Over the summer, the number of open teaching positions in Providence climbed to nearly 100. On the first day of school 170 classrooms weren’t staffed with a full-time teacher, 65 had no substitute.

Rhode Island’s new education commissioner Angelica Infante-Green will face this issue when she takes over the district later this fall.

“I mean we've all gone to school for the first time and not having a classroom teacher, that to me seems criminal and it's a big problem for us,” Infante-Green during an interview in September.

In fact, it's a big problem across the country. Nationwide teacher shortages have been well documented in high poverty rural and urban areas. In Providence, leaders say they are desperate for math and science teachers, along with special education and English as a second language teachers. But even Infante-Green was surprised at the amount of open positions in Providence.  

And the problem has persisted well into the first month of school. Providence Interim schools superintendent Fran Gallo spent the summer sending recruiters to job fairs and reaching out to teacher training programs at local colleges to get the schools staffed, but as of the final day of September there were still 78 open teaching positions across the district. 

“My deepest concern is that we're letting families down especially our students in front of us,” Gallo said. She recounted receiving a letter, three weeks into the year, from a fifth grade student upset that she still had no teacher. 

“One of the sentences that struck me was I'm getting tired of getting up early every day to go to school and not have a teacher,” Gallo said. “It broke my heart.”

Experts say the shortage has to do with a combination of issues including high turnover and pay rates that aren’t competitive in fields like math and science. Compounding the problem is a lack of teachers to replace those who leave or retire. 

Providence Teachers Union head Maribeth Calabro said an unforgiving spotlight and the district’s impending shake-up have made it even harder to keep good teachers in the city.

“I think it has a lot to do with the impending state takeover, or it could be they just heard enough over the summer about how horrible things were and they just decided that they don’t have to listen to that and they can go somewhere else and get treated with respect,” Calabro said. 

And Calabro added that has a cascading effect increasing the workload for the teachers who remain in the schools.

“It’s really stressful for teachers who are currently in the system because they’re covering other classes,” Calabro said. “What it does to the elementary level is, basically, splitting up kids, so you take 26 kids and divvy them up across teachers.”

“What it looks like for me and for every other teacher is that we’re asked to do coverages to cover classrooms that teachers are not available to be in,” said Betsy Taylor, an English as a Second language teacher at Hope High School. And she’s said even the best substitutes are often no comparison to a full time teacher.

“Teachers and kids have a very special relationship, and so some kids won’t work for teachers if they aren’t their assigned teachers,” Taylor said. “Some kids need extra support that’s not going to be there if the teacher’s not in the classroom at that time. It’s a big problem. I don’t know how to solve it.”

Infante-Green’s plan to solve it is to work with organizations, including Teach for America, to fill gaps, and create a million dollar media and recruitment campaign with foundation and grant money to attract teachers nationwide to the state. She says it will be one of her top priorities when the takeover begins later this fall.

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