Most of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ $676 million budget is allocated toward staffing, yet not all schools in PPS are sufficiently staffed.
At Pittsburgh Morrow K-8 in Brighton Heights, for instance, students did not have a full-time nurse for the whole of last year. A parent of two kids who recently attended the school said her child’s third-grade class was split up at least nine times because of full-time and substitute teacher shortages. The school also lacked enough custodians and paraprofessionals at times.
PPS identifies hard-to-staff schools based on criteria such as the rate of resignations and retirements, absence rates and rates of teachers who apply to transfer out. Eight PPS schools — Faison, King, Liberty, Manchester, Perry, Sterrett, UPrep and Westinghouse — were identified as hard-to-staff for school years 2022 to 2024.
As PPS contends with a difficult budget season, PublicSource explores the balance of resources and its effects on students’ futures.
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers [PFT] said, in her experience, the district consistently sees teacher shortages in areas like math, science, special education, and adjacent areas like physical and occupational therapy, and vision and hearing specialists.
PPS has relatively well-paid teachers and classrooms with low student-teacher ratios. In 2022, full-time teachers at PPS earned about $83,375 on average. In Pennsylvania, the average teacher’s salary was about $73,070. The district has increased the number of employees even as student enrollment has declined. In 2022, PPS employed about 4,265 people across the district of 18,510 students.
The district appears to lack a robust strategy for addressing the gaps in staffing, and as it approaches a new budget season, anticipated funding shortfalls might exacerbate the issue.
Students with higher needs, teachers with less experience
Research suggests that teaching experience is positively associated with increased student achievement throughout a teacher’s career. Although the most noticeable improvements in teaching effectiveness typically occur within the initial five years, continued increases persist into the second and third decades of their careers.
Teacher experience in PPS schools varies in line with other disparities.
In schools such as Brookline K-8, Roosevelt K-5 in Carrick and Greenfield K-8, the teachers have an average teaching experience of 20 years. In other schools like UPrep Milliones 6-12 in the Hill District, teachers average less than a decade of experience.
This follows a statewide trend in which Black and Hispanic students and those from low-income families have the least-experienced teachers.
UPrep 6-12 has a predominantly Black student population and 86% are economically disadvantaged. Compared to that, Brookline K-8 has a predominantly white student population, with 57% being economically disadvantaged.
Edward Fuller, a professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University, said inexperienced teachers, in their first three years, are less effective than their seasoned colleagues.
“When you have schools with a lot of very inexperienced teachers, novice teachers, which is going to happen if you have an average of six years of experience in a school, you're going to have a lot at the low end,” he said.
Esposito-Visgitis said when teachers are offered options to transfer among schools, they tend to go where they think they will be supported.
Areas of shortage and its reasons vary
Morrow’s staffing challenges in non-teaching areas in the last year had many consequences. The parent, who requested anonymity to protect her children’s privacy, said the school cut eight staff members this year and made class sizes bigger.
The parent reported paraprofessional shortages and Morrow’s two buildings sharing one full-time nurse between them, often leading to one building not having a nurse for half a day. Teachers had to stop instruction if a kid was not feeling well, leading to a disruptive classroom environment, she said.
“It just makes for a very difficult school day,” she said. “I think teachers are more stressed. I think kids are more stressed.”
In an email response, Ebony Pugh, district spokesperson, said the district does not have a nursing shortage for this year and conducted successful hiring events over the summer for paraprofessionals. However, she noted there is a shortage of substitute teachers.
Some schools in PPS have higher concentrations of students with Individualized Education Plans. Statewide, special education enrollment has increased by 16% in the last 13 years, even as overall enrollment in public schools has declined by 6%.
A shortage of special education paraprofessionals has been attributed to the district’s residency requirement. Paraprofessionals are among the district staff that must live within the city to work in the district. Esposito-Visgitis said the district needs to change the mandate to ease this shortage.
“The fact that we're restricted to how many miles in Pittsburgh, just caps it, makes it awful,” she said. Pittsburgh is roughly 55 square miles of land area, with a population of around 300,000.
Emily Sawyer, a parent with five children in the district, noticed that her sixth grader in Manchester K-8 did not have a full-time nurse every day or enough substitute teachers. She said because of the small size of the school, which enrolls about 170 students, they were not able to hire a full-time nurse or offer more courses and hire more teachers for students.
Read more: Insert story headline and link it here
Compared to that, her sixth grader at Schiller 6-8, which enrolls about 245 students, has more offerings such as algebra and a marketing business elective.
As student enrollment in PPS continues to dwindle, its excess building capacity will increase, leading to additional maintenance costs that could result in smaller schools with fewer resources.
While most teaching positions are able to retain teachers owing to the high salaries and rewards for seniority, some certification areas remain hard-to-staff.
James Fogarty, executive director of advocacy group A+ Schools, attributes the teacher shortages in subjects that require certifications such as math and science to gender stereotypes that prevail in higher education.
“We see more young women not seeing themselves as math people,” he said. “I think when we look at sort of the teaching force, which is predominantly gendered, unfortunately, and predominantly women, you have that dual mismatch.”
Some education advocates also consider pay differentials in starting salaries to be a factor in teacher shortages in certification areas.
Sherri Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said while teacher shortages in math and science have existed for a long time, they were exacerbated by the pandemic.
“There's many job opportunities for our folks that have math and science backgrounds, outside of education. You're competing because those folks can make better money in those other types of STEM professions than they can in educating.”
At PPS, the starting salary for full-time teachers is about $48,340. Paraprofessionals are paid $150 per day and substitute teachers are paid $120. Substitutes who have worked at least 40 days during each of the preceding two consecutive semesters are paid $136 per day.
Fewer individuals are opting to receive teacher certifications in the state. Between 2010 and 2021, the number of in-state certifications declined by 67%. Research shows that the decline in people obtaining teacher certifications is at a faster rate than the decline in public school student enrollment.
Fuller said the teacher shortage is also caused by the high cost of higher education in the state.
“A lot of people transition into the healthcare professions out of the education field … because they're like, ‘I can pay off my student loans quickly,’” he added.
Advocates emphasize strong building leadership
Eric Graf, principal at Pittsburgh Milliones UPrep 6-12, said he aims for low student-teacher ratios and smaller class sizes while making hiring decisions. If there are budget constraints, he has had situations in which the school shared social workers, teachers or coaches with another school, he added.
Education advocates believe that salaries and strong leadership are the most important factors in retaining teachers in a school.
Graf was appointed principal at UPrep in 2020 and is the sixth principal in the school in the last 15 years.
Fuller said principal turnover in a school can cause teachers to leave because they are critical in creating a supportive working climate around disciplinary issues and course offerings.
“Every time a principal leaves, it usually takes a year or two for the school to recover, but we know it has a direct negative impact on student achievement,” he said.
Fogarty said schools that see a significant leadership turnover could also have insufficient resources for the needs of the students, making them hard to staff.
Pugh said the shortage among leadership positions in the district is consistent with the nationwide shortage of principals. In Pennsylvania, 15.4% of principals left schools between 2021 and 2023.
Schools in PPS are allocated budgets based on enrollment projections. If schools have fewer students, they might not have enough money to bring in additional support for stable leadership.
“If you're in a school where there's a lot of instability, not a lot of leadership support because it's constantly changing, then you're trying to figure out what's the best trajectory for your own career,” Fogarty said.
More money, more support
In 2022, PPS implemented a monetary incentive program for newly hired teachers and teachers who transfer to hard-to-staff schools. Teachers who commit to a four-year placement in a hard-to-staff school would be paid a stipend of $3,000 in the final paycheck of each year. PPS was not able to provide the number of teachers who have received the stipend.
Rob Mitchell, a PFT staff representative and a former PPS teacher, said the district should take a multi-pronged approach to retaining teachers in hard-to-staff schools. Other than financial incentives, the district can work on providing more opportunities, promoting positive PR and building a positive school culture among staff and students, he added.
“What often happens at schools that are hard-to-staff is that a lot of times the narrative around the school comes from the outside,” Mitchell said. A school’s reputation may stem from “people who haven't actually been to the school that are weighing in on what they perceive as what could possibly be going on there, and not so much from the inside out from the people that are there.”
Esposito-Visgitis said the district needs to support its teachers by trusting them, taking their input on curriculum and providing resources for student needs.
“We need to listen to them and get the supports in there so teachers want to teach here,” she said. “We want every one of our schools to be somewhere where teachers want to teach, students want to learn and parents want to send their kids.”
Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Elizabeth Szeto.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism helped to fund this project.
Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news! Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward. However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us. Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.
Know more than you did before? Support this work with a MATCHED gift!
Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.