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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MPS pilots use of remote teachers for in-person classes amid staffing shortage

Washington High School is one of 13 MPS schools using virtual teachers from the company Elevate K-12.
Emily Files
Washington High School is one of 13 MPS schools using virtual teachers from the company Elevate K-12.

This school year, some Milwaukee Public Schools students are sitting in classrooms, but learning from virtual teachers.

MPS, like many school districts, is dealing with a teacher shortage. The district won’t answer how many teacher vacancies it currently has, but its job site lists more than 200 openings.

Usually, the gaps are filled by long-term substitutes or teachers with emergency licenses. The district added another option this year: virtual teachers for students in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

"Is it ideal? No," says MPS Director of Talent Management Michael Harris. "But is it providing students standards-based instruction by a licensed teacher? Yes."

MPS spokesperson Nicole Armendariz says the district is using 40 remote teachers, including nine substitutes, in 13 middle and high schools.

Harris says they’re in schools that really needed teachers – with four or more vacancies.

The students aren’t alone in classrooms. While the teacher is livestreamed, a paraprofessional or other school employee, dubbed a “classroom coach” supervises.

"We were looking for something that not just would put our students online, we wanted something where kids could actually interact," Harris says. "And so having a licensed teacher online where you can see them, and the classroom coach in the classroom, builds that kind of buffer. We didn't want kids just sitting there and watching a video."

The company providing these teachers is Elevate K-12, based in Chicago. Founder Shaily Baranwal says demand for Elevate teachers has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are solving the national teacher shortage crisis," says Baranwal. "And the way we are solving this crisis is by removing the geographic arbitrage that exists between the classrooms and the teachers. So the teachers may not be in the zip code of Milwaukee. They could be in Chicago, but they’re Wisconsin certified, and they will be streaming straight into the classroom."

This picture provided by Elevate K-12 shows the intended classroom setup for the program.
Elevate K-12
This picture provided by Elevate K-12 shows the intended classroom setup for the program.

Baranwal says her company has over 10,000 teachers and works in more than 350 school districts, including seven in Wisconsin. Part of her pitch is that Elevate is more engaging than the remote learning students experienced during the pandemic.

"What we do is different," Baranwal says. "The kids are coming to school. They’re sitting in the same physical classroom with their peers. There is a facilitator in the classroom. The teachers is streaming from a different location, but the way we have built our technology — which is built for K-12 — almost makes it feel like the teacher is standing there in front of the kids. And there is the joy of learning that being in a classroom with a teacher brings."

MPS denied WUWM's request to visit an Elevate classroom.

Baranwal says the teacher is broadcast on a screen at the front of the classroom, along with the content being taught. The teacher sees and hears the students through a camera and microphone in the room. They can also interact via chat on the Elevate platform.

Baranwal does say that schools should only use virtual teachers when in-person ones aren’t available.

Lukas Wierer, a teacher at MPS’s Obama High School, worries about students being shortchanged. He knows of two math classes at Obama being covered by Elevate teachers.

"When I think about them bringing in a program like that, it feels like our kids deserve to have someone in-person teaching them," Wierer says. "And it always feels like, with kids like ours, that are seemingly getting the short end of the stick on some of this stuff."

The MPS schools using Elevate are are mostly nonselective and low-performing academically. The middle schools using the program are: Roosevelt, Morse, King, and Audubon. The high schools are: Audubon, Bradley Tech, King IB, Wisconsin Conservatory for Lifelong Learning, Marshall, Washington, Obama, Madison and South Division.

Michael Harris, in the MPS HR department, says in the absence of Elevate, these schools might have to use emergency license teachers.

"The equity piece is very clear and evident," Harris says. "We want licensed teachers in those classrooms and that’s exactly what Elevate was able to deliver."

Harris says whether the district uses the virtual teachers next semester will depend on the academic results this semester, and on how fast it can hire in-person teachers. MPS continues to recruit, offering $6,000 hiring incentives at certain schools, along with relocation stipends.

MPS is set to spend up to $2.5 million on Elevate K-12 if the collaboration extends through the full school year.

Editor's note: MPS is a financial contributor to WUWM

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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