It’s an annual tradition in Baltimore. Each summer, the district hemorrhages hundreds of teachers and scrambles to fill vacancies, just before welcoming more than 77,000 children back to school in late August.
“Baltimore is a high turnover district,” Cristina Duncan Evans, teacher chapter chair of the Baltimore Teachers Union, told Baltimore Beat. Roughly 600 teachers leave each year; some retire, others move to suburban districts, some give up teaching altogether.
Under normal conditions, the district is able to deal with this annual migration by finding teacher applicants, interviewing them, and filling the vacancies. By the first day of school, many of those new teachers are at the whiteboard drawing up lessons. But this isn’t a normal year. The COVID-19 pandemic added additional strain to a profession that already demanded long hours for little pay.
Baltimore City Schools officials reported they were still short 220 teachers on the opening day of school on August 29 — a figure disputed by union officials, some of whom believe the district could be short many more educators. Duncan Evans told Baltimore Beat, for example, that she doubted how reliable numbers supplied by City Schools could be, because officials have been slow to send the union reports on staffing.
For parents and children, the shortage meant a district charged with closing the achievement gap was, and still is, ill-prepared to do so.
“Our CEO talks a whole lot about equity, [but] there’s really no equity across the board when you look at it because you can be in one area in one neighborhood and there may be 28 to 32 kids in the classroom,” said Tyrone Barnwell, a parent and education advocate. “But then, you know, just across the bridge, across the way, you’re looking at about 38 to 42 kids in one classroom, and maybe one class has an aide and then the rest of the classes don’t have an aide. It looks different all across the board.”
The shortage has been a slow-rolling crisis, which has played out over years. But throw in a pandemic, a national teacher shortage, and increased demand for classroom teachers to fill vacancies and help districts close the achievement gap, and Baltimore City Public Schools faced an unprecedented personnel crisis.
At the end of the 2021-22 school year, Baltimore City Public Schools had about 1,300 vacancies to fill — nearly double the average gap the school district needs to fill each year, according to Sarah Diehl, executive director of recruitment and staffing services. Some of the vacancies were due to retirements and attrition. But the number was especially high this year because new positions were created to close the achievement gap between Black and Latinx students and their white peers. According to data collected by the state, white children in fourth grade are more than twice as likely to read at grade level than Black and Latinx students. Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which lawmakers passed to address racial disparities in funding and education outcomes across the state, increased the amount of money the state sent to schools, and in Baltimore it meant the district could hire more educators to address educational disparities.
Lawmakers hoped the funding would help, and agreed to spend $3.8 billion each year over the next 10 years. This money has already shown up in the Baltimore City Public Schools budget and prompted the district to begin hiring teachers earlier to fill even more vacancies. By July, Baltimore city schools hired 700 educators.
But even though Baltimore City Public Schools started its search for teachers earlier than in previous years and had more money for hiring, the district found itself with 600 vacancies, with less than a month before school opened in late August.
“Schools have been adjusting and adapting their staffing to prioritize their remaining vacancies, and so we knew we knew that 600 vacancies did not mean that 600 classrooms of students were going to be without teachers,” Diehl said.
There were just fewer teachers to pick from, Diehl said, pointing to statistics that found there are fewer people enrolling in and completing teacher preparation programs. And the money sent to Baltimore City Schools to help hire more teachers? Well, that money was spread to schools across the state, in other districts with high concentrations of poor and minority students. In short, other school districts were also on a hiring spree, and so officials here had to compete for teachers.
Then there was the Great Resignation’s impact on teaching. Maryland lost more than 5,600 teachers at the end of the school year, according to the State Board of Education. The COVID-19 pandemic was at least partially to blame for pushing some veteran teachers out of the classroom. Baltimore teachers have expressed frustrations about the district’s own COVID-19 policy, which kept school doors open during the omicron variant surge in late 2021. Teacher shortages, like the ones in Baltimore and Maryland have played out across the country. School officials in Florida estimate the state is short 8,000 educators. Meanwhile, nearly one in five classes in California were taught by someone lacking the proper credentials.
“Education personnel in America are leaving their jobs at almost double the rate of other occupations, and this crisis is particularly acute in schools serving majorities of students of color and students living in poverty which experience the highest teacher turnover rates,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told board members at the board’s September 13 meeting.
“Children’s learning conditions are also educators’ working conditions, and they are often in trouble,” Weingarten said.
For new teachers, even some veteran educators, Baltimore City seemed like a far less attractive place to make a career. The district has lagged behind school systems elsewhere in the state in keeping up with building maintenance and construction. As recently as 2017, Baltimore City schools spent less than half the amount spent by Anne Arundel County on facilities. Both districts received more than $40 million from the state to help with school construction. But Anne Arundel County could afford to add another $100 million in local money to help pay for facilities.
“On a material level we have the oldest facilities in the state. We have brand new 21st century schools that have pest rodents, mold, building design issues,” Duncan Evans said. “Some of our 21st century buildings have teachers floating from class to class because we don’t have enough classrooms.”
The exodus across the state and the country was a problem Baltimore had known for decades.
“The rest of the country is catching up with Baltimore,” Duncan Evans said.
With districts across the state short on teachers, and districts like Baltimore County moving fast to hire teachers, candidates in line for jobs in Baltimore City were quickly accepting offers in districts outside of the city, Duncan Evans told Baltimore Beat.
“Baltimore has always been one of the most challenging places to teach and support teachers in the state of Maryland. Baltimore City is competing with places with higher demand and better working conditions,” Duncan Evans said.
Baltimore City School officials turned to substitute teachers, certified central office staff, and even paraeducators to fill the gaps before school opened. By late August, the district claimed it had reduced the hiring gap from 600 down to 220.
Across two school board meetings in late August and September, educators from across the district raised concerns about the shortage and the work conditions they believe are driving the crisis. Staff pleaded with school board officials and City Schools executives to do something —- fast.
“Right now we are underpaid, we are overworked. Sometimes we do not get a lunch break,” said Valerie Taylor, a member of support staff at ConneXions: A Community Based Arts School. “And for the new teachers, we are that backbone. If we miss a day, that teacher has a hard way to go.”
Baltimore City Schools cut spending as recently as 2021, and even with the additional money from the state to help close the achievement gap, district educators said their pay makes Baltimore less competitive with schools outside the city.
“The board needs to face economic reality,” said Alan Rebar, who teaches at both Sinclair Lane Elementary and Barclay Elementary. “This school board must compete or the students will continue to suffer. This means paying educators and other staff the COVID bonus. In the case of salaries and other staff, a real raise is long overdue.”
For parents, the teacher shortage and the lack of communication by the district caught many families flat-footed and unprepared for what was to come when school opened. It meant sending their children off to school without a solid idea of that to expect when they arrived at their classrooms.
“You know, from a parent’s perspective, how do I help prepare my child — and I don’t even know, you know, what they need to be prepared for,” Barnwell said.
“So a lot of kids showed up to school the first day without even knowing their homeroom class, who their homeroom teacher was. That was a huge concern for the parents,” he added.