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At the Irasburg Village School, a math teacher’s departure has administrators struggling

Irasburg Village School. Photo courtesy Irasburg Village School

After Thanksgiving, Irasburg Village School will lose its only middle school math teacher. 

The upcoming vacancy is not unexpected. Administrators at the roughly 130-student K-8 school have known for a month about the departure, Irasburg’s principal said. 

But administrators have been unable to find a replacement teacher — meaning that it’s unclear how the school’s 35 middle school students will learn math next month. 

It’s a sign of persistent staffing shortages — especially in rural schools — that defy easy solutions. 

“In my 36 years in education, I have never seen it like this,” Penny Chamberlin, the superintendent of Orleans Central Supervisory Union, said in an interview. “And I would have said the same thing last year, and this year is even worse.”

Since the beginning of the summer, Orleans Central has hired 90 people, filling nearly a third of its roughly 300 staff positions. In a normal year, administrators hire only about 20 people in the summer and fall, she said. 

That’s a sign of high turnover, Chamberlin said — a challenge that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has driven thousands of educators away from the field. 

According to the Orleans Central website, administrators are still seeking to fill more than 20 positions in the supervisory union, which oversees seven schools, a career center and an early childhood program in the Northeast Kingdom. 

Staff in Orleans Central schools have been stretched so thin that principals are often called upon to perform tasks well outside their normal scope of duty, she said.

“It can go from a custodial chore to a kitchen duty to a (paraprofessional) support to playground duty to lunch duty to bus duty,” Chamberlin said. 

Even that is sometimes not enough. In a handful of instances where staff are out sick and substitutes cannot be found, schools in the supervisory union have simply canceled classes and sent kids home with classwork. 

“We did have to do that in our middle school recently,” said April Brown, the principal of Irasburg Village School. “We had two teachers that were out, so two of our three middle school teachers were absent. So we kept our middle school home for a day.”

Finding a middle school math teacher is particularly tricky, Brown said, because of the rules around teacher licensing. 

Elementary school teachers are licensed for general education, she noted, meaning that one teacher can teach elementary-level math, science, social studies and science.

But at the middle and high school levels, teachers need different endorsements for different subjects. 

“What is frustrating about this situation is math is one of the rarest middle school endorsements,” Brown said. “Meaning that there aren’t many Vermont educators that are licensed in middle school math. So the candidate pool shrinks significantly when you’re looking for somebody with that particular endorsement.”

Chamberlin declined to speculate on solutions to address the problem. The supervisory union is soliciting feedback and hosting a community forum Tuesday night “to brainstorm ideas and solutions for a staffing shortage in our K-8 schools.”

According to a notice for the forum, “no formal decisions will be made” but the “data will inform a board discussion and decision” later this month.

“Starting in December, Irasburg School will not have enough teachers to support their middle school students, meaning some sort of change will need to occur,” it says.

Ultimately, Chamberlin said, the decision will be up to the Orleans Central school board. 

“They’re going to have to narrow down what options are available with the least impact on children,” she said. “That’s the focus — the least impact on kids. How might we be able to restructure ourselves, or reconfigure some grade levels to support the children?”

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