this time, she’ll be prepared. Sort of.

Espino is one of 95 educators being deployed across the district this fall through Pathway to Teaching, an experimental program aimed at curbing the city’s massive teacher shortage. Participants undergo six weeks of intensive training over the summer and continue studying for their required credentials while teaching full-time in some of the city’s neediest classrooms. As the district continues to struggle with attracting qualified, experienced teachers, Pathway to Teaching aims to identify interested educators already working in the schools—reading tutors, after-school workers, emergency teachers—and get them certified to teach. The goal is to fill empty classrooms with people already living and working in San Francisco, who, the theory goes, may be more likely to stick around long-term.

But in a district with such a serious teacher shortage (SFUSD, with 3,608 full-time teachers, had 664 vacancies heading into the 2016–17 school year), the approach comes off to many as a Band-Aid for a bullet hole. Aside from concerns that the new educators might not be sufficiently prepared for one of the hardest public sector jobs there is, teachers and advocates say the issue is as simple as a grade school math lesson: Without salaries to match the city’s cost of living, no teacher—rookie or veteran—can afford to work in San Francisco.

And that’s the heart of the problem. Teachers in San Francisco earn significantly less than their peers in Marin and on the Peninsula. Not surprisingly, given the built-in competitive disadvantages, the district—the biggest in the region, serving over 55,000 students—is struggling to match supply with demand. And while programs like Pathway to Teaching may get more bodies in the classroom in the short term, they’re no fix for a city that consistently underpays its educators.

For the 2017—18 school year, the district has allocated nearly $331 million, 38 percent of its total budget, to full-time, certificated salaries. (By comparison, the San Jose Unified School District, home to around 30,000 kids, budgeted $203.7 million, 48 percent of its total, toward staff salaries.) This includes the salaries of 234 “teachers on special assignment”: educators placed in administrative roles to research a variety of subjects, from middle school library needs to a mariachi curriculum. Teachers’ pay is determined by how many years they’ve been in the district and the number of school credits they’ve accumulated; a third-year teacher with a master’s degree, for example, makes $58,437 in San Francisco. In Palo Alto, that same teacher would make $69,931—almost 20 percent more.

“For my colleagues who are younger, who are down here on the pay schedule instead of up here, and they’re paying so much in rent, the math doesn’t work out for them,” says Esther Honda, a 12-year SFUSD veteran who’s leaving Willie Brown Middle School this year to work at the district office. “It makes you reexamine your life. You think, Why am I commuting all this way? Why am I living in this hard situation in an overpriced community?”

Todd Albert is one such teacher, and he questions why, in the midst of an extreme labor shortage, the district isn’t doing more to make its existing educators feel wanted. “I think they’re kind of preying on young, desperate teachers and just kind of taking advantage of us,” he says. Albert, who lives in San Francisco, started teaching at Buena Vista Horace Mann last year and says he quickly realized what the problem was. “We have a lot of teachers commuting from Sacramento and Pittsburg, with hour-and-a-half commutes, and that’s because of housing costs and the cost of living. The main issue is, the pie just needs to be bigger.”

How big the pie stands to get remains to be seen. Contract negotiations between the SFUSD and United Educators of San Francisco, the local teachers’ union, were still ongoing as of press time. The union is requesting a 16 percent increase in salaries over three years; the district won’t move beyond 11 percent. (Some teachers estimate that they need a 20 percent increase to continue living in the city.) Teacher advocates stress that the district needs to do more to prevent the turnover that occurs when young teachers move on after only a few years, which only contributes to the instability of already struggling schools. As veteran teachers retire, “we’re trading out educators who own their home or have long-term rent control for folks facing an insane rental market,” says Matthew Hardy, communications specialist for the California Federation of Teachers. “Basically, it’s getting worse just by virtue of the passage of time.”

Susan Solomon, the vice president of United Educators, says teacher pay is unequivocally the answer to fixing the teacher shortage: “San Francisco has to have a salary that will be attractive to people,” she says. “That’s the most important factor.”

But others, including school board president Shamann Walton, Superintendent Vincent Matthews, and Mayor Ed Lee, suggest that the easiest way to retain our city’s teachers may be to build subsidized housing especially for them. Other cities around the country have designed teacher-specific housing communities with mixed results, but in San Francisco, where land is so scarce, the idea is popular. In May, Lee announced that the city would spend $44 million to build up to 150 rental units for teachers at a vacant school site in the Outer Sunset. Advocates say it’s a step in the right direction, but only if the plans actually materialize, and soon. “The need is so great that the urgency has to be there,” Hardy emphasizes. “If we don’t tackle this now, the problem just gets worse.” With the Sunset housing slated to be finished in 2022 at the very earliest, dozens of teachers are already decamping for the East Bay and the South Bay, leaving empty classrooms in their wake.

As a result, district leaders are turning to patchwork programs like Pathway to Teaching as a stopgap. The initiative comes on the heels of a 2016 school board decision, led by Walton, to end the district’s partnership with Teach for America, a national teacher-training program that, like PTT, puts uncredentialed, inexperienced young educators in underprivileged classrooms. Walton’s biggest complaint with TFA was that its teachers, most of whom end up in cities they’re unfamiliar with, don’t often stick around after their two-year gig is up. PTT, he insists, is different. “I’m excited about this because at least the individuals in our cohort already have experience in our schools, already have experience with our demographics and with the district.”

But that’s only partially true. From 825 applicants, only 41 percent of the 105 original enrollees were already district employees. (Ten have since left the program or failed the summer training, reducing the total to 95.) And, union reps point out, PTT participants—who pay the district $5,000 to be enrolled in the work-study program—aren’t guaranteed a job after completion. “It sounds a little problematic that the same agency that is training you is also collecting fees from you and can decide whether or not to give you a credential,” Solomon says. Iris Olsen, manager of certified staffing for the district, says that concern is unfounded: “We’re fully expecting all our educators to get a job. But they have to pass certain tests. They have to pass all of the checkpoints we’ve developed through the program.”

And then, most important, they have to get paid adequately to afford to live here, especially those with families. Teachers Jessica Black and Dara Peters, who have worked in the district for a combined 26 years, say the birth of their son earlier this year brought uncertainty over how much longer they can afford to keep the jobs they love. “We’re both really enmeshed in our school communities, so the idea of leaving those is pretty heartbreaking,” Black says. “But as it stands right now, our bedroom only fits our bed; the kid is living in the entryway. We’re finding ourselves wondering what we’re going to do.”

As the school year
gets under way, the latest experiment by a notoriously complicated district is just beginning to unfold. For people like Espino, who always wanted to teach elementary school, PTT represents an otherwise unlikely opportunity. Considering the cost of a traditional master’s program—which in the Bay Area can run as high as $47,000—on top of the coursework and time commitment, Espino says the program made the most economic sense. Plus, it let her keep the job she’d come to love. “I just feel like this is my time to teach, like this is my foot in the door,” she says.

But for others, the deployment of PTT is a middling fix to a problem that is frustratingly obvious. “They’re essentially taking what I’d call a shortcut to fill classrooms with credentialed teachers,” Solomon worries. Hardy acknowledges that teachers aren’t the only people struggling to hang on in an increasingly unaffordable city, but he says that if we lose them, the neediest only fall further behind. “What’s happening to educators is happening to everybody,” he says. “But the difference with educators is, they take care of people’s children.”


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

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