HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As they waited in the pickup line outside Thomas Middle School, 13 Investigates showed parents and grandparents job applications for some of the Houston Independent School District's hundreds of uncertified teachers.
There's a former fast food crew member teaching reading, a barista teaching science, a sales associate teaching science and a paralegal teaching fourth grade math, according to the applications we reviewed.
"They've totally lowered the standards and to me, what does that say for our children? If you're lowering the standards for the teachers, you're not giving our students the best," said Latricia Pierce, whose granddaughter attends 7th grade at Thomas Middle School.
Houston ISD told 13 Investigates it has nearly 800 uncertified teachers this school year, although not all of them were hired at the start of the year.
The uncertified teachers help fill crucial teaching roles, but 13 Investigates wanted to know what experience they bring as they teach the next generation of Houstonians.
We asked Houston ISD for a list of job applications for newly-hired uncertified teachers and sorted through nearly 60 of those applications to see what kind of experience they're bringing to the district.
We found 18 of those hires had zero classroom teaching experience listed in their work history.
One individual who majored in apparel and textiles and previously worked as a realtor is now teaching third grade. Another employee who majored in sports management and just left a job in collections is now teaching third grade as well.
Houston ISD isn't alone in relying on uncertified teachers. The Texas Education Agency says last school year, more than 28% of new teacher hires across the state were not certified.
The Texas Education Agency allows districts to apply for waivers so they can hire uncertified teachers for certain roles.
The state says waivers are not allowed for special education, but 13 Investigates found there are some uncertified teachers in those roles.
"This is the single biggest challenge that we face and other school districts across the country (face)," said Houston ISD Chief Human Resources Officer Jessica Neyman. "Simply put, the pool of these certified educators available and actively working in the profession or starting in the profession just does not meet the need for students enrolled in public school districts at this time."
Despite her positivity, Neyman, who joined the district four weeks ago, admits she inherited some problems.
She said teachers were hired at lighting speed this summer under state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles' leadership. In a race to make sure 100% of teaching positions were filled at the start of the school year, Neyman said standards for some hires slipped through the cracks.
She said some of the district's systems weren't "adequate to absorb the volume and the pace of hiring" at the start of the year.
The superintendent, to be frank, has been saying for months that our hiring systems and processes at Houston ISD are inadequate and in some ways broken.Jessica Neyman, HISD Chief HR Officer
"The superintendent, to be frank, has been saying for months that our hiring systems and processes at Houston ISD are inadequate and in some ways broken. I knew this when I took this job, that my first priority was to review all of our hiring practices," Neyman said. "I am identifying any system failures that may have happened and need to be corrected and all for the sole purpose of making sure we have the right people in classrooms teaching our kids."
Neyman said one of the first things she identified as a concern when she took over is that 182 uncertified HISD teachers are in positions the state does not allow, including some in special education.
About 10 to 20% of those uncertified teachers were moved into positions that would allow them to be eligible for a waiver, she said. The district is working to move the rest of those teachers to positions that qualify for a waiver or will help them get needed certification.
"There is admittedly a bit of a cleanup period," Neyman said. "We are moving as quickly as we can and we're already seeing fantastic results and this is a long upward trajectory, so it's an exciting time for Houston ISD and parents should absolutely start seeing positive results of all of this tremendous hard work."
University of Houston education professor Sam Brower said the nationwide teacher shortage is impacting districts across the state, not just Houston ISD.
He said districts are now faced with the difficulty of deciding who is going to teach students, especially when they want to hire people with a teaching background for a particular subject, but there just aren't enough highly qualified applications in the pool.
"When you read off some of the backgrounds of folks that are entering into (teaching) spaces, to me it speaks to a much broader issue in education that's not necessarily unique to Houston ISD," Brower said. "We're seeing this across the board (where) you have hundreds of unfilled positions in neighboring districts (and) they are facing very difficult choices around who's going to teach their students."
He said it's an issue that should concern everyone.
"The data does show that uncertified teachers are not necessarily going to be as successful as certified teachers," Brower said.
He fears the teacher shortage could only get worse.
A survey from Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization with a focus on education advocacy, shows 77% of teachers have seriously considered leaving the profession.
When you have a profound amount of your teaching workforce that is potentially looking to leave that workforce, that speaks to a much, much more serious and deeper issueSam Brower, University of Houston Education Professor
"When you have a profound amount of your teaching workforce that is potentially looking to leave that workforce, that speaks to a much, much more serious and deeper issue," Brower said.
The Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found the students most at risk of being negatively impacted by teachers lacking qualifications are Black and Hispanic students.
Dr. Gabriela Sanchez-Soto, a researcher who co-authored the Kinder study, said educational background makes a difference.
Her research found Black and Hispanic student academic performance was higher in HISD schools that had more teachers with a formal education.
The study also found that absentee rates for minority students were lower at HISD campuses where a higher percentage of teachers have advanced degrees.
"We found that in some ways, there were qualifications that seemed to make a huge difference for some populations. (English as a Second Language) and bilingual teachers definitely matter for students in schools where there's a lot of bilingual and ESL students. The same goes for special education," Sanchez-Soto said.
At Houston ISD, Neyman said even though some uncertified individuals don't have teaching experience, that is just one criteria they look at during the hiring process.
"They do come over as a cross-industry candidate and some of those end up being our absolutely most talented and devoted staff," she said. "They may have discovered teaching later in their career trajectory, but they oftentimes take the job extremely seriously and have quite frankly life experience that is really excellent for them to lean on as they are in the classrooms."
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