School District of Philadelphia headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. (Danya Henninger/Thetelegraphfield)

Philly resident Marielle Cohen is a big believer in public education. She really wants to dedicate her social work career to the School District of Philadelphia.

“I won't even consider other kinds of schools,” said Cohen, who has a master’s in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. “I'm so supportive of Philadelphia public schools that I just want to do all that I can to help.”

Despite having all the needed credentials and applying to positions appropriate for her experience, however, she says she’s never heard back from the district. Cohen’s story is similar to several others who’ve reached out to Thetelegraphfield, including people who teach at other grade schools in the region and a now-retired teacher who was eventually hired in Delaware County instead.

District officials say they’re unable to respond to everyone who applies for a role because not all people will proceed to an interview. They also say they’re more attentive with teacher candidates than other positions, like social workers.

And under Superintendent Tony Watlington, now in his second year on the job, the office in charge of hiring is being overhauled.

Hundreds of positions remain unfilled. As of October, the district’s roster of 9,000 full-time teachers and 1,600 substitute teachers was 96% staffed, according to district spokesperson Marisa Orbanek.

Hearing about the staff shortage, which is also a problem nationwide, led Cohen to believe there was a general lack of interest — which made her even more confused about why she wasn’t hearing back. “I was thinking people were not interested in applying,” she said. “So now that I know they are, what's the disconnect?”

Cohen said she was diligent in her application process. She spent time researching positions, and provided a detailed cover letter for each one. In October of last year, she applied for a school prevention and intervention liaison spot, and this spring she applied for an early childhood social worker job. She never received any acknowledgement.

“There's been nothing from the School District of Philadelphia talent support services, nothing,” Cohen said. “There's no reason for that.”

Thetelegraphfield requested an interview with Watlington to discuss hiring issues, but was redirected to Jeremy Grant-Skinner, the deputy superintendent of talent, strategy, and culture at the district.

Grant-Skinner was appointed by Watlington in May and is charged with overhauling the recruiting strategy and reducing onboarding time for new hires. He said applicants should at least be getting automated notifications.

“At the time our role is filled,” Grant-Skinner said, “our system should be sending an update so individuals know the status of their application.”

Hiring managers make decisions about when they make an offer based on their leads at that time, he said. “Anyone who meets the minimum qualifications for a teacher role is being provided information about what's the next step.”

Will a talent office restructuring help?

Some applicants have questioned whether the issue is within the district’s Office of Talent Support Services. The office currently has around 15 recruiters and 15 staff members, per Grant-Skinner, the district deputy superintendent, who has recently revamped how it’s organized.

Under his restructuring, one team’s job is solely to be recruiters, a second team is focused on the onboarding process, and a third team is dedicated to support services for current employees.

“My interest has been ensuring that individuals who need support from the Talent Office don't actually need to know a lot of detail,” Grant-Skinner said. “They just need to know the one place to go.”

As a possible solution to people who say they haven’t heard back, Grant-Skinner and other district officials have suggested in-person hiring events, and the Zoom office hours that are held from 1 to 2 p.m. every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.

Some applicants say these sessions, however, are hard to attend because they’re during school hours, making it difficult for people currently working as teachers. Others who’ve tried to attend have expressed frustration, saying they’ve waited up to 30 minutes on a call without anyone showing up, or been provided an incorrect link.

Grant-Skinner said it’s possible the online instructions for attending may have been misinterpreted, and said he planned to work to ensure the language on that site is as clear as possible going forward.

“It allows you to click at any time ‘Join a Zoom session,’ and then in parenthesis, it tells you what times those sessions are available,” Grant-Skinner said. “I worry that someone may have clicked it just at any other time, and if you do that when it’s not during a scheduled time, it’s going to look like you’re waiting for someone to show up.”

Some note the issues applicants face aren’t new for the School District of Philadelphia.

In early 1970, Jo Anne Snyder applied for a teaching position and went for an interview with the district. She was told she would hear back that summer, but never received an answer. She applied to the Chester Upland School District and received a job right away, working there until she retired. She did eventually receive a callback from Philadelphia later that fall.

“I didn't take it, because I had a sixth grade and everything was going fine,” Snyder said. “I didn't want to leave those kids and just go somewhere else.”

Cohen, the social worker, also hasn’t let the lack of response from the School District of Philadelphia hold her back. She volunteers at district book fairs and chaperones school dances.

“You know, we’re all in this together,” Cohen said. “We can do it, it shouldn’t be that hard.”