About a month ago, teacher Jonathan Leibovic spotted a strange man in the hallways of W.D. Kelley School in North Philadelphia.
A lost parent? An intruder?
As the man moved closer, Leibovic noticed he was wearing a lanyard emblazoned with the logo of a company that provides staffing help for the School District of Philadelphia. The man wasn't lost. He was a substitute teacher, a sight so rare at this K-8 school that Leibovic hadn't even considered the possibility.
"Teachers at Kelley don't expect a sub to show up," he said.
One year after a substitute teacher crisis forced the School District to change contractors and offer compensatory education services to thousands of shortchanged students, subs are starting to show up at Philly's public schools.
Still, dozens of District schools are unlikely to receive substitutes when teachers call out. And there's a stubborn pattern, one that has remained even as the overall situation has improved: Schools that serve the highest proportions of students in poverty are the ones least likely to get relief.
Trying out incentives
The District is well-aware of the problem. Its new contractor, Kelly Services, has recently introduced incentives designed to attract more substitutes to schools that have been traditionally hard to staff.
"Teaching is a hard profession, and when you have a school that has unique challenges it's difficult to get subs in the school," said District spokesperson H. Lee Whack.
It's too early to say whether the approach has worked. But it's a notable experiment, in part because the District also wants to lure permanent teachers to some of these very same schools and may try to formalize those intentions with language in the next union contract.
Last year, a paltry 32.8 percent of teacher absences in the District were filled with an assigned substitute teacher. That abysmal fill rate prompted Philly to ditch its contractor, Source4Teachers, and hire Kelly.
Kelly boosted pay for substitutes — after Source4Teachers had slashed it — and went on an aggressive recruiting spree. The early returns look promising. At a City Hall hearing in November, the District said it had filled 75 percent of daily absences, a 42 percentage point jump from last year.
Those improvements have been felt across the District. At W.D. Kelley, for instance, the substitute fill rate for the first month of the 2016-17 school year was 32 percent, up from 23.51 percent a year ago. At Kelley, 86.6 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, according to District data. That's one of the highest rates in Philadelphia.