Ongoing staff vacancies at Patrick Henry High School are making the start of the school year a challenge for both students and educators. Henry educators say the vacancies are taking a toll on educators who are being reassigned from their regular positions to substitute indefinitely in classes, regardless of whether they have the necessary background to teach the subject. The school’s new principal, Liza Anderson-Schmid, asked teachers on special assignments (TOSA) and special education teachers to cover classes with vacancies.

Patrick Henry High School Principal Liza Anderson-Schmid. Image courtesy of Minneapolis Public Schools

The school’s long-time principal, Yusuf Abdullah, departed the school in August to become a district associate superintendent.

According to the classroom coverage plan shared with Southwest Voices, Henry has closed multiple sections of courses, including physical education and math, and re-assigned students to courses that they didn’t originally register for.

According to educators at Henry High School, students have expressed concerns about how the vacancies will impact their learning. Students also said they feel crowded in the bigger class sizes.

As Southwest Voices reported, Minneapolis Public Schools had over 200 vacancies for teachers and associate educators across its nearly 60 schools prior to the school year. At Henry, there were eight educator vacancies, two of which were special education teachers. By September 17, the school was still looking for a Spanish teacher, a math teacher, two special education teachers, and a TOSA.

School vacancies are disproportionately concentrated in schools that predominantly serve BIPOC students and students who qualify for free and reduced price meals. At Henry, 92% of students identified as BIPOC and 69% of students qualified for free or reduced price meals (as of last school year).

Currently there are five math sections without a regular teacher at Henry, according to Henry math teacher Conor Wells. Wells is covering one section by giving up one of his two prep periods. Wells now teaches six periods in a row.

The other four sections are being covered by a short-term substitute that changes each day. The substitutes are not required to hold a specialized license for teaching secondary math. Two of these four sections are typically co-taught with a special education teacher. The special education teacher is now leading the instruction for these two sections with the help of the substitute. Wells estimates that about 50 students are in the two sections that are not co-taught, and have a rotating substitute each day.

“Math is a core subject,” Wells said. “We’re down an entire teacher, and that means all of the classes, these students don’t have a licensed math teacher in them.”

Wells said the extra teaching impacts his ability to talk to families during the school day and to provide student feedback and grading.

“I know this might not be what’s best for me, but I want to make the decision that’s best for our students and I’m going to cover this class,” Wells said about his own decision to cover a class, despite the personal strain. He added, “You get into education to help kids so you can be really easily guilted into covering a class.”

Wells called the current situation “a short-term solution to a long-term problem” but not a sustainable way to run a school.

“It’s gonna wear me out. I’m not going to be the best teacher for my students. And that’s the burnout,” Wells said.

A Henry educator showed Southwest Voices documents sent to Henry educators about plans for how all the vacancies in the school are being covered. These documents show that two sections of math have been canceled because of the vacancy in the math department. Wells says that these cancellations have led to combining of sections, and larger class sizes in the remaining sections.

“Class sizes are the biggest they have been in my four years,” Wells said. In previous years, Wells estimated a section might have 25-27 students. This year he said that many sections have 34 students or more. In some sections, he says there aren’t enough seats for every student, or students are sitting elbow to elbow.

Wells said some students refuse to come to class when they show up to see how full the classroom is.

A Henry educator showed Southwest Voices a message from a student that read in part, “I think not having a math teacher is bringing down my mental health. Most of my friends are learning stuff in their math classes and it makes me feel a bit dumb. Like I’m far behind everyone else.”

The three Henry High School physical education teachers left at the end of last year. Due to these vacancies, the school canceled 16 physical education sections, including weight training, team sports, net games, and basketball classes. The only physical education class being offered is Fitness for Life, which is required for graduation.

According to the classroom coverage plan for Henry shown to Southwest Voices, a section of health and the driver’s education course has also been canceled.

The coverage plan also shows a section of co-taught biology is not being offered this semester because there is not a special education teacher to co-teach the course.

In world languages, there are three sections of Chinese and five sections of Spanish that do not have a regular teacher. Spanish classes are being covered by the building’s TOSAs, and starting September 19, the district started providing students with lessons on video from a district program facilitator that works at Davis Center. Henry High School is an International Baccalaureate high school, which requires students to have coursework in two different foreign languages in order to earn the IB diploma.

Henry is one of two district high schools that has an education pathway program, which is part of the district’s efforts to develop a larger, more diverse pool of educators for the district to hire in its schools. There are two vacancies in this program currently, a full-time TOSA and a part-time education teacher. A different TOSA is covering two of the courses in this program, while others were canceled because of a lack of a teacher to teach the classes.

Shortly after Southwest Voices reached out to Minneapolis Public Schools to request an interview with Anderson-Schmid and Associate Superintendent Michael Walker, principals received an email from the district informing them that TOSAs and other district-funded staff could no longer be used to temporarily or permanently be used to fill vacant positions. The email specified that at most, district-funded staff could be utilized one day per week for subbing. It also specifies that these staff cannot be assigned to lunch or bus duty unless these roles are also being required of all licensed staff in the building.  

Neither Anderson-Schmid nor Walker were available for comment before the time of publication.