PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s largest school district returns to the classroom this week without permanent, full-time certified teachers in every classroom.
With two weeks to go before the first day of school, 150 vacancies remained in the Providence Teachers Union (PTU), and of those, 107 involved classroom positions, according to district spokesperson Jay Wegimont.
“This represents a 93% fill rate,” Wegimont told Target 12.
“I will assure you that every single classroom will have a teacher before school starts,” R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green told Target 12 in an interview on Aug. 21. “We will utilize our substitute teachers, whoever we need, to make sure that our vacancies are filled.”
Last year, district data showed there were 101 classrooms not filled with a permanent, certified teacher on the first day of school.
Infante-Green told Target 12 that the school district saw an increased student need both in Pre-K and in supporting new arrivals to the country — referred to as newcomers — who often have had interrupted formal education.
As a result, the district has had to add ten new Pre-K classrooms and 11 newcomer classrooms at Providence Career and Technical Academy to support the increased need.
“So that obviously increases the number of staff that we need: teachers, teachers’ assistants, also in the specialized areas like speech,” Infante-Green said. “We’re trying to actually respond to the needs of the student body. And this is what we’re seeing what we’ll be faced with at this point.”
The district also tracks resignations and retirements.
Data shows from Jan. 1 through mid-August, 217 educators left the Providence Teachers Union. Of those exits 161 resigned, 55 retired, and there was one death, according to a district spokesperson.
“It’s similar to previous years,” Infante-Green said. “We have an aging workforce in Providence and across the state really, and I think that it is it’s to be expected.”
Providence Public Schools held a job fair over the summer to try and recruit more teachers to work in the district, offering various incentives and bonuses to attract and retain new hires.
The district began offering retention, referral, and reimbursement bonuses.
“The district has gone above and beyond to incentivize and make sure that our classrooms have a teacher,” Infante-Green said.
Target 12 learned in the 2021-2022 school year, 194 new hires received a bonus of $2,500, and 33 of those hires got an additional $2,500 for being fully certified in their positions.
The following school year, 190 new hires got $5,000 each for serving a hard-to-fill area. The district says hard-to-fill positions include librarians, nurses, psychologists, and speech pathologists, plus math, science, and ESL teachers.
Educators were also able to get bonuses for beginning an early contract, having three or more years of experience, or relocating from another district or state.
This year, the district said there will also be a “come back home” to Providence campaign, which specifically targets educators who left prior to the last school year. The campaign also offers $1,000 to come back into a full-time, non-substitute teaching role in PPSD.
Wegimont said that teachers who have left and returned would retain their sick time.
The district also expanded its referral bonus program to any current employee who recommends a teacher, school leader candidate, clerk, crossing guard, or teacher’s assistant who is employed within the school system full-time.
“This program offers a tiered-bonus structure and there is no cap on the number of referral bonuses that one can receive,” Wegimont said.
Infante-Green said Providence would be the first Rhode Island district to use COVID relief funds to extend the length of the school day by 30 minutes, another pay bump for teachers. She said it’s not clear if the change will remain in place beyond the 2023-24 school year just yet.