DuPage County schools get creative to deal with staff shortages
Across the country, schools are sounding the alarm over significant staff shortages, and DuPage County is no exception. In October of 2021, the Illinois State Board of Education reported there were 122 unfilled positions in DuPage County schools, including 24 teaching positions and 78 paraprofessional positions.
Dr. Darlene Ruscitti, regional superintendent of DuPage County schools, says those numbers don't tell the whole story.
"In my 30-plus years in the education field, I've never seen schools struggle so much to hire educators and support staff. The shortage is affecting our current student population, and recent studies indicate a decrease in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, so unless something dramatic happens to fill the educator pipeline, these challenges won't be solved anytime soon."
Administrators in DuPage High School District 88 are thinking creatively and strategically about how to increase interest in the education field.
Superintendent Dr. Jean Barbanente says they are working alongside the DuPage Regional Office of Education to "heavily pursue a 'grow-your-own' program" at Willowbrook and Addison Trail high schools to recruit their own students into the educational pipeline.
In the proposed program, Barbanente says qualified high school seniors who are interested in pursuing a career in education would enroll in a college-level course that would be taught at the high school during the regular school day.
Upon successful completion, students would earn credits at their high school as well as at College of DuPage. While at COD, students would receive partial tuition reimbursement, and after earning their Associate Degree, they could work as paraprofessionals.
Paraprofessionals, commonly known as teacher aides, tutor students and assist with classroom management under the supervision of a licensed teacher.
Barbanente says that some of these paraprofessionals may choose to continue their education at a four-year online university to pursue teaching degrees -- something they could potentially do while working full time.
Marci Conlin, assistant superintendent for human resources at Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41, says the staff shortages are due to a perfect storm of recruitment, retainment, and retirement. "There aren't as many students in the teaching pipeline, once we get them hired some realize the job isn't what they envisioned teaching to be like, and we have many teachers that are eligible for retirement at this time."
While the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily affected those working in schools, there are many quality paraprofessionals and substitute teachers who want to stay in the field and hope to become licensed teachers. Conlin wants to make that process easier.
"I hope to have informational sessions for those in para-pro roles and substitute positions on how to obtain their teaching licenses -- as well as providing discount programs to achieve this locally," said Conlin. "There are many people in these roles who wish to pursue teaching but may be overwhelmed with the process and the financial cost."
Veteran teachers are hopeful that more individuals will consider a career in teaching.
Erin Smith, who celebrated 25 years of teaching this year, teaches gifted students at Carl Sandburg Elementary School in Wheaton. She values the personal interactions she has with her students.
"Teaching gives us the opportunity to affect students' lives and help guide them into their future," Smith says. With the added challenges of the pandemic, Smith says teachers have the extra responsibility -- and privilege -- of helping children navigate situations that are new to everyone.
Denise Hall, a fifth-grade teacher at Sandburg, agrees. She says the love she feels for her job far outweighs the stress and challenges of teaching, and she encourages high school students to think about education as a career. "Young people should consider teaching because although the money is tight, the rewards are plentiful," Hall says.
Ruscitti echoes these sentiments. "At the end of the day, it's about the children of DuPage County. They are our most valuable resource, and serving them in our public schools is an honor and pleasure."