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TUSD mulls virtual math classes to combat teacher shortage

The Tucson Unified School District is mulling whether to outsource math instruction at middle and high schools to combat a teacher shortage. Elevate K-12, a Chicago virtual instruction company, is offering to fill 24 vacancies and save the district almost $1 million.

The TUSD Governing Board heard a presentation on the idea at last Tuesday’s meeting, but Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo called it “nobody’s preferred solution” to the district’s teacher shortage.

“We ideally want a highly qualified, permitted TUSD employee in every single classroom,” Trujillo said at the meeting.

Classes start on August 4, in a little more than two weeks, and the board has no more regular meetings scheduled before then. They do have a special meeting scheduled for July 26 at which the option could be considered, but agendas aren't published until the Friday before the next meeting date.

The approaching new school year for TUSD “forced us to kind of consider this outside-the-box solution,” Trujillo said, but he reassured members of the board that the goal is “better recruitment and retention of math teachers.”

The TUSD teacher shortage is “more pronounced” in middle and high school math compared to other subjects and grade levels, Trujillo told the board, adding that “we also have a shortage of highly qualified substitute teachers that can step in as qualified experts” in math based on their college credit hours and certifications.

“We also understand the risk involved in asking teachers to surrender their prep hours and to work additional periods,” Trujillo said. “We know that that leads to teacher burnout.”

Students left behind

TUSD students will fall behind if those vacancies aren’t filled in the next few weeks, especially at schools that are already at a disadvantage, said Flori Huitt, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, at the meeting,

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“Students will be further behind” if TUSD can’t fill those vacancies before the beginning of the school year, Huitt said, “especially if they have roving subs or teachers that are not consistently there.”

“Constantly changing faculty does have a toll on a student's academic achievement,” Huitt said. “And the most extreme teacher attrition in the U.S. occurs in our poorest and lowest performing school, so it does compound the disadvantage.”

One of “the core academic areas” in student’s education is middle and high school math, Trujillo said, because “Algebra readiness is academically do or die.” Several of the vacancies at the high school level for TUSD are for algebra teachers.

Extra staff

TUSD would only contract with Elevate K-12 for one year then revisit the item “if it was needed for 23-24,” Trujillo said. “Absolutely, we would be back” in front of the Governing Board to decide whether to continue virtual classes.

Elevate K-12 works by projecting a teacher on a screen in front of a class while students have a laptop to interact. Teachers would be able to see their class and show instructions on the projected screen, but the only adult in the room would be a TUSD-hired classroom manager.

The virtual teachers would be hired by Elevate K-12, who guarantee to provide certified professionals with 5-10 years of experience.

For TUSD to hire 24 math teachers, the cost would be about $1.8 million, with each teacher seeing $65,000 per year in salary and benefits, but the online format would cost $780,000 for a year, based on a cost of $13,000 per 45-60 minute period, according to the school board meeting presentation.

An additional cost is hidden, however, as the salary for classroom managers isn’t included in the $780,000. TUSD still hasn’t reported the possible cost of hiring managers, but Trujillo told the board that these positions would likely be filled with teacher assistants if the district can hire more.

“If we pursue this, we’re going to have to go get the extra staff," he said.

TUSD has “numerous” job openings for teacher assistants posted online, and newly hired assistants could be asked to step into those classroom manager roles, Trujillo said. Elevate K-12 trains them and has their own IT team, which reduces the responsibilities of managers to student monitoring and troubleshooting minor technology problems.

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The pay listed for a full-time teacher assistant position with TUSD is $15.20 to $17.47 an hour and requires a high school diploma or G.E.D. and completion of either an Academic Assessment Test, an associate’s degree, or two years of college.

No more burnout

What’s “non-negotiable,” Trujillo said, is using existing TUSD staff to fill these manager roles. New hires will have to be made to fill these roles if the district signs a deal with Elevate K-12, but TUSD wants to avoid asking too much from their teachers and staff.

“We have all those vacancies anyways, we have to do that hiring, but what we don’t want to do is replicate the stress and the burnout that the pandemic caused,” Trujillo said. “We had a lot of counselors, we had a lot of education support professionals going in and providing coverage during outbreaks. Those aren’t days we want to revisit.”

TUSD reported math teacher vacancies at 12 schools, including Cholla High School, Pueblo High School, Catalina High School, Pistor Middle School and Valencia Middle School, to name a few. Most of the schools are missing two math teachers. Six of the schools are middle schools.

Elevate K-12 has partnered with 14 other districts or academies in Arizona, including Pima County schools and the Pima Unified School District in Graham County.

The teacher shortage has stymied other local educational programs. Pima County’s free pre-K program known as PEEPS fell short of its enrollment goal for the first year due to a shortage of early education staff and teachers, leaving the program unable to open classrooms. TUSD is also struggling to find special education teaching assistants, Margaret Chaney, the president of Tucson Education Association, the local teacher’s union, has told TucsonSentinel.com

The Vail Unified School District opened their pre-K-8 classrooms on Monday and announced that they were starting the school year with almost 200 new hires. They owe their success to a series of job fairs and a reliable pipeline of newly certified teachers, their superintendent said.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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