Who's watching the substitute teachers?

Montville — When police arrested high school substitute Ryan Fish on April 12 — for allegedly supervising classroom fights — officials said his mother, a math teacher, played no role in his employment.

But on Aug. 7, 2017, Cheryl Fish wrote her son a letter of recommendation, according to application materials obtained by The Day in a Freedom of Information Act request.

"He would make an outstanding addition to the Montville High School staff and embodies our mission to 'engage and challenge students intellectually and socially within a safe learning environment,'" she wrote.

Since 1993, Connecticut has required substitute teacher candidates to hold a bachelor's degree, and it is not clear if Ryan Fish met that minimum prerequisite during a portion of his first stint as a substitute last spring. He majored in philosophy and minored in psychology at Sacred Heart University, and was a philosophy and logic tutor for several months there in 2015. He graduated in May 2017 but served as an algebra substitute at Montville for 20 days between April and June 2017, according to his resume and district officials. It wasn’t clear as of Saturday whether the district had applied for state waiver letting him work as a substitute before he graduated. He was rehired in August and worked as a substitute for 14 days last fall.

The state leaves personnel decisions, evaluations and supervisory guidelines to school districts. Area superintendents say principals and department chairs conduct walkthroughs to check in on substitutes after they're hired, providing oversight and a helping hand when necessary.

"Subbing is not easy," Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver said. "You walk into a class in whatever grade — it's like being a first-year teacher, only harder."

For Ryan Fish, 23, one of the school employees who observed his professional performance was his own mother.

"I spent several hours and class sessions at MHS working with Ryan as he interacted with students," she wrote, urging officials to rehire him after summer break. "He demonstrated excellent interpersonal skills that are necessary in guiding students to accomplish tasks."

Acting Superintendent Laurie Pallin said she believed Cheryl Fish overstated that "during her prep period she may have visited Ryan's classroom. She would not have been there in any official capacity or providing any feedback to the administration about his daily work because that is not how we evaluate subs. Administrators and department chairs are the people charged with popping in to see how the class is going."

Board of Education Chairman Robert Mitchell said the situation "sounds like a parent looking in on their child, not in any way, shape or form close to an evaluation."

Pallin added that other recommendations and references by three professors — who described Ryan Fish as an exceptional student and extraordinary communicator — "provided reason to hire Ryan without Cheryl's letter being considered."

Some area districts spell out policies guarding against, or even the appearance of, conflicts of interest or nepotism.

In Ledyard, if a district employee's immediate family member applies for a district job, the employee must refrain from "attempting to influence staff members" directly involved in hiring decisions.

Norwich's nepotism policy says "the Superintendent of Schools shall not assign staff to positions where they will be supervised or evaluated by a family member."

The Stonington Board of Education's certified and noncertified personnel policy says employees won't be placed in any position that "would create a supervisor/employee relationship within any one department between two individuals who are related by blood, marriage, civil union or law."

Five area superintendents said administrators, not teachers, supervise substitutes.

"Teachers do not supervise subs," said Nancy Andrews of the Connecticut Education Association. "That is an administrator's role."

Pallin reiterated that whatever time Cheryl Fish "did or did not spend" in her son's class "would have been on her own during her prep periods and not in any official or evaluative capacity."

Cheryl Fish on Friday said she "really can't talk about anything right now for legal reasons." She then ended the call as a reporter asked a question.

Ryan Fish on Friday said he'd been advised by an attorney "not to speak with anyone." He faces multiple charges in connection to the fights he allegedly supervised last fall, including two counts of risk of injury to a minor and four counts of second-degree reckless endangerment.

School board chairman: Nepotism never been an issue

Montville's personnel policy doesn't mention conflicts of interest or nepotism. The school board's code of ethics and conflict of interest bylaws largely focus on school board actions, not districtwide rules.

Vin Mustaro of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education said while there's no statute mandating policies on nepotism or conflicts of interest, CABE recommends them "both for the board itself and personnel in the district. The perception of a conflict can cause as much of a problem as an actual conflict."

Mitchell, who is president of CABE's Executive Committee, said nepotism "has never really been an issue" brought to the school board during his 12 years as chairman. He added that board members recuse themselves in matters involving teachers or staff who are spouses or family members.

"The board really watches that," he said. "But maybe in the future we might look at what other districts have. I might bring it up to the whole board."

Dolliver said when a Norwich district staffer outranks another who's a family member, they work in separate buildings.

No one picked up at a phone listing for Superintendent Brian Levesque, who fired Fish on Oct. 10 after receiving video footage of classroom fighting. Messages left with Principal Jeffrey Theodoss and Assistant Principal Tatiana Patten were not immediately responded to. All three administrators are on paid leave and charged with failing to report the fighting to authorities.

Ramping up training

According to U.S. Department of Labor estimates from 2017, about 630 out of the state's 6,400 substitutes work in the Norwich-New London-Westerly area, earning a median hourly wage of $13.48. Substitute pay rates typically range between $80 and $100 per day in the area.

Almost every state, including Connecticut, requires substitutes to undergo several background and criminal checks, including fingerprinting and Department of Children and Families and federal checks.

In the wake of the classroom fighting controversy, some districts are eyeing enhanced training for substitutes and staff.

"We are currently requiring all of our subs to submit a certificate that they re-completed DCF mandated reporter training again by April 27 or they will not be allowed to sub," Pallin said Friday.

All new substitutes come to the Montville central office for an orientation meeting where they're shown "several training videos including one on child abuse and mandated reporting," she said.

Stephen Tracy, New London's interim superintendent, said adding mandated reporter training or a handbook for the eight substitutes employed by the district is "something we should definitely look at." New London and other districts use Kelly Educational Staffing, which conducts its own mandated background checks and training, for many daily substitutes.

Tracy said the "key point of feedback" on substitutes' performance is "the regular classroom teacher whose place they're taking."

"Were the lesson plans executed? Were there an inordinate number of disciplinary issues?" he said. "Principals will ask, 'How did that guy work out yesterday?' And teachers speak out."

Waterford Superintendent Tom Giard said his district expects teachers to "leave lesson plans for substitutes that ensure the continuation of learning that occurred the day before."

Kristen Forde, a substitute who last week spoke of how Montville staffers support each other, said in 12 years she's "never gone without a lesson plan" provided by the teacher who's out.

She added that "Montville substitutes are your neighbors. We are articulate, caring, intelligent people who put the safety of students above everything else."

Pallin said teachers use an online portal to evaluate any of the district's 55 active substitutes who replaced them on a given day.

"They rate the substitute on multiple indicators, and we block specific substitutes from returning based upon these ratings," she said.

Boost in economy leads to substitute shortage

According to states' departments of education and the National Education Association, about half the states in the U.S. require substitutes to have some college under their belt or a bachelor's degree. More than 20 states only require a high school diploma or GED. A handful of states leave requirements solely to districts to establish.

Laurie LePine, Groton Public Schools' human resources director, said the district tries to hire candidates completing teaching or educational programs, but "if they do not have this background or education, we have on-site training materials to prepare the sub teacher for the classroom assignments."

Some districts, including Groton and Montville, occasionally seek waivers of the bachelor's degree requirement, which the state allows for some candidates with a high school diploma and experience working with children.

LePine said when Groton files for a waiver, it seeks individuals on a path to teaching.

"We want to ensure we have the best people in the classroom for our students, so we are filing for waivers in very limited circumstances," she said.

The state has approved an average of 141 waivers for non-degree candidates every year since 2014, according to the state Department of Education. The state also has approved an average of 240 long-term substitute waivers, letting candidates with a minimum of 12 semester hours of credit in a given subject teach in the same class more than 40 days.

Despite many states only requiring a high school diploma and others offering non-degree waivers or fewer college requirements, substitute shortages are common nationwide.

"When the unemployment rate comes down and people are less likely to pick up a day's work here or there, it becomes more difficult to fill these slots," Tracy said. "Sometimes we have to call on regular teachers to forgo a break period or lesson to cover for a colleague."

District leaders post online, advertise and attend job fairs to recruit potential substitutes.

Tracy noted substitute teaching remains popular for people starting second careers or for folks working on their teaching certificates.

"It's a nice way to audition for the real job," he said. "You can be in the building for two or three weeks and show administrators what you're capable of."

b.kail@theday.com

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