More San Diego Unified classes are being taught by substitute teachers.

It’s a temporary development sparked by the Common Core-aligned curriculum – most teachers must miss class to train on the new standards.

The increased training has been mandated for all elementary school teachers, and middle and high school teachers in the four main content areas: math, language arts, science and social studies. The total cost for professional development on Common Core in San Diego Unified is $14 million, provided by the state in one-time funds that must be spent by July 1, 2015.

The number of substitute teachers rose 15.8 percent in December 2013, 11.7 percent in January 2014, 12.1 percent in February 2014 and 14.2 percent in March 2014, over the number of substitutes used the same month the previous year, according to San Diego Unified data provided to Voice of San Diego through a public records request.

Some parents think teachers are being taken out of the classroom too often. They question why the training has to happen during the school day.

“One thing I’d like to see happen is enriched learning during that time,” said Imani Robinson, a member of the Lincoln High School Site Council whose kids attend Creative Performing Media Arts Middle School in Clairemont. “It’s been mandated that seventh graders get financial literacy, wouldn’t it be great if they get it during that time?”

Robinson said she’d like to see students benefit while the teachers are away. She suggested the district restore some programs that were cut during the budget crisis – a camp for sixth graders, a program for fifth graders in Old Town and a Balboa Park program for fourth graders – and send kids there while teachers are away at professional development.

“Kids would get the enrichment, not just the teacher, but instead they are getting babysat. How many of those days are the kids actually learning?” Robinson said.

District officials gave principals some choices about how they would plan their time staff spent in professional development, and the teachers’ union had a say in developing how training would be implemented.

The agreed-on first choice was two half-days of training a month. Schools could also choose to have their training on one full day, so teachers in one department or content area would all be in training on the same day. For example, all science teachers at a high school would have professional development on the same day.

The once-a-month professional development will continue for teachers through the rest of this school year and throughout the 2014-15 school year.

A few schools, like the independent learning-based Mt. Everest Academy, came up with a different plan: Teachers are doing their professional development after school. Teachers are paid extra for the time they spend in training outside of the regular school schedule.

Sherry Schnell, a mother of two daughters, ages 5 and 8, said her second grader has had far too many substitute teachers this year. Teachers at her daughter’s school, Kumeyaay Elementary in Tierrasanta, have been spending many half days in professional development training, she said.

“We’re looking at an option to do it outside of the school day,” said Jim Solo, executive director of the district’s new Office of Leadership Development. But any arrangement must be OK’d by the teachers union, he said, because “this agreement is with them, for the Common Core money.”

“We really have limited funds for Common Core money and we wanted to make sure that we put the money where we thought we would get teachers trained the quickest,” Solo said. “I didn’t really know we would have a substitute issue, with teacher shortages and people being a little frustrated. It’s certainly something we’re going to be addressing over the summer with principals.”

Robinson said she’s seen a vice principal act as a substitute teacher at her sons’ school in a crunch. “They’re scrambling around to get staff,” she said.

Solo said one strategy some schools have tried is drawing on a group of recurring substitutes who know the school, staff and students.

“There are pockets where that’s working really well,” he said. It’s also important for principals to monitor and advise substitute teachers, letting them know what the school’s expectations are ahead of time, he said.

“We’re looking at ways to strengthen our visiting teachers,” Solo said. “I know the perception is that students are missing a day of education, I don’t think that is really true across the board, but that’s the perception,” he said.

Superintendent Cindy Marten announced last week that a financial incentive the district is offering this year to teachers thinking of retiring will proceed. The deal will give those who agree to retire this year an extra year’s salary, nicknamed a golden handshake, paid out over five years. The district expects to save up to $16 million on the deal by getting higher-paid teachers off the payroll.

That means the district will likely be hiring new teachers, and many of those new teachers will come from the pool of substitute teachers, Solo said. “They’ve been in our schools, made relationships with principals. They know what the routines and expectations are and oftentimes, it’s a good, natural fit.”

Substitute teachers are paid $137 daily if they work on a day-to-day basis, and $153 daily for a long-term assignment.

Teacher training time on Common Core will continue to be high through the next school year, Solo said.

Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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