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In Auburn, classes sometimes swell to 35 students when a teacher is ill and no substitute can be found. In Tukwila, Renton and Seattle, principals are filling in, or asking other teachers to work through their breaks. In those districts and others, schools have had to cancel teacher training sessions when they can’t find anyone to cover classes while those teachers are away.

An acute substitute shortage has hit schools across Washington state, causing a daily scramble to fill classrooms.

In one Seattle school, half of the roughly 60 substitute requests so far this year have gone unanswered.

“It’s not fun right now,” said Jessica Calabrese, principal at Lakeridge Elementary in Renton.

Finding substitute teachers has been getting harder over the past few school years, she said, but this year, a last-minute sub request will likely not be answered and even those posted long in advance sometimes go unfilled.

Twice this fall, a lack of subs forced Calabrese to cancel daylong trainings for teachers that have been key to her school’s big gains in math performance.

“The teachers don’t get what they need,” Calabrese said.

School leaders across the state say they’re not sure why the crunch is showing up now. Some speculate that a rising economy is pulling qualified substitutes — who, in most cases in Washington, must have a four-year degree and teaching certificate — away from teaching and into other jobs. Others say teachers must do more training now than in recent years, which creates a greater demand.

But there’s no question it’s a problem, and schools are trying anything they can think of to make substituting an attractive gig, from raising salaries to handing subs hot cocoa when they arrive to dusting off old rosters of substitutes to call for help.

In Tukwila, the district is even turning to the free online advertising service Craigslist to try to reach qualified people it hasn’t worked with before.

How schools find subs

In Seattle, Emerson Elementary tops the list of schools hardest hit by the substitute crunch. So far this year, it has successfully found a sub only about half the time it needs one.

How schools find substitutes varies from district to district, but generally the process starts with teachers and principals contacting substitutes they know — often retired teachers like Carrie Richardson, 72, who filled in for an absent third-grade teacher at Emerson on Wednesday.

Richardson said her passion for kids keeps her coming back.

“They keep me on my feet,” she said.

Richardson found the Emerson job on a district Web page for substitute postings. She also gets phone calls from the district’s automated dialing system, which calls subs to alert them of new postings.

If schools don’t find subs through the district or their own calls, they scramble. At Emerson, for example, Principal Farah Thaxton has sent the librarian to fill in for an absent teacher, or asked other teachers to give up planning periods.

This year, the district has assigned one substitute to work at Emerson several days a week, every week. That helps, Thaxton said, but the school still struggles to find all the subs it needs.

The district says it doesn’t know why it’s harder to find people to substitute at these schools than others, but it hopes to find out. In an ongoing review of the substitute shortage, the district says it will look at teacher absences to see whether the bulk of requests are caused by illness, mandatory training or some other reason.

A substitute in Seattle makes between $161 and $187 a day, with no benefits unless a sub works more than 60 consecutive days at the same place.

Washington law allows districts to hire “emergency” substitutes who don’t have a teacher certificate if they’ve exhausted all other options.

But Seattle doesn’t do that.

Loosen the standard?

Finding subs hasn’t been any easier in neighboring districts.

Tukwila School Superintendent Nancy Coogan is considering giving an extra half-day’s wage to subs who commit to working five consecutive days in her district. She’s also thinking of putting two substitutes on the full-time payroll.

“No matter what, every day I could use them,” she said.

Her district’s sub roster has roughly 30 names, she said, not enough even for the small district, which has five schools and nearly 3,000 students. She’s turning to local colleges to recruit December graduates to join the potential substitute ranks, and her staff is drafting an ad to place on Craigslist.

In Auburn, school leaders have at times hired emergency subs this year.

“We’re constantly in recruiting mode,” said Tim Cummings, associate superintendent for human resources.

His district is not alone. The number of applications from schools wanting to hire emergency subs has increased this year, said Kristen Jaudon, spokeswoman for Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Cummings said his district has also seen a shortage of teachers in general. When they were hiring elementary teachers this year, 65 candidates applied. Six years ago, the district received close to 200 applicants for those jobs, he said.

In Seattle, a new union contract may contribute to the sub shortage, because it requires all teachers to do two days of special education training, said Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association.

That training is crucial, Knapp said, but finding substitutes to cover teachers during training is hard.

“It’s going to be a continuing problem for a while until we can really figure out how to get enough people into the system,” Knapp said.

To deal with the shortage, Seattle Public Schools has started calling each of the 287 people on its substitute roster who have not worked yet this year, said district spokeswoman Stacy Howard. The district also is looking for money to hire semi-permanent subs, like the one at Emerson.

Coogan, the Tukwila superintendent, said that if the pinch continues, the state should consider loosening its requirements for subs.

Washington is one of the states that requires subs, with few exceptions, to have a teaching certificate or license. Not all do.

Knapp, the Seattle union president, defends the requirement.

A trained teacher knows how to run a classroom, Knapp said. They know how to motivate and keep kids on task.

“Stepping back from that would almost be tantamount to saying, ‘Yes, we’re going to give up on instruction when substitutes are in the classroom,’ ” Knapp said. “And I don’t think people are ready to do that.”

Leah Todd: 206-464-8246 or ltodd@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @leahktodd