With a push from the Rendell administration, Pennsylvania this year added the largest number ever of nationally board-certified teachers to its ranks, officials announced yesterday.

Sixty-six teachers met the time-consuming, rigorous standards to earn the designation from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, raising Pennsylvania's total to 368.

Five of them were in the Philadelphia School District, which gives teachers a $3,500 raise for meeting the mark. Philadelphia now has 18 teachers certified under the national program that started in 1995.

In New Jersey, 13 teachers received the certification, bringing the state total to 148.

The process takes 200 to 400 hours and includes written assessments, research, and portfolios of student work, videotapes, and self-analysis of classroom practice.

"It's the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life," said Elaine Blackmon, a fifth-grade teacher at Hancock School in the Northeast. "It was almost like I took a hiatus from my family life.

A year ago, Pennsylvania, which ranks 25th in the nation in the number of board-certified teachers, announced that it would spend $1.2 million to try to increase the number by 500. The state is paying half of the application fee (the other half comes from the federal government), covering up to three days of leave for teachers to prepare and providing financial assistance for those who don't pass the first time.

It also set up four centers at universities around the state - including one at Temple - to support and mentor teachers in the program.

"We feel that nationally certified teachers are better teachers and create better students," said Michael Race, spokesman for the state Education Department.

A study released in 2004 showed that students of board-certified teachers scored seven to 15 percentage points higher on year-end tests than their counterparts, said James R. Minichello of the national board.

But the certification process remains less popular in Pennsylvania and New Jersey than in some other states.

There are 63,821 such teachers nationwide, and some states added more in the last year than Pennsylvania and New Jersey have overall. Florida led with 1,675, followed by North Carolina with 1,442. Minichello noted that some states pay teachers raises for earning the rank.

In Philadelphia, a salary boost hasn't brought a landslide of applicants.

Christine Sadjian-Peacock, regional coordinator of Temple's center, said the program still wasn't widely known.

"We're getting the word out," she said.

More than 400 candidates are in the pipeline for the 2007-08 class, said Walter Jordan-Davis, regional outreach director for Pennsylvania.

Because of the demands of the process, fewer than half of the applicants succeed on their first try.

The Philadelphia district is encouraging more teachers to try for it, said Shawn Crowder, senior vice president of human resources.

In Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh has the most: 80. The Central Bucks School District, which pays certified teachers a $2,000 annual stipend, leads the Philadelphia area with 40.

Hill-Freedman Middle School in Philadelphia has three board-certified teachers. Principal Diane Campbell-Hathaway described them as "excellent" and said they always looked for ways to improve and do their best daily.

She said that she liked the process but that it should include a visit to teachers' classrooms by an evaluator. Videotapes of lessons aren't enough, she said.

"That's a step they're missing," she said.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.