Apryl Lysell’s son is starting fourth grade Wednesday after being completely uprooted from his friends at his former Perry Township school.
The district’s decision to redraw elementary school attendance zones meant that 36% of its elementary school students were moved to new schools this year, a change that could affect more than 2,000 students. That includes Lysell’s son, who she said is definitely upset.
“I was really trying hard to keep him in the same consistent schooling,” said Lysell. “So this kind of just threw all that right out the window.”
But the district had a reason for moving so many students around: Ensuring every bus route actually had a driver.
Across Marion County, several school districts report a better staffing outlook for the new school year than around this time last year, as they continue to recover from the staffing crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. But some are still struggling to fill roles that were a perennial challenge to staff even before COVID — such as special education, science, and math teachers.
School districts have implemented a variety of new strategies to keep workers. Perry Township’s aforementioned strategy involved eliminating bus routes. The Metropolitan School District of Pike Township increased salaries for bus drivers. Indianapolis Public Schools allocated $15 million in federal emergency funding to entice teachers to stay. And districts say some of those changes have worked.
“I’m feeling a lot better than we were this time last year,” said Laura Hammack, superintendent of Beech Grove City Schools, which increased average teacher salaries by a little over 6% last fall.
But addressing the problem can require difficult adjustments by educators and parents like Lysell.
Some districts report better staffing outlook
The nameplate on Perry transportation director Patrick Murphy’s desk has a succinct phrase etched beneath his name: “Livin’ The Dream.” If one compares Perry’s bus driver situation this year to last fall, that phrase rings true. This year feels “normal” to him staffing wise.
“This is the best start to the year on paper that we’ve had in a long time,” he said.
Nine days before the start of school, every bus route in the district had a driver — a far cry from this time last year, when the district was 30 drivers short of the ideal 120 drivers. The shortage meant anyone in the transportation department with a commercial drivers license — including mechanics, office staff, and supervisors — were pulled from their offices to drive.
The story is familiar for districts nationwide, especially for bus drivers. Twenty percent of public schools reported they were understaffed before the pandemic in August 2022, according to a national School Pulse Panel survey from the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education.
The pandemic made a difficult situation harder. Almost half of the public schools surveyed said they had been unable to fill teaching positions, and 60% said they couldn’t fill support staff vacancies.
Three years out from the beginning of the pandemic, some school districts say things are improving. But not everyone necessarily sees it that way.
Perry Township provided transportation for students who wished to attend a school outside of their neighborhood boundaries before this school year. Now, families who want their children to stay at schools outside of their normal attendance zone must provide transportation for themselves.
That is not an option for Lysell due to her work schedule. So her son has switched from Jeremiah Gray Elementary to Southport Elementary.
Now, she’s worried about the transition for her son and all of his classmates. When she visited her son for lunch at Jeremiah Gray Elementary on the last day of school in the spring, she said, students were crying about leaving their friends.
“It was honestly one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever been a part of,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township changed school hours to alleviate its own bus driver shortage. Due to the shortage last year, the township planned for longer routes with fewer drivers for this upcoming year.
David Klaus, whose three children have taken the bus to school in Washington Township, said that his family is aware of bus driver shortages and sympathizes with the district.
“I would hate to be a transportation director in Indiana,” he said. “I am grateful for the people who do take on this position. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Klaus said he likes the changes the district has made ahead of the first day of school. Busing hasn’t been perfect in the past, but he said he’s in full support of anything that can get kids to school and back home.
Even with the changes, the district still had nearly 20% of its driver positions open just 15 days before this school year. Still, the district says that’s better than last year, when it had 84 drivers, 31 fewer than its target. As of July 19, it had 97 bus drivers.
The Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, which canceled all in-person classes in favor of virtual learning for some days in 2021 due to its bus driver shortage, reported no driver vacancies as of July 13.
“In addition to increasing pay and adjusting routes, several initiatives [were] developed to enhance training, support, and overall work experience for our drivers and transportation staff,” spokesperson Sarah Dorsey said in an email.
In Beech Grove, Hammack said that after the district increased average salaries, teacher turnover this year has declined. Officials report lower turnover rates and the need to onboard fewer new staff — Last year, the district onboarded 35 new teachers, compared to just 14 this year.
“The pandemic was just so devastating for so many reasons, and one of them was just the impact on teachers [who] were just exhausted coming out of 2021, in particular,” Hammack said.
IPS, meanwhile, used a similar strategy by offering three rounds of retention bonuses, each worth $1,000 and $1,500, spread throughout 2022 and 2023. The district also raised starting teacher salaries to $50,400 in 2022.
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There’s evidence that this approach had an impact. The district’s retention rate jumped from retaining just 55% of teachers from 2018-19 to 2019-20 to 74% from 2020-21 to 2021-22, according to an analysis of state data by the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.
The district reported a 12% vacancy rate for all teaching positions about one week before the start of school July 31, which represents 152 vacancies for classroom teachers. Support staff positions were 78% filled, with a need for 204 more support employees.
Districts still struggle to fill certain teaching jobs
Though vacancies in some positions have declined from last year to this year, other positions still remain difficult to fill. And some districts have staffing situations that are no better, or worse, than last year.
Pike has improved in terms of bus driver vacancies, but reported that the number of overall staffing vacancies are about the same as the start of last school year. In mid-July, IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said the district’s teaching vacancies are also about the same.
Districts also frequently reported that hiring instructional assistants, who mainly assist teachers in the classroom as support staff, is particularly difficult. In Warren Township, for instance, 13 of the 17 staff openings as of July 24 were instructional assistant positions.
Districts also continue to struggle with teaching positions for math, science, and special education. In Beech Grove, for example, the six vacant teaching positions two weeks before school started included vacancies in some of these hard-to-fill areas, such as science.
Last year, the need for special education teachers statewide was so great that the state announced millions in federal funding to train more of them.
“It’s the last thing that we want for the school year to start without having a highly qualified certified teacher in place,” said Hammack, the Beech Grove superintendent. “When we get to a situation where maybe we don’t have a fully licensed teacher, we will explore how we can navigate emergency permits.”
Lysell, the parent in Perry Township, enters the new school year hoping for the best. Many students will need support to adjust to a new school with new classmates, she said.
“I hope they’re prepared to have more patience with these kids,” she said. “Because it’s going to be a huge adjustment.”
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at email@example.com.
Jade Thomas is a summer reporting intern covering education in the Indianapolis area. Contact Jade at firstname.lastname@example.org.