Oklahoma has seen an explosion in the number of teachers applying for emergency classroom certification, meaning more districts are relying on teachers to teach subjects they are not fully trained for.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education has received 280 applications for emergency certifications, also called exemptions, since July. That’s up from 198 last year and 99 in 2012.

Teachers applying for the exemption must be working toward receiving their regular teaching certification in the given subject. Many already have a certification in another content area, such as English, but are being asked to fill a hole in another class, such as math.

Department of Education spokesman Phil Bacharach said most of this year’s emergency requests were accepted, but he did not immediately know the exact number.

The growth in applications was not unexpected because average and starting teacher salaries remain lower than those of most other states.

“It is a pretty dramatic spike,” Bacharach said of the applications. “Just on the face of it, after three years, it looks like it’s a continuing trend.”

The shortage and growth in emergency certification requests prompted Superintendent Janet Barresi on Wednesday to advise districts to make sure teachers and administrators are properly certified.

A review this summer by the education department found one teacher and an administrator were working without proper certification, which puts districts in jeopardy when approving contracts for positions that require certification.

The biggest issues in Oklahoma for hiring and retaining teachers are poor pay and a lack of mentoring and professional development, Bacharach said.

In 2012-2013, Oklahoma’s average teacher salary ranked 49th nationally and the lowest in the region. Districts in states such as Texas have used their higher pay to attract teachers from other states, including Oklahoma.

An Oklahoma State School Boards Association survey released on Aug. 19 found districts were reporting 800 vacancies across the state as school started.

Surveyed districts said they were turning to emergency certifications or substitute teachers.

While many states have reported difficulties in recruiting math or science teachers, Oklahoma’s shortage has been reported at all grade levels and in all content areas.

“It’s in English, it’s in elementary schools – it’s across the board,” Bacharach said.

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