TAMPA, Fla. — "In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education..." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Other America.
Every morning, Devonte Snell is up before dawn. He gets to his grandparents' house around 6:30 a.m., so his mom, Anissa, can head to work.
Then, step-by-step, he, his grandma, and their dog, Smokey, head out in the dark with a flashlight to get the 10-year-old crossing guard to Potter Elementary School in East Tampa before the other children arrive.
"I want to help people,” said De’Vonte.
Yet, until late October, he didn't have the main person he needed at school to help him.
"What teachers are we going to keep? Which ones are gonna leave," De’Vonte said.
For ten whole weeks at Potter, De’Vonte’s mom said her son didn't have a permanent teacher. De’Vonte said other staff members did their best to fill the gap amid the teacher shortage.
A district spokesperson said a reading and math coach provided consistent instruction in De'Vonte's classroom as the district worked to fill the vacancy.
"We do receive federal funding that allows us to buy additional teacher units that support teacher instruction in the classroom," said Shay McRae, chief of transformation network for Hillsborough County Schools. "For example, we have academic coaches in our schools. That would include a reading coach, a math coach, a science coach, possibly we have community specialists who are all certified and degree teachers."
McRae said the district has to get creative when trying to cover teacher vacancies, and academic coaches are a way to do that. De'Vonte had a different perspective.
"The staff, they were coming in and out of the classroom, so it confused me,” he said.
His mom said she felt frustrated.
"It was nerve-wracking,” said Anissa. “Like who is teaching my son? He's in the fifth grade. Who's teaching him? Is he getting the education that, of course, each parent wants their child to get?"
A good education, something every student deserves, but teacher shortages across the Tampa Bay area and the nation threaten that opportunity.
Some schools have to rely on substitute teachers to fill the gap for weeks or months at a time, and it has a disproportionate impact on schools in low-income, minority areas already struggling to keep up.
"We can't even provide our children teachers where they can learn,” said Bianca Goolsby, education advocate and founder of Tampa Bay-based Teaching for the Culture. “I can only imagine where they're going to end up."
Teacher vacancies are a problem throughout Hillsborough County, across the Tampa Bay area and nationwide. Records show Hillsborough has 432 instructional vacancies, and subs are filling more than 300 long-term spots in classrooms that had no teacher at all.
This is on top of the thousands of daily vacancies this year due to COVID.
Most of the long-term sub spots are concentrated in Title I schools, which are often low-income and minority. And, 25 percent of the vacancies are concentrated in the district's "Transformation Schools" with the highest need.
Substitutes are undeniably necessary to the education system when permanent teachers are out. However, some education advocates, and even substitutes themselves, are concerned about students struggling schools that rely heavily on subs to cover long-term vacancies.
"There's just simply not enough adults to run our schools effectively,” said Brittney Llewellyn, a substitute teacher who has worked with Hillsborough County Schools for seven years.
Llewellyn says COVID has exacerbated teacher shortages in most schools but emphasizes that vacancies were a problem long before that in minority schools district and nationwide.
"Even before the pandemic, they were being robbed of an education,” she said.
"There are some schools where substitute teachers are the only teachers, where you have kindergarten students in classrooms void of color, void of books void of anything because they don't have teachers. They just have substitutes that come in every single day," Llewellyn said.
It’s a serious concern for parents like Anissa.
"I feel that our students and our children deserve an education, just like all the other students,” she said.
These challenges aren't unique to Hillsborough. Districts nationwide face similar struggles, and schools are one part of a bigger equation.
"It's a societal issue. It's an economic issue. It's a community issue. It's a county issue,” said McRae.
“When we think about people losing jobs, that does impact housing. Kids are moving around from place to place, we have an increase of foster students that are coming into our community. And all of those things are barriers that we don't necessarily control, but we do work with and deal with for the sake of our students,” she said.
McRae said things that happen outside of the schools have a domino effect on what happens inside the classroom.
“Think about housing, right? And so when we see the decrease of public housing in inner cities, because we're doing re-gentrification projects, and then we push families out into the outskirts of the community, we have to think about how education then has to transition, how supports have to look different, how supports for families have to look different,” she said.
Education advocates agree.
"We are seeing that our Black and brown children are being left behind,” said Bianca Goolsby, founder of Tampa Bay-based Teaching for the Culture.
A look at De’Vonte's school paints a clear picture. His school is more than 84 percent Black, and nearly 100 percent of students come from low-income homes. In 2020, just 22 percent of third-grade students were proficient in English language arts. That number was 26 percent in math. For fifth-graders like De'Vonte, just 16 percent were proficient in English and 29 percent in math.
"When they have a sub in these core classes particularly, we're going to see where children are just passed through the system. And they're not going to be fluid in reading. They're not going to be fluid in solving, you know, mathematical equations,” said Goolsby.
On top of not having a teacher for 10 weeks, De’Vonte's school has never been rated above a C. From 2013 to 2017, it was one of the worst schools in Florida, earning five consecutive F grades from the state.
The district has made changes and added resources to bring up Potter's grade. Chief of Transformation Schools Shaylia McRae helps lead efforts in tackling solutions.
"How do we ensure that kids are getting high-quality instruction, even if we have teacher vacancies at the school," she said.
The district has brought in certified academic coaches to help in reading, math and science. It is also paying some teachers to take on one additional class each day to alleviate the shortage. Hillsborough County Schools also has a teacher residency program that encourages educators to commit to struggling schools.
"We look for those folks that want to be teachers that may be degreed in something else but is interested in going into teaching. And we really try to target those folks that come into our transformation schools, and they work as full-time subs,” said McRae.
McRae and school board chair Lynn Gray say they are also working on new partnerships.
"We're talking 250 teachers. That's a lot that we're going to put into these high needs schools,” said Gray.
The board is expected to vote in December on an agreement with the University of South Florida that will bring in students to work with kids struggling in math and language arts. Students will also get training to deal with trauma students from high-risk communities often deal with.
"Some of them have domestic violence, some of them have food insecurity, some students come in with eyesight that's not taken care of by eyeglasses, some are homeless. So, there is a lot of students that come in with compromising situations,” said Gray.
They’re situations those passionate about education say communities can fix if leaders on all levels work together.
"Our public schools are in crisis,” said Goolsby. “And so, it is going to take a village to fix it. And that means that folks have to be accountable."
Accountability matters in making sure students like De’Vonte can grow up and achieve their dreams.
"I actually want to be a teacher,” he said. “If you don't go to school, you've got less opportunities to do stuff in life."
"The schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out." – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "The Other America."
ABOUT FRACTURED: With a pandemic and social unrest, this last year has made many across the country more aware of the inequality right before our eyes. It's what led 10 Tampa Bay to take a deeper look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "The Other America" speech he gave in the late 1960s on issues that still plague us today. Through our series "Fractured," we examine Kings' words, where we are still broken, and how we can heal.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated just 15 percent of students at Potter Elementary were proficient in English language arts. The correct number is 22.