Before Colorado's Eagle County Schools purchased an electronic substitute management system in 2003, the job of filling last- minute teacher absences fell to a part-time employee who started calling potential substitutes one by one from home at 4 a.m. to fill that day's absences and resumed at 5 p.m. that night for future absences.
The employee had to maintain an active substitute list and keep track of each substitute's availability and work interests while making calls to offer assignments, says Tammy Conway, the district's human resources support specialist. Systems like Sub Finder, created by CRS Incorporated, which the Eagle County district is using, can easily produce detailed reports on absenteeism and can interface with human resources and payroll databases to spare districts hours of manual data entry each week.
Older substitute management systems relied only on automated touch-tone phone calling. Newer electronic substitute management systems, including Sub- Finder; AESOP, a substitute management system that uses phone and Internet and is produced by Frontline Placement Technologies; and SmartFindExpress, have moved beyond the mere use of automated calling to also harness the power of the Internet, allowing teachers and substitutes more ways to easily and directly manage their schedules.
Nuts and Bolts
Many makers of the newer systems don't require the district to purchase or install any new special hardware or software. The makers of the systems can host the data and operate the software on their own servers. District administrators and employees can access the system by visiting the maker's Web site or by using a touch-tone telephone. And the district has no up-front costs, says Michael Blackstone, managing partner of Frontline Placement Technologies, which produces AESOP.
The advanced Internet-telephone systems make it easier for a teacher to call in and manage absences, as well as help prepare substitutes for that day's lesson plan. Teachers can notify the systems of absences by logging on to a Web site from home or at work. When registering an absence through the Web site, teachers must select from a predetermined list of reasons for the absence, such as personal leave, illness or training. Teachers can also leave notes or lesson plans for the substitute on the online system so that the substitute will be prepared before walking through the classroom door. Alternatively, teachers can also register their absences, including a reason, by using a touch-tone phone.
Systems like AESOP, SubFinder and SmartFindExpress also have made life easier for many substitutes. The systems allow substitutes to use a Web site to search for and accept jobs, change availability dates and review teachers' notes. They can do the same functions by telephone, where they can hear a teacher's voicemail explaining the day's lesson.
Using the systems, districts allow substitutes to select which subjects and in which schools they prefer to teach. Additionally, districts set the dates and hours during which the automated phone system will begin calling substitutes to offer them assignments, for example, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. the day before the scheduled absence. But districts can let substitutes narrow that time to suit their needs, permitting them to specify that they don't want calls after 8 p.m. "It allows our substitutes to plan their days and their weeks or their months," Conway says.
After a teacher logs in an absence, the job appears on the Web site so that substitutes can search for and accept the assignment. The system at the programmed time starts to call suitable substitutes, who can hear the assignment's details and accept the job by pushing buttons on their touch-tone telephones.
By tracking these preferences, systems like AESOP, SmartFindExpress and Sub- Finder can contact only those substitutes whose skills and availability match the assignments, saving time and improving efficiency, says Katherine Christopher, director of human resources for Madison Public Schools in Connecticut that has been using AESOP since January.
"It's really very, very customized and automated to the point where we are having 100 percent fill rates most of the time," says Christopher, adding that the system has been so successful that some substitutes complain the assignments are snatched up too quickly by others after being posted on the Web.
Administrators also may find the systems to be powerful tools. They can access their system by telephone or Internet to see which teachers are going to be absent that day and whether the absence has been filled. Not only can this information bring peace of mind to administrators, but it can help them plan for faculty meetings, professional development or rearranging teacher classroom assignments during the absence, Christopher says.
Not all the systems on the market combine phone and Internet. Substitute Online, produced by a company of the same name, is an online-only system that can be accessed via a computer or a wireless phone with Internet access, as touchtone is considered obsolete, according to Chuck Bernasconi, president and founder of Substitute Online, Inc.
For last-second assignments, the system generates a list of available subs for a staff member to call, he says. In a last-minute absence situation, not all of the desired substitutes may be online. So why not have an automated phone call in that situation? Bernasconi says that phones suffer the same problem in that situation. People hang up, or they don't answer the phone or they take the phone off the hook.
Sandy Houston, human resources manager of the Cascade School District in Leavenworth, Wash., which uses Substitute Online, says that in those last-minute situations the school staff calls subs they know or arranges to have another teacher cover the class by juggling class schedules.
Even with an automated phone option, "no calling machine is going to make you feel at ease sitting there waiting," says Houston, whose district filled all of its 245 assignments of classroom teachers, counselors, librarians, administrators and other personnel in March with the help of the system.
And a human caller also can stress the urgency of the situation in a way an automated system can't, she says.
Bernasconi says his system shows that having phone capability is unnecessary. He cites his product's performance as proof. "Most of our districts hit 100 percent [fill rate] every day," he adds, without the automated calling.
Advanced Management System
Many of the newer substitute management systems allow districts to set preferences on which types of subs are first contacted for the assignment openings. The district can set up the system to try to contact first a preferred substitute who has had positive experiences in particular schools-in other words, giving desired substitutes the fist priority.
"A teacher or an administrator can go in and say, 'When Ms. Jones, the physical education teacher, is out, we prefer to have Mr. Smith [sub] in the class," says Christopher, whose district uses AESOP.
The AESOP system will call Mr. Smith first. If he's unavailable or booked elsewhere, the system will post the job on the Web site and randomly call available substitutes to fill the assignment, she says. Similarly, using the substitute preference function, a school or district can exclude a substitute candidate from that type of job based on the district's prior experience with the candidate, says Christopher, whose district averaged about 15 to 20 teacher absences per work day in March across its six schools.
Districts may prefer a certain substitute for a certain position because of the substitute's aptitude. "Say a sub is just a bad sub for kindergarten ... and a principal doesn't want that person again," Christopher says, adding the sub is perfectly fine for older grades. "We can go in and modify that person's profile to say, 'AESOP, don't call this person for kindergarten,' " Christopher adds.
In addition to not receiving calls for that assignment, the substitute also will be unable to find that assignment while searching for openings over the Internet or through touch-tone phone search.
Using the advanced substitute management systems, the district can decide what subjects or grade levels the substitute should be eligible to teach. The systems also can keep track of each substitute's preferences for subjects and grades they want to teach. Using Substitute Online, teachers who plan to be absent in the Cascade School District can prearrange substitutes. The teacher can contact her favorite substitute beforehand and, if the sub agrees to the assignment, the teacher can book the substitute in the system herself, Houston says.
In addition to making easier the process of registering absences and filling sub openings, the systems can allow district administrators to produce detailed reports on absenteeism, which administrators can use to strengthen district decision-making and increase accountability.
Using AESOP, administrators can easily report absenteeism by school site, employee, position, by teacher, by district or by listed reasons (illness, training, or leave, for example). The system includes 100 static reports, but administrators can make custom reports too, Blackstone says. "You can cut the data anyway you want it," he says.
By looking at reports, administrators like Christopher can look at trends, for example, to spot which schools or teachers have cases of "Friday-itis," in which they frequently call in absent on Friday. The district can bring such problems to the attention of principals who can address it, she says. "It's helping me with attendance, so that I can see what in the world is going on," Christopher says.
Another value for Conway is the ability to analyze attendance patterns to help the district schedule professional development times. For instance, if many school sites are planning to hold professional development at the same time and day, say a Wednesday, that could strain the available sub pool, she says.
The information from the system "allows us to change [professional development events] to a different time if we see we have a lot of stuff on Wednesday," she says. The system allows Conway to take into account the effect of district events, such as professional development days, as well as patterns of absenteeism when planning calendars.
The Cascade School District uses Substitute Online to produce reports to quickly monitor and categorize expenditures for substitutes by program, Houston says. For example, the district could call up a report showing how much money was spent on substitutes that year to free up teachers for science curriculum committee meetings.
The system is "loaded with accountability," Houston says. "There is not one superintendent who doesn't have a program like this [who] is able to get a report every day on what's going on in every building. Every day [the superintendent] can go in and he can see what absences are in the district, who is filling them and what the reason is."
Advanced substitute management systems on the market also can interface with district human resources and payroll systems to update those databases when teachers log absences and substitutes take assignments. Conway's district on a biweekly basis imports SubFinder data into its HR system. Before, the process was time consuming, as a teacher would need to fill out a form listing absences that payroll personnel would have to manually enter into the system.
For the Cascade School District, which began using Substitute Online in 2005, the system has curtailed that laborious manual data entry. "Within about two minutes we can click and upload all of the information into our payroll," Houston says.
Houston says that her district has been more than pleased with the substitute management process. "Why would either a large, small or in-between district do anything different?" Houston wonders. "Why would they miss [the] opportunity to see what's going on in their districts on a daily basis?"