Two months into the school year, students at one Austin high school are still waiting for teachers
Dae is watching Netflix at his desk during his health science class at LBJ Early College High School.
"It was pretty cool sophomore year," the senior says of the LBJ program, which gives students practical training that leads to medical certification. Dae's mom is a nursing assistant, and he thought he might like to become a registered nurse one day.
"Then we came back and it's not the same ... because we have no teacher," he says. "So we don't really do anything in this class."
Brandon Wilson, a business teacher at LBJ, is monitoring the students today.
“They just told me this morning to come in here and cover the class," he says. "[The students] have not been working on the curriculum, which is not good. I think they need to find something for them to do.”
There should be three health science teachers running this program, but this year there is only one. So, instead of being taught by registered nurses, Dae and his classmates have had substitute teachers who don't have medical training. That means the students don't get to use medical equipment, practice procedures on medical dummies or get the skills needed for certification.
Schools across the country are facing staffing shortages — among teachers, bus drivers and even cafeteria workers. LBJ High School is a case study in how the shortages are impacting students: 14 staff positions were open when the school year started in August.
At LBJ, the problem isn't just in the health science program; students in English, business and special ed classes are all missing teachers.
Principal Joseph Welch is running through what positions still need to be filled and the status of job interviews.
Welch, who started six weeks into the school year, says he wants to show employees and students he can help bring positive change quickly. Getting fully staffed is his first goal.
“You don't want to come to school every day and not know who's going to be sitting in front of you as a student,” he says. “You don't want to come to school every day expecting to learn, but you're sitting there on your phone because the substitute is just babysitting.”
Assistant Principal Ychacka Sells says it's overwhelming to still be hiring teachers at this point.
“'How did we get here?' is my first reaction,” she says. “How did we get here and how quickly can this be over? What happened to all the teachers? And just basically how can we get back?"
It’s a complicated question. Educators in the school district obviously have had a challenging time during the pandemic. That's made some take new jobs or leave the profession entirely. But staffing issues are more pronounced at LBJ than at other Austin ISD schools.
Some teachers quit over the summer. Then, the week before school started, the principal left. (Staff at AISD's central office would not say if he quit or was fired. Staff at LBJ weren’t given details either.) So days before students returned, there was no leader. That meant hiring was put on hold and existing teachers were given extra duties.
Not only is the school understaffed, but the building is also undergoing renovations. The layout changed, confusing a lot of students. The construction is also loud.
In addition, the district's magnet program, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, which used to be housed at LBJ, moved to its own building this school year. Now there are fewer students in extracurricular activities, which the two schools used to do together. And some extracurriculars like journalism and creative writing aren't being offered, because they don't have a teacher to sponsor them.
Students and staff describe the situation as "chaotic."
Grace Zamorano is a counselor at LBJ, but this year she's also juggling a second full-time job coordinating students who do dual credit at Austin Community College. The staff member who handled this job quit over the summer, so Zamorano volunteered to help until a replacement was hired. It’s been two months, and she’s still doing both jobs.
She says she’s doing it for the students, but she’s starting to question herself.
“In a sad way, I feel like my commitment to this community and to the students, have kind of become a part of the problem,” she says. “I feel like I am allowing the inequity to perpetuate if I just ride it out. ... I come to work every day and do it with a smile on my face. And I guess I have to ask myself: What if I said no? What if I just refused to continue to be taken advantage of by the district?”
Zamorano has heard the students talk about their frustrations with all the substitutes.
“We have so many amazing kiddos, athletes, artists,” she says. “And they deserve the best. They really do. Right now what they're receiving is nowhere near the best, to be honest.”
When he started, Welch immediately saw morale was low, so he planned a pep really at the end of his first week. The school hadn't had one yet because of all the chaos. But the football team is undefeated.
As the bell rings for lunch that Friday, students bypass the cafeteria and head outside.
Bailey, a sophomore on the volleyball team, says she's excited the team is about to be recognized.
“I meet people at the school, but I don’t meet the WHOLE school,” she says. “And they get to see me in my uniform, so it’s pretty cool.”
Bailey is nervous to stand in front of her classmates, but she hopes it will give the team energy for their game that night.
“We as a team are a very hyped team, but we just need more motivation to do as best as possible," she says. "I hope today will be our first win of the season.”
As students file outside, they are welcomed by the beat of a snare drum. The LBJ marching band, small is size after losing students from LASA, plays as the dance team performs in purple and silver sequins. Cheerleaders start some chants, and then Welch introduces himself. He tells them he has finished his first week on the job, and he’s excited to celebrate with the students.
“I want to make sure we celebrate being an LBJ [Jaguar, the school mascot], so we are going to do these pep rallies often,” he says. “I want to get the school spirit up, I want you all to go to the games. This is your school, and I’m just helping you get what you want out of it.”
The volleyball and football teams are introduced, and the students cheer.
Under a tree afterward, Welch drinks a Dr. Pepper and says how happy he was with the event. He thanks the dance and cheerleading coach, who threw the pep rally together so fast.
“They did it, and I’m excited," he says. "I’m excited to see what the next one is going to be, because this is going to be the new tradition. I mean, we party at LBJ.”
But the party ends when the lunch bell rings. Welch heads back inside. He’s got some people to hire.
Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.
Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.