Large class sizes, teacher shortages linger into school year

Public school enrollment continues to grow, but a qualified-teacher shortage continues to plague the system. Always Investigating asked why and what’s being done to turn the tide.

It’s now weeks into the school year and Hawaii’s public schools are still hundreds of qualified teachers short, with some schools facing huge class sizes, officially as large as 37 students.

Some say they’ve seen even more.

“I know a teacher at Campbell High School that had 52 (students),” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. “I had 40 kids in my classroom. Across the state, the high 30s are very common.

“Imagine you were holding a birthday party and you have a bunch of 9-year-olds dropped off by 35 parents,” Rosenlee continued. “After two hours, you’d be exhausted.”

Part of solving that problem is getting more teachers into the classroom. Now, three weeks after school started, Always Investigating asked the Department of Education, does every classroom have the teacher that they’re going to have for the whole school year yet?

“Right now, we’re still in the process of hiring for certain situations,” said deputy superintendent Stephen Schatz.

“Right now there are classes at the beginning of the school year that are taught by substitutes,” Rosenlee said. “In some places, they cannot even find enough substitutes.”

The Department of Education has made about 700 new hires in the past two months, with 178 considered “emergency” hires, meaning key qualifications can be waived.

“Emergency hire needs to have a college degree,” Rosenlee said. “I’ve had experience where P.E. teachers were teaching science.”

Always Investigating dug deeper into where the emergency hires were most used and for what subjects and found, according to the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board, that most are teaching special education (93), followed by math (33), English (18) and science (10).

Here’s a breakdown of school districts with the most emergency hires:

  • Leeward Oahu: 60
  • Maui: 36
  • Hawaii Island: 33
  • Kauai: 32

“Ideally, we’d love to have all of our teachers come in with a state-approved teacher education program,” Schatz said, “but there is a necessity in certain circumstances to do emergency hires. But know, when we hire these folks, they come in, they’re smart, they’re eager, and we provide them all the training and mentoring necessary to do their job.”

Emergency hires have a year to complete a state-approved teacher education program (SATEP). A pool of more than 600 teacher applicants still likely to be called up have mostly met that SATEP mark.

The same was true last school year when more than 1,000 new hires over the whole school year were brought on board, 240 of them with emergency-hire exceptions.

Always Investigating asked the DOE, what will officials do going forward to make a difference to get more of those teachers teacher-certified before they start?

“I think it’s a matter of looking at our data and our recruitment information and ensuring that we’re recruiting in the right areas,” Schatz said. “If we can get students interested in becoming teachers when they are in high school, and they can start going to the UH thinking about being a teacher and going back home and serving the community, I think that will serve us well.”

That’s a long range solution, so to relieve class sizes now, some principals are getting creative. Several schools have shifted money from other vacant positions into an aide or sub-hire to improve their staff-to-child ratio.

“We want to keep our class sizes reasonable,” Schatz said. “Class size is not the only thing that matters, but certainly when teachers have too many kids to worry about, it becomes a challenge to them.”

Union rules outline a target staff-to-child ratio of about 1-to-25, but that’s doesn’t mean class size, because it includes specialists or teachers who don’t direct a whole class.

That may be ripe for a change.

“One of the things we looked at is working with the Board of Education to possibly start looking at actual class sizes,” Rosenlee said. “You look at a lot of our private schools, what they’re able to do is lower class size to less than 20. It shouldn’t be either-or. Our children deserve low class-sizes and well-paid, highly qualified professional teachers.”

Schatz says the latest teacher-turnover data shows a move in the right direction, with more teachers staying on the job longer.

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