Education Funding

Tulsa Brings in Volunteers To Replace Substitutes

By Michelle Galley — January 22, 2003 3 min read
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The cash-strapped Tulsa school district is replacing substitute teachers with volunteers from its northeastern Oklahoma community.

The initiative started last month, after the 43,000-student district got word from the state that its $250 million budget would be cut by $17 million. Superintendent David E. Sawyer realized he could save $800,000 by the end of the school year if the district stopped hiring substitute teachers, said John Hammill, a spokesman for the district.

Since then, the district has recruited 230 volunteers, and is regularly holding one-hour training sessions to teach the novices basic classroom-management techniques.

Mary Howell, the executive director of personnel, said she teaches the volunteer recruits such techniques as how to stand at the door and greet students, where to find the right questions to ask and the answers to them, and how to maintain discipline.

Last week, Ms. Howell trained staff members from a local hospital, workers at an oil company, members of a church community, and employees at the local sheriff’s office.

“Some people are a little apprehensive,” she said. “But they want to serve.”

State law requires substitute teachers to have earned a high school diploma. And the Tulsa district makes them pass a criminal-background check. Moreover, the state prohibits them from serving in the same district for more than 70 days a year.

The district hopes to enlist as many as 3,000 volunteers to meet the typical monthly demand. About 750 substitutes were in the paid pool, said Ms. Howell.

Jeopardizing Learning?

Substitute teachers are the first workers to go in many districts facing budget shortfalls, according to Shirley Kirsten, the president of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance, based in Fresno, Calif.

“We need to have a good substitute-teacher workforce that we can depend on and that is trained, capable, and retained,” she said. Using volunteers, she added, “is sort of like saying that substitute teachers are worthless.”

The effort in Oklahoma has not generated enough volunteers to cover every classroom that needs a substitute, said Carolyn Crowder, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

“Basically, when teachers are gone, other teachers are having to cover the absence,” Ms. Crowder said. “When you have a teacher trying to cover two classes, the learning is being jeopardized.”

Still, Tulsa has seen an outpouring of support in response to its money problems, according to officials there. As part of his inaugural celebration, Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, held a pancake breakfast to raise money for the district.

And last fall, Henry Zarrow, a Tulsa philanthropist who made his money through the city’s once-booming oil business, pro-mised to match contributions to the district up to $1 million. Since then, the district has received $530,000 in donations that Mr. Zarrow will match.

That call for contributions was one factor that changed Dixie Lee’s mind about volunteering. As a paid substitute for five years, Ms. Lee, 69, lost her income.

The money was only one issue. “I felt that it was almost a put-down to subs,” said Ms. Lee, a retired oil-company worker. “Even though teaching would not have been my lifelong mission,” she said, “I really did enjoy and get a lot out of being in the classroom with the kids.”

It was for those reasons that she initially decided that she would not volunteer to substitute. But many community members started rallying around the schools. She said she was impressed by Mr. Zarrow’s contribution and by the volunteers who had come forward to substitute.

“I felt that yes, I needed to support that,” she said. “But more importantly, I want to see the kids again.”

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