MIAMI — Oklahoma school districts have been struggling to fill more than 500 teaching vacancies at the start of the new school year, according to a new survey from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA).

Schools in Oklahoma are in such desperate need of teachers that more than 900 emergency certificates have been approved by the State Board of Education since July, according to the Oklahoma State Board of Education (OSBE).

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said people who received emergency certifications have degrees in the field they're teaching but they haven't met all the requirements for certification.

An emergency certificate is a substandard one-year certificate issued only to educational services certificate candidates who meet the requirements specified for each endorsement.

Certificates are issued only on application of a public school district in which the district board of education declares its inability due to unforeseen shortages or other extenuating circumstances to locate a suitable certified teacher.

The combined impact of budget cuts, too few prospective teachers and teachers opting for other careers or out-of-state teaching jobs is even worse than a year ago when schools had about 1,000 vacancies after eliminating 600 teaching jobs.

This year’s vacancies do not include positions filled by teachers holding the more than 300 emergency teaching certificates state education officials approved in May, June and July.

According to a press release from the OSSBA, 17 teachers have left Miami Public Schools over the last year, leaving first-year Superintendent Jeremy Hogan scrambling to fill vacancies. The district eliminated 11 positions, has increased class sizes and is offering fewer courses.

Dozens of students typically take a third-year Spanish class but Hogan eliminated the class because he couldn't find a teacher. The inability to offer a competitive salary and to provide teachers with adequate classroom resources are major recruiting challenges, he said.

"We’re having to put a puzzle together with pieces that don’t match,” Hogan said in the release. “We have missing pieces. We love kids, and when you can’t give what you feel is your best, it hurts. We’re doing a disservice to students."

Thus far, emergency certifications have been approved at Fairland and Quapaw School Districts. Fairland approved one emergency certification while Quapaw approved three.

“We did request three emergency certifications for this school year,” Quapaw superintendent Randy D. Darr said. “We requested one for high school English, middle school math and high school science.

“I think it is always a better situation when a teacher is teaching in the field in which he or she is trained, but with these three emergency certifications, we are very fortunate that these three individuals were already exceptional teachers in our district and were willing to step into positions we had to fill,” he added. “All three were seasoned teachers whom we had first hand knowledge of their abilities.”

For those seeking a teaching degree or wishing to change their major to education, organizations like the American Board come into play. Individuals who have been granted emergency certifications can utilize the board to become certified educators.

The American Board, also known as the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), is a non-profit organization that places qualified professionals in schools through its state-approved alternative teacher certification program.

The organization was established by the U.S. Department of Education in 2001 and has awarded thousands of teacher certifications across the nation.

“The American Board was started as an initiative to help career changers transition into teaching if they had a bachelor’s degree and had been working in a different field and decided they wanted to teach,” said Lisa Howell, American Board Executive Director. “We were created as an alternative to allow them to take competency-paced exams in order to earn teaching certifications to start teaching without having to go back and get their master’s degree.”

Howell said the American Board was initially designed for those career changes but since then, has been approved as a valid form of certification in over a dozen states for high needs and critical needs subject areas such as science, math and history.

“We don’t certify for Art History or anything like that,” Howell said. “It’s mostly these critical needs areas in the states. In the state of Oklahoma, it varies district by district, but we mainly hear Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects as the critical needs.”

Completers of the American Board’s program typically take seven to 10 months to become certified with some candidates achieving certification in as little as two months.

The program is self-paced and completed online. Candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree or be within six months of completing a bachelor’s degree to enroll in the program.

As a former social studies and history teacher, Howell said granting hundreds of emergency certifications is a temporary fix to a widespread problem.

“Emergency certifications are a stopgap measure, at best,” Howell said. “They’re a band-aid on a gunshot wound.”

With a large number of baby boomers retiring from teaching, the nationwide teacher shortage will continue to plummet over the next 10 years, Howell said.

“The shortage is not as bad as it could be but now, over the next 10 years, it's going to get so much worse,” Howell said. “I'm seeing the word 'crisis' being evoked throughout the nation and that has caught my attention.”

For more information on the American Board, call 1-877-669-2228 or visit www.americanboard.org.

Data and press releases from the OSSBA, the OSBE and the American Board are part of this report.

Kimberly W. Barker is a staff writer for the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at kbarker@miaminewsrecord.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiamiNews_hound.