State considers altering substitute teaching rules

The state Board of Education and Early Development is considering several proposed regulation changes, one of which might help ease the Juneau School District’s substitute shortage.

State regulations currently require substitutes who are filling a vacancy of more than 20 days to have current certification. The educational requirements for substitutes filling shorter vacancies are more relaxed. Those subs need only a high school diploma.

But on the substitute continuum — somewhere between currently certified teachers and those who finished their education in high school — lies a well of teaching talent that has yet to be tapped for long-term subbing.

Former teachers who hold retired teacher certificates — a specific type of certification — frequently work as substitutes in school districts across the state, but state law prevents them from holding substitute positions longer than 20 days. In the eyes of the law, they are no different than subs who never held teacher certifications when it comes to long-term subbing gigs.

The state Board of Education hopes to change this, allowing schools to make use of retired teachers whom Sondra Meredith, teacher education and certification administrator for the Alaska Department of Education, called “a valuable resource.”

“We aren’t using that resource as well as we could be,” she told the Empire in a phone interview Monday morning.

To remedy this, the board has proposed allowing people with retired teacher certificates to take long-term sub positions of up to 90 days. Previously, school districts had to hire certified teachers to fill these vacancies. Though this has never been a problem here in Juneau, the school district’s Director of Human Resources Ted VanBronkhorst described the proposed change as “a plus for us.”

“I don’t think it’s going to solve our sub problem, but it would be another little tool for us,” he said. During the past year, the Juneau School District saw the lowest sub fill rates it had in years. This means it had a difficult time filling all of the vacancies left by absent teachers.

VanBronkhorst said that the district was able to fill all of its long-term vacancies, ranging from 21 to 95 days, without exception, but it often took a little “scrambling” and the occasional “arm twist.”

These vacancies, of which there were a dozen last year, often come up spur of the moment. They are typically the result of family or medical emergencies and are therefore hard to predict. Having an additional pool of subs to draw from when these vacancies open would make things easier, according to VanBronkhorst.

“This could potentially help us because we have a number of retired teachers who live here in Juneau,” he said, explaining that these teachers come with an added benefit: years of experience. “You think of the typical retired teacher has probably 25 to 30 years of teaching experience; that’s invaluable.”

The Juneau School District currently has 10 retired teachers on its active substitute list. Just last year, it had to turn down two retired teachers who sought long-term sub contracts because of the regulation that the state board is looking to change.

Other improvements

Along with the substitute regulation change, the state board has proposed to eliminate the state regulations requiring that teachers be “highly qualified.” At first, this might sound counterintuitive, but as written in state regulation “highly qualified” is nothing but a leftover term from the expired No Child Left Behind Act.

In order to be “highly qualified”, teachers had to take courses specific to specialized content areas and then pass competency tests. For instance, a person with a teaching certificate for general sciences would have to sign up for state-supervised courses in biology then pass an exam if he or she wanted to teach biology, a specialized content area.

The proposed change would still require teachers to prove their mettle in specific content areas. They would still be required to take competency tests, but they wouldn’t have to take special courses beforehand. If the hypothetical science teacher was a biology wiz, all he or she would have to do to be able to teach the subject is pass the required test.

Meredith, of the Alaska Department of Education, said that for this reason among others, this would ease the administrative burden that the “highly qualified” designation of No Child Left Behind imposed on schools.

VanBronkhorst said that the Juneau School District “would consider that an improvement.”

The state board is currently taking comments on its proposed regulation changes, which can be found in full at education.alaska.gov/regs/comment.cfm.

Comments are due by Aug. 15, and the board will likely deliberate on the proposed changes in mid-September, Meredith said. The Juneau School District has not yet submitted any comments regarding the regulation changes, and VanBronkhorst said he doesn’t know if it plans to.

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

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