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Willmar district turning to businesses to deepen pool of substitute teachers

Willmar Public Schools Director of Human Relations Liz Fischer works at her desk at the district’s offices. Fischer is working on an idea to enlist businesses to help provide more short-term substitute teachers to the school district, which is experiencing a shortage. (Submitted photo)

WILLMAR — The Willmar School District plans to turn to the local business community for help in easing a shortage in substitute teachers.

Businesses could help by finding ways to make their employees available to be substitute teachers occasionally. Any person with a four-year degree may apply for a license as a short-term substitute teacher.

The district plans to host informational meetings later this summer to provide guidance on applying for a license and getting started as a sub. The license fee is $87.50. The district pays $105 a day for a sub.

The Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce will let businesses know in its weekly newsletter when the final schedule is set for the meetings.

The substitute shortage seems to be a statewide problem, said Human Resources Director Liz Fischer. It comes at a time that more substitutes are needed, too.

The district needs to hire a teacher substitute nearly every day of a school year, even if it’s only for an hour or two, Fischer said.

“I don’t know that people understand they can be a substitute,” Fischer said. Long-term substitute teachers need a full teaching license, but the short-term, on-call subs just need a four-year degree.

The state requires that substitutes be fingerprinted and undergo a background check, because they will be working directly with students, Fischer said. Short training sessions would be offered once the background checks are OK’d by the state, probably in early September, she added.

The district was able to call in substitutes for 92 percent of its absences in the last school year, Fischer said. “Those that we could not fill with a substitute we would cover by essentially shuffling current staff, asking classes to ‘double up’ or ask staff to use their prep time to cover, which leaves them with no prep time.”

With 350 teachers, it’s expected that illness, family illness or other family emergencies will cause unexpected absences. The district has added to that in recent years by doing some staff training during the school day.

The load of staff training has increased with a higher focus on new technology and new methods of instruction. Teachers participate in Professional Learning Communities related to the grade level or subject matter they teach.

Communication Coordinator Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt said she has started contacting companies about participating in the effort to get more substitute teachers. So far, Jennie-O Turkey Store has signed on, and she’s hoping others will.

“This is also about getting more people engaged with the schools,” she said. “We really want you to come in and see what it’s like to be part of Willmar Public Schools.”

Working as a substitute means following lesson plans prepared by a classroom’s regular teacher, Lighthizer-Schmidt said.

Other teachers are aware when a sub is nearby and are able to help out if needed, she said. “There is support there for you. … We’re going to give subs all the tools they need in the classroom the day that they’re there.”

Fischer said class sizes in the district are not large. Kindergarten classes have 20 or fewer children, and that increases to an average of 25 in fifth grade. Middle school and high school class sizes vary in size from one hour to another, but the average size is in the mid to upper 20s.

Fischer said she’s not sure other districts have tried to recruit businesses to help with substitutes. She described the idea coming to her in a dream, a sign she spends a lot of time thinking about the issue, she said with a laugh.

When others on the school’s administrative team supported the idea, she and Lighthizer-Schmidt went ahead with the planning.

Fischer said some recent college graduates or recently retired people might also be interested in being substitutes. The meetings will be open to them, too. Fischer said she’s also willing to speak to any service group interested in the idea.

Fischer plans to get a license herself and be a substitute teacher. “You’ve got to practice what you preach,” she said, with a smile.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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