For years, Lincoln High never had trouble finding subs. Even though it is a large, comprehensive high school, temporary teachers wanted to work there.

That changed last week, when a private firm took over managing the Philadelphia School District's substitute services. Source4Teachers, based in Cherry Hill, received a $34 million contract and promised it would fill 75 percent of vacancies initially, ramping up to 90 percent by January.

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But Source4Teachers achieved its highest "fill rate" of the week on Friday, when just 12 percent of the 456 city classrooms that needed substitute services had them. The firm has said it had hoped for better performance, and expects to improve rapidly.

Lincoln, in the Far Northeast, had five vacancies Friday. Two of them were filled, said Louise Jordan, the school's special-education liaison and its teachers' union representative.

At least two of the jobs were special-education vacancies created by teachers on medical leave. The district has known about these spots since May, Jordan said.

"It's a terrible way to start a year for those kids," Jordan said. "It's so stressful, and the kids aren't being taught. They don't have textbooks, and they don't have anyone to introduce them to the curriculum, and it's not for lack of trying here in the building."

Still, Lincoln has had better luck than Central High, a top city magnet. The school in Logan needed seven substitute teachers Friday, staffers said. It had none, with other teachers scrambling to cover classes.

At McMichael, an elementary in West Philadelphia, no subs were assigned the first week. The school needed four each day, said Andrea Gaskins-West, a teacher there.

To cope, two McMichael classes have been collapsed, leading to larger-than-usual class sizes, and forcing supplemental staff like McMichael's counselor and lead teacher to step away from their duties to cover classes.

"It's been a challenge, to say the least, and there's no hope on the horizon," said Gaskins-West, a fifth-grade teacher. "It makes a difference when you have a population of kids in need of extra support."

School District officials have said that while they understand starting a new system poses challenges, they are concerned. "We want to see a rapid improvement," district spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

Source4Teachers, which has about 300 workers qualified to teach in Philadelphia and about 500 more in some stage of credentialing, is paying up to $110 for Philadelphia substitutes; under district management, the pay was $160, or up to $242.83 for retired teachers.

Officials with the company have said they do not believe its pay scale is part of the problem.

A number of workers have disagreed, saying Source4Teachers' pay was absolutely the reason they were reluctant to take Philadelphia jobs.

A local substitute teacher working elsewhere for Source4Teachers said she received an email from the company a few weeks ago urging her to accept jobs in Philadelphia.

"I took it as a desperate search for subs - again, I laughed out loud," said the substitute, who declined to be identified for fear of risking future employment. "For the piddling sub pay, they want me to go from Chester County into Philly to sub? They have to be kidding. The pay does not justify the long trip into the city to teach heaven knows where."

Another said the pay was an affront.

"It works out to $15 an hour or less for someone with a master's degree," another substitute said, also declining to be identified for fear of jeopardizing future work. "It's insane."

One Philadelphia substitute - who converted from working for the district to working for Source4Teachers - is frustrated by the low pay and the glitches that the teacher said had marked the early days of the new system. System computers were down at schools early on, and there's been little information, the city sub said.

"It is impossible to reach the call center," said the teacher, who declined to be identified. "Either they hang up because their lines are overloaded, or you wait for hours on hold. Being 60th in queue is not unusual."

Owen Murphy, Source4Teachers spokesman, said high call volumes were typical at the beginning of a school year. He said the company had added staff and extended hours.

"It's a learning curve based on technology and folks learning how to use the system," Murphy said. "We expect that to taper off as people get up to speed on the system."

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which has filed unfair labor practices charges with the state Labor Relations Board over the outsourcing of substitute jobs, called the company's performance "shocking."

"I think it's disgraceful that the company that received a $34 million contract guaranteeing the School District that they would be able to provide the necessary substitutes didn't deliver," Jordan said. "It's unacceptable. How can this happen, and how can anybody justify it?"

kgraham@phillynews.com215-854-5146@newskag