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Scramble For Teachers Continues As Massive NC Summer School Effort Begins

 Kate Phifer (left), assistant principal at J.H. Gunn Elementary, tries to hire staff at the June 3 job fair for the Camp CMS site she's running at Rama Road Elementary.
Ann Doss Helms
Kate Phifer (left), assistant principal at J.H. Gunn Elementary, tries to hire staff at the June 3 job fair for the Camp CMS site she's running at Rama Road Elementary.

After a grueling pandemic school year, districts across North Carolina are scrambling to find teachers willing to take on six more weeks during the summer. A massive K-12 summer school program mandated by the General Assembly is about to open, and it's raising challenges that go beyond school walls.

Eleven days before Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' opening day for 32,000 students, the district held a job fair to recruit teachers.

Cheers went up every time teachers emerged with a slip indicating they’d taken a job. CMS needs 2,300 teachers to staff its 85 sites. As of the middle of last week, the district still had 400 slots to fill.

"We are starting up a school district the size of 32,000 kids," said Tangela Williams, a CMS administrator who’s overseeing the six-week summer program known as Camp CMS. "And of course it’s for the benefit of summer learning and to help us mitigate any learning loss from the pandemic and the different learning environment that the kids had to learn in."

When she compared the CMS summer school to a school district she wasn't exaggerating: 32,000 students is about the size of Cabarrus County Schools, one of North Carolina’s 10 biggest districts.

Quick Turnaround, Exhausted Teachers

Camp CMS, like most summer schools in the region, is set to open Monday, two weeks after the last day of regular school. Every district in North Carolina is doing something similar after state lawmakers made summer school mandatory for districts but not for students or teachers.

After such a tough year, teachers need some enticement. Federal COVID-19 relief money lets districts sweeten the pot. CMS is offering teachers their regular state pay plus a $1,200 bonus if they teach three weeks and $2,500 if they work all six weeks.

Even so, recruiting isn’t easy.

"Oh my gosh — I have been trying to beg, borrow or steal people, from high school to elementary," said Kate Phifer, an assistant principal who’s running the summer school at Rama Road Elementary School.

She was at the job fair trying to hire four first-grade teachers, as well as a few fourth- and fifth-grade teachers. Forty-five minutes in, she hadn't gotten any takers.

"It’s just (that) everybody’s exhausted this year," Phifer said. "Like, this year was rough and we need that time to decompress and you can’t blame people for not wanting to work summer school."

The old Spaugh school was packed with administrators like Phifer. They brought snacks and swag and decorated their tables with colorful posters and stuffed animals — all in hopes of enticing teachers like JeBrandon Oden.

He’s a Vance High social studies teacher who was checking out summer school for younger kids, hoping the change of pace would be a bit of a break. Summer-school teachers are hired on contract and can choose how many weeks they want to work. Oden signed on for three weeks as an elementary school PE teacher.

"Hopefully I can leave an impression on some young minds this summer and get them ready to be back into the classroom 100% so we can return to normalcy," he said.

Sweetening The Pot

Normally summer school is a relatively small affair in North Carolina, targeting students in a few grades who need to catch up. This year, with the pandemic disrupting everyone’s education, it’s a massive event encompassing all grade levels.

And it’s happening so fast that the state Department of Public Instruction doesn’t even know exactly how big it is. The department reports that across all districts, 311,000 students were deemed at risk and in need of summer school. But the state doesn’t have numbers on how many actually enrolled, how many teachers are needed or how successfully districts are filling those jobs.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the Raleigh-based North Carolina Association of Educators, says districts are offering hefty incentives for teachers and support staff, such as assistants, bus drivers and cafeteria staff.

"What we are hearing is because school districts are having trouble filling these positions for summer school is that they are looking to recruit educators from outside their school district," she said.

In the Charlotte region, Gaston County Schools has bumped up its hourly pay for educators, from about $32 to $40. Some teachers are eligible for $1,200 bonuses as well.

Union County is offering $35 an hour, plus a $600 bonus for teachers who commit to three weeks and $1,200 for those who sign on for six weeks.

Iredell-Statesville Schools is offering regular pay plus $200 a week, with an additional $600 for those who complete six weeks. Spokesperson Boen Nutting says the district has filled its jobs for the pandemic make-up summer school and expanded its menu of enrichment camps for students who want to learn about things like forensic science, culinary arts, robotics and space exploration.

Kelly says she’s hearing about districts in the Raleigh area vying for employees too.

"I do believe that cross-county sort of competition does exist, to offer the most substantial package or incentive to teach summer instruction," she said.

Other Organizations Are Affected

Kelly notes that school districts are competing not only with each other but with businesses that hire teachers during the summer. In coastal counties, she says, teachers often work summer jobs in travel and tourism.

In the Charlotte area, free public summer school has upended the private groups that normally provide summer programs.

Many of those groups were meeting with CMS to plan summer efforts. Then the General Assembly shook things up with the summer school bill. As Glenda Bernhardt of Freedom School Partners puts it, "things kind of came to a grinding halt."

CMS leaders had to figure out details of their own program, including which schools would host Camp CMS. Freedom School Partners, which provides a literacy-based summer program, had hoped to serve 1,000 students at 15 sites this year, including nine CMS schools. Registration was supposed to start in February.

"Ultimately it was the end of April before CMS determined the locations that they were going to use for Camp CMS," Bernhardt said.

Freedom School Partners ended up offering 550 in-person spots at 10 sites, only three of them public schools. Up to 200 more students can sign up for virtual Freedom School. Registration didn’t start until early May.

And Bernhardt says recruiting students and staff has been tough. Less than two weeks before Freedom Schools were set to open, she was short about 200 in-person students.

"There’s been a lot of confusion with families," she said, "and I don’t place blame anywhere for that. It has been a confusing year."

She’s also still recruiting the college students who normally lead classes, as well as teachers she’d hoped would be site directors and instructors in the virtual camp.

"We’ve lost some in the last little bit, because they’re in some cases just exhausted and have decided they need to take some family time this summer," Bernhardt said. "In other cases we have some folks who have been swept up to serve a role for a Camp CMS location."

Countdown Continues

As of Friday, the Camp CMS job fair had netted another 100 hires, with more paperwork still in process and about 300 more jobs to fill.

Weary teachers found some humor in the situation. One posted a photo of a skeleton sitting at a bar, labeling it "CMS waiting for teachers to sign up for Camp CMS." It got hundreds of likes and comments on a CMS-related Facebook page, including some complaints about unclear communication and delayed hiring notices for those who did apply.

The reality is, no one is quite sure how many students or teachers will be in place when summer camps open across the region Monday.

Phifer, the assistant principal who was looking for teachers for Rama Road, says it may not be pretty, but summer schools will be open and ready.

If there’s one thing educators are good at, she says, it’s making do under difficult conditions — especially this year.

Copyright 2021 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

 Oakhurst STEAM Academy's booth at the June 3 job fair lists teachers needed when summer school opens June 14.
Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
Oakhurst STEAM Academy's booth at the June 3 job fair lists teachers needed when summer school opens June 14.
 JeBrandon Oden, a social studies teacher at Vance High, signed up to teach three weeks of physical education at an elementary school this summer.
Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
JeBrandon Oden, a social studies teacher at Vance High, signed up to teach three weeks of physical education at an elementary school this summer.
 Tamika Walker Kelly
Tamika Walker Kelly
 A socially distanced reading activity at a Freedom School in 2020.
/ Freedom School Partners
Freedom School Partners
A socially distanced reading activity at a Freedom School in 2020.

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.
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