In San Francisco, Getting to 100 Percent

Mónica Vásquez is the Chief Human Resources Officer in the San Francisco Unified School District (and a former TNTPer). When SFUSD announced that they would be starting the 2015-16 school year with no teacher vacancies, we sat down with Mónica to talk about how they achieved the huge goal of making sure every SFUSD student started the school year knowing who their teachers would be.

Congratulations on starting the school year fully staffed! Can you tell us a little bit about the staffing challenges in San Francisco Unified?

California has been notorious for not funding public education at the same level as other states. The recession hit us really hard. For six or seven years, we had teacher layoffs. So this notion that you had to recruit teachers was a non-starter for us. In effect, the recession insulated us from the recruitment challenges that we’ve been seeing elsewhere in the country. We didn’t see the teacher shortage coming; it just wasn’t our reality.

Then last year, for the first time in a while, we didn’t do any layoffs, and we opened the school year with five full-time teacher vacancies. That raised alarm bells for us; we knew we couldn’t keep doing what we've done before. And then this year, it really hit.

What happened this year?

As the economy started to pick up, we’ve seen an infusion of resources to public schools and added teaching positions. We’re starting to do a ton of inclusion and innovative programming for our special education students, which means we need more special education teachers; we’re doing multi-lingual pathways, so we’re looking for more teachers who speak languages that are specific to our students. All of those things came together at the same time, coupled with a 24 percent increase in retirements in SFUSD this year as baby boomers started leaving the workplace. We started to say, “Oh my gosh, we have all these positions and we know our schools of education are not producing enough teachers for us.”

So what did you do?

We realized we had to start recruiting earlier, look into earlier contracts for teachers, and shift to year-round recruiting. A huge thing we did was start meeting regularly with our feeder teacher preparation programs. That means we’re coordinating on what kinds of positions we anticipate looking to fill—special education, bilingual teachers, those kind of things—and they can make sure they’re producing those graduates. The University of San Francisco dean had a great idea for an accelerated program: He proposes allowing students to shift their schedules so all they have left at the end of the year is their student teaching hours, and they can come into the district in the fall as interns. It was too late to start that this year, but we're looking at it for next year. It’s very cool to have a local school of education that's willing to think like that.

They’ve also started a program that allows our current teachers to complete their special education certification in one year. They built that for us because special education teachers are such a huge need.

It sounds like you’re laying a lot of groundwork to address future staffing needs. Did you do anything else to make sure you met your goal for this school year?

It’s been a collaborative process across the district. In SFUSD, hiring happens at the school level. To get our principals to move forward with looking at the candidate pool and bringing people in for interviews, it's important to have our assistant superintendents—who manage a cohort of schools—on top of their schools’ needs. So I sent emails to them every week with updates on their schools and how they compare to others in the district, and I would copy our entire HR team, the deputy superintendent of instruction, and the superintendent himself. The superintendent always followed up with a supportive message. A staff member who’s been with the district for twenty years told me, “We've never had the support from the third floor [the superintendents] that we have this year.”

Most importantly, there was an understanding that the 100 percent goal—staffing all our schools by the first day back with students—wasn’t an HR goal; it was a district-wide goal.

Do you think the cost of living in San Francisco makes it harder to hire teachers?

San Francisco is an expensive city to live in. We're working really hard with our union and the City of San Francisco on an educator housing task force, and they’re exploring a lot of options, from rent and mortgage assistance to physical housing for educators. But those solutions are long-term. The issue of housing is not something a school district can solve—just like school districts can't solve the issue of poverty. What we can do is put the issue front and center, which is why it’s important for the public to see collaboration between the district, the teacher’s union, and city officials.

We’ve also given our teachers a 12 percent raise over three years—which isn’t enough, but it’s a start. And we offer additional compensation for working in hard-to-staff subject areas and schools, so compared to other Bay Area districts, we’re pretty competitive. As the economy continues to grow, we’ll be able to keep adding to our teachers’ compensation packages, which is really important.

Any big takeaways you’d add for other districts looking to improve their staffing systems?

The teacher shortage coupled with the recovering economy and the retirement bubble all suggest that the challenge of staffing schools isn’t going anywhere. School districts need to start getting creative about how we meet the demand for teachers when the supply isn't there. We need to be building out new programs with university partners, as well as building our own training programs. I keep hearing about how we’ll need more emergency-credentialed teachers. But if we're smart about this, we won't have to go that route. It's on us to address this because it's not going away.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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