LAWTON, Okla. — Across Oklahoma, superintendents from the smallest districts to the largest continue to contend with an ongoing teacher shortage that shows no signs of slowing.

More than 30,000 teachers have left the profession in Oklahoma since 2013, according to the 2018 Oklahoma State Department of Education's Teacher Supply and Demand report. That's an average loss of 10 percent of the state teacher workforce. To help combat that loss, district administrators have had to increasingly turn to alternative and emergency certification options in order to put teachers in the classroom.

That's the case even in smaller districts, like Cache and Elgin, where populations continue to boom, the student body continues to increase and the number of qualified teachers continues to dwindle. As the school year winds down and faculty, staff, students and parents make decisions for where they will be in the fall, administrators face a tough road ahead.

"We're no different than anyone else," Chad Hance, Cache Public Schools superintendent, told The Lawton Constitution. "We're finding teachers are hard to come by. Right now, it's the time of the year where people are moving on and making changes. We're having vacancies and we're not wanting to waste time."

The school's job board might look a little slim right now, but that will change soon enough. Hance said the Cache Public Schools district faces a revolving door of incoming teachers and outgoing teachers — many of whom leave the district for better options, either by teaching in neighboring states that offer or more money or by abandoning the profession all together. And much like the rest of the state, Hance said finding qualified teachers to fill those vacancies becomes harder by the year.

"Five to 10 years ago, when you had an elementary teaching position, you'd have a stack of applications 3 inches tall," he said. "You almost grit your teeth because you have so many good applicants, who do you choose? Now, you've seen those applicant numbers dwindle and the applicant pool gets smaller. You start going, 'we just need to find one good one.' Instead of having that stress of who you pick, you're just trying to find one."

The middle and high school levels are no different.

"When you get to upper level classes, like high school with its specific certifications, that search becomes even harder," Hance said. "The upper level sciences and upper level maths are very difficult. Those positions are hard to find and to fill with someone qualified."

At Elgin Public Schools, Superintendent Nate Meraz continues to deal with similar issues. He points to a combination of factors — chief among them, a decade of state-imposed budget cuts — that have driven teachers out of the workforce and out of the state.

"We've had a more difficult time filling positions than compared to eight years ago," Meraz said. "I think it's fair to say, step-by-step, each year, maybe what's happened is the lack of pay that's adequate in people's eyes and the stressors of the job versus the pay have added up to all of a sudden, it's hard to find someone to fill those positions."

Over the last eight years, Elgin Public Schools has had a continuously more difficult time filling positions. Each year, teaching vacancies come up and each year, it's harder to fill them.

"Normally, for an elementary position, you would have 20 applications," Meraz said. "Now, you're down to three to five and that's very unusual."

Like other districts across the state, Meraz and Hance have turned to alternative and emergency certification applicants to fill the openings. That doesn't mean the teachers in the classroom are any less qualified, or that the education of an Elgin Public Schools student or a Cache Public Schools student is suffering. It's just the nature of the education system at this point.

"We've seen a number of increases in alternatively certified teachers that come across and we've seen an increase in the number of emergency certified teachers," Hance said. "They've been good employs and have done a very fine job for us."

The only drawback Hance has had to deal with in regards to non-traditionally certified teachers is that some have failed to follow through in the ongoing certification process. Once a teacher is hired and is issued an emergency certification, they must complete the Oklahoma General Education Test, the Oklahoma Subject Area Test and the Oklahoma Professional Teaching Examination, along with a required number of professional development hours or graduate courses. They have three years to complete these objectives from the time they are issued the emergency certification, but some struggle to follow through.

"Sometimes, you'll see those people who won't follow through with that process and won't get properly certified," Hance said. "We're dealing with that here in Cache a little bit."

Meraz said his district has had to employ emergency certification "on a couple of occasions" over the last two years as the shortage has worsened. The district has gone out of its way to ensure those teachers are given every chance they have to succeed and all of the support they need to transition into a new profession. Meraz said he would prefer to have a traditional teacher in the classroom, but he does not feel the quality of education has dropped.

"We've had a smooth integration with our non-traditional teachers that we have hired," he said. "We've been well blessed to find people who are very capable of being a teacher and jumping right in. I don't think there's a substitute for majoring in education, getting in these classes and getting that good preparation. But when times dictate that you have to look for alternative ways, we have had good people that are able to get in there and make that smooth transition."

The teaching job market is a competitive one in Southwest Oklahoma. There are plenty of positions and not enough bodies to fill most of them. So superintendents have to get creative and they have to be willing and they cannot afford to wait and debate a qualified candidate's merits.

"If we see someone we feel is a good fit, we don't hesitate and offer them the position," Hance said. "We hope they accept it because if we let them walk and we try to think about it, someone is going to take them. We try to make that connection quickly because we understand where we're at in this game."

Smaller districts like Cache and Elgin and others in Comanche County do have a slight advantage against the larger districts. While Cache Public Schools can't meet the salary offerings of larger districts like Lawton Public Schools or any Oklahoma City or Tulsa area district, it brings other offerings to the table. The district pays the entirety of a teacher's retirement fund contribution, which puts more money in their pocket each month — helping to offset a little of that difference in pay. And advantages go beyond money, like support and camaraderie among faculty, staff and administration.

"I think smaller districts have a little bit of a lure to them," Hance said. "The smaller districts can attract some of the teachers who are trying to get away from some of the big school hassles and red tape and politics. When you come out of Cache or Chattanooga, it's a lot closer type of family atmosphere. Teachers know one another; they're more of a family. It's attractive."

Much like Cache, Elgin is still a growing community and school district. Meraz said he has seen teachers come to his district to get away from the larger systems and they bring with them years of experience. The small, but growing nature of districts like Cache and Elgin often give them an upper hand in recruiting the few teachers that are out there.

"We like to think of it as an attraction," Meraz said. "We've had success getting people to come to us from surrounding schools. You still retain that small town feel and morality, while still being able to offer more programs."

Distributed by The Associated Press.