PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – After nearly 15 years in the Providence schools, Krystyna Nicoletti never saw herself leaving to teach in a suburban school district. Yet last month, she submitted her resignation letter.
“I am heartbroken that I had to make this choice,” Nicoletti told Target 12. “They’ve made it a hostile work environment for experienced teachers.”
Nicoletti listed a number of reasons for her exit, but tied it directly to the state takeover of the district, which happened in late 2019. With the support of then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green took control of the school system following a devastating report about its failures put together by a team from Johns Hopkins University.
“We actually had a lot of hope” for change after the Hopkins report, Nicoletti said. But instead, she said teachers felt disrespected and unappreciated by state leaders. Morale plummeted.
“A lot of really good things were happening, and all of that was thrown out,” Nicoletti said. “It was made very clear that we were to listen, and that was it.”
One example that particularly struck a nerve, she said: in the middle of the pandemic, former Superintendent Harrison Peters, an Infante-Green appointee, wrote a letter to teachers informing them that going “above and beyond” would now be the norm in the upcoming school year.
“That was gut-wrenching,” Nicoletti said. “We have all gone above and beyond. My children think I work 24 hours a day. … That was one of the things for me that was, ‘OK, what do I do next?’”
She’s starting a new job as a math and ESL teacher in another Rhode Island district this fall.
Nicoletti is one of 188 teachers who have left the Providence Public School District so far in 2021, according to data provided by the district’s human resources department. More than 100 of those teachers resigned or retired this past summer.
In the 2020 calendar year, 152 teachers left, either by resigning or retiring. The 2019 numbers, from before the state takeover, were requested by Target 12 but not provided in time for this report.
There are roughly 1,900 teachers in the Providence school system.
“I’m not surprised that I’m not the only one who’s said, I can’t, this is too much,” Nicoletti said.
“I just feel bad,” said Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union. “We’re losing so many talented educators who have given so much to our district. It bothers me like they felt like they had to leave because they’re not being respected.”
Calabro said many of the teachers who left this summer made the decision before the new acting superintendent – Dr. Javier Montañez – was named to lead the district following Peters’ sudden exit.
Montañez, a former Providence teacher and principal, recognizes that morale needs to be raised among his staff. In a recent interview for WPRI 12’s Pulse of Providence, he said he has created a new “appreciation group” made up of teachers, and he’s also sending a weekly email to staff that has been well-received.
“I want everyone to know we’re a team of one,” Montañez said. “I don’t want anyone in the district to feel unappreciated or disrespected.”
Multiple teachers told Target 12 that Montañez has set a more positive tone, including with his weekly emails. And Calabro said she’s optimistic that under Montañez, the resignations will slow down.
“I don’t want to talk about a large number of teachers leaving next summer,” she said.
But in the meantime, teacher vacancies ahead of the new school year are as high as they were before the state takeover. There were 96 open teaching positions as of Aug. 23, with 58 of them classroom positions including math, English as a Second Language (ESL) and special education teachers. The non-classroom vacancies include two school nurses, six school counselors, five social workers and more.
Last year around the same time, there were 48 teacher vacancies ahead of the new school year. The year before, shortly after the release of the Hopkins report, there were 90 teacher vacancies at the end of August.
One of the stated goals of the five-year state turnaround plan is to increase the number of fully staffed classrooms at the start of the year from 95.5% (the 2019 baseline) to 98% by 2025.
At his weekly news conference Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Dan McKee said he would put in place an incentive program to get retired teachers to step up and fill the vacant Providence jobs temporarily.
He said he would sign an executive order to extend the 90-day limit for retirees to both work and receive their pensions, something former Gov. Gina Raimondo did last year in response to a shortage of substitute teachers. (His press secretary later Tuesday said the new executive order has not yet been filed.)
“Retired teachers, if you’re looking for a great opportunity to really make a difference — and I believe that coming out of the COVID and the impact that’s it had on many of us, we’re all looking for a way to make a difference in people’s lives — this is a way to do it right in the city of Providence,” McKee said.
Montañez says he hopes changes to the union contract could help in the future, since the district will be able to advertise positions to external candidates earlier in the year, at the same time that jobs are posted for internal candidates.
‘The pandemic has really taken a toll’
The struggle to fill certain school positions isn’t unique to Providence. A Target 12 survey of superintendents in late August found varied levels of staffing ahead of the new school year. Some districts reported being fully staffed up, while others said they were having trouble filling positions including middle school math teachers, special educators, ESL teachers, school nurses and bus drivers.
“We have a lot of openings, as do many districts,” said Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse. “It’s been hard to find employees in certain areas.”
North Providence Superintendent Joseph Goho said the district hired 21 new teachers over the summer, with five vacancies left to fill in late August.
“This summer has been very busy … because we’ve had an inordinate amount of openings to fill due to retirements and resignations,” Goho said. “I think the pandemic has really taken a toll on people, and as we’ve seen in many professions across the board, people are reassessing their lives and careers.”
Exeter-West Greenwich Superintendent James Erinakes noted that the district had to change some of its class offerings for elementary students because “we can not find art or music teachers.”
One sign that it’s getting harder to find teachers: more educators are seeking “emergency certifications,” a one-year teaching license that Rhode Island grants only when a district says it cannot find a highly qualified educator for a particular position.
The number of emergency certifications spiked this year, but had already been rising steadily even before the pandemic. A total of 481 teachers were issued emergency certifications from the R.I. Department of Education between Sept. 1, 2020, and Aug. 31, 2021, up from 382 the year before.
Five years ago, 273 teachers were issued the emergency certificates.
School bus drivers are another type of school staff that has been hard to come by this year.
Jeremy Chiappetta, the superintendent of the Blackstone Valley Prep charter schools, says he had to move around the start and end times for the system’s six schools because of a shortage of bus drivers to complete the usual routes.
“Our transportation system was originally designed for 36 school buses, school runs,” Chiappetta said in an interview before the first day of school. “Our partner, Durham, said we think we can only do 28 buses. So we rewrote all of our plans on that, and then a couple weeks ago they said actually we can probably only do 21 buses.”
Blackstone Valley Prep serves students from Cumberland, Central Falls, Pawtucket and Lincoln.
Jackie Farrar, the safety training supervisor and longtime school bus driver for Durham School Services, says some drivers are still concerned about the coronavirus, even with a mask mandate in place.
“They’re afraid to get on the bus with the kids,” she said.
Other drivers simply got other jobs after being furloughed or laid off when kids were learning remotely and did not need transportation to schools. “We lost a lot of good drivers due to that,” Farrar said.
Durham is currently offering a starting wage of $19.50 per hour for the Cumberland location, Farrar said. She said interested applicants can go to nellc.com or call (401) 334-3745. Drivers will need to obtain a CDL license.
Chiappetta said while staffing has been an issue overall, the bus driver shortage is the most “severe” shortage for his schools. After school started, he said the 21 bus runs have clearly not been enough, with buses running 25-50 minutes late.
“If you want to make a difference for kids and get kids back to school and get schools open, one thing you can do is pick up the phone, get that CDL and come drive a school bus,” he said.