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Schools

Do teacher rewards pay off for poor kids?

Top teachers lured to a poor school say the effort has been challenging and worthwhile. FCAT scores may indicate how effective.

By MELANIE AVE
Published April 16, 2006


TAMPA - Faye Cook says the experiment did not go well at first.

The veteran teacher struggled to get her fourth-graders to work together in small groups. She was distressed at how few of them knew basic research skills, such as looking up terms in the encyclopedia or on the Internet.

"It's definitely a challenging population," Cook said of her students at Clair-Mel Elementary, one of 23 Hillsborough County schools where more than 90 percent of the students are considered poor.

But dealing with that challenge was the reason Cook and four other highly qualified teachers transferred this year to Clair-Mel. All received extra pay for making the move, part of an unusual effort to get top teachers into impoverished schools.

As the school year winds to a close, the teachers are waiting anxiously for the experiment's results - their students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

But however it comes out, they say it was worth the try.

"Was this a perfect year?" asked Janet Caraballo, 52, a fifth-grade teacher at Clair-Mel. "I don't think there's such as a thing as a perfect year. But I feel good about what's happened with the kids."

Hillsborough is the first school district in the Tampa Bay area, and one of only a few in the nation, to use bonus pay to attract quality teachers to disadvantaged schools.

The teachers can get up to a 10 percent salary increase. If they have national board certification, like all five who transferred to Clair-Mel, they receive an additional $4,500.

The experiment is attracting attention, though some are skeptical it can work over the long haul.

"You can get them there, but I contend that the money won't keep them," said Michelle Dennard, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "I really believe that."

Early indicators show the incentives are attracting high-quality teachers to schools that have long suffered from inexperience and high turnover. Two years ago there were three national board-certified teachers in Hillsborough's poorest schools. Now there are 30.

"It probably hasn't attracted as many people from the outside as it has encouraged people to stay there, which was half the battle," said Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "Once you get used to the money, it's hard to give up."

* * *

Asked how she thinks her students did on the FCAT, Clair-Mel principal Shirley Sanchez crosses her fingers.

Her school managed to attract the most board-certified teachers of Hillsborough's poorest schools, but the hurdles remain high. Half of the students started the year behind in mathematics and reading.

"I'm looking forward to looking at those scores," Sanchez said.

So is Cook, who remembers the second week of the year, when a little boy walked up to her and asked: "Will you be here next year?"

"They're used to teachers coming and going," said Cook, 54, a 15-year teaching veteran.

But she has seen progress. In class last week, a student explained how to correctly find the perimeter of a fence by converting yards to feet. Cook clapped her hands together and exclaimed: "You go, guy! That is exactly right."

In this era of strict accountability, a teacher's ability is increasingly measured by his or her students' performance. The stakes are especially high in poor schools, which are often the lowest-performing.

Hence, the financial incentives.

"This is a little sweetener to the pot," said principal Tracye Brown of F-rated Potter Elementary, another Hillsborough school that offers bonus pay. "I think it's a wonderful way of saying we recognize there are challenges in these schools."

Clair-Mel was unusual in attracting five highly qualified teachers, bringing its total of board-certified instructors to six. All are friends with master's degrees and at least a dozen years of experience. They say they left their former schools for the bonus pay, the children and each other.

Their new school has plenty of challenges.

Earlier this year, teachers discovered a student's family was living in a storage unit. Last week, the mothers of two kindergarteners were arrested and jailed.

"We can't change their parents, their home life," Sanchez said. "But we can control what happens in the classroom."

Mitzi Flintroy, 28, said Cook has pushed her 11-year-old son, Deminke, sending him home with challenging books.

When he started the year, Deminke needed special assistance almost daily, Flintroy said. Now he rarely needs extra help.

"Having a child with a learning disability is hard," Flintroy said. "A lot of teachers don't care. I appreciate that she took the time and worked with him."

Sue Creekmore calls the Clair-Mel students amazing, especially their ideas and creativity.

But Creekmore, who came from Symmes Elementary, a school with few poverty issues, said teaching the students to take personal responsibility for their actions has been a challenge.

On the first day of school she gave each student a new box of crayons. Some students snapped them in two. But instead of throwing them away, she put the broken crayons in a bowl for use throughout the year.

"They couldn't believe they weren't going to get more new ones," Creekmore said. "But that's real life."

* * *

The Clair-Mel teachers say not every educator is suited to teach in a poor school. It takes a special passion, they say.

All say coming as a team helped.

Third-grade teacher Donna Violette, 59, came to Clair-Mel from another poor school, Gibsonton Elementary, where she had been for 32 years.

The highlights, she says, are when a light goes on and the kids grasp what she is teaching.

"That happens almost daily," she said. "It's always encouraging."

On the first day of school, one of Violette's students, a boy who had been held back twice, struggled to spell the word "read."

"I've seen some real progress with him," she said. "I expect him to pass the FCAT and third grade."

All five Clair-Mel teachers say they plan to return next year to learn even more.

"Looking back and seeing where I started and where we're at, I'm pleased," Caraballo said. "I'm not sure how the test scores are going to come out. But I'm really proud of these kids."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 813226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com

THE CLAIR-MEL FIVE

SUE CREEKMORE, 60: Fifth-grade teacher. Master's degree in elementary education. Certified, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. A 30-year teaching veteran. Taught for last four years at Symmes Elementary.

JANET CARABALLO, 52: Fifth-grade teacher in special learning disabilities. Master's degree. Certified, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. A 29-year teaching veteran. Taught for last four years at Symmes Elementary.

BUTCH PERKINS, 46: Third-grade teacher. Master's degree. Certified, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. A 23-year teaching veteran. Taught at Mango Elementary.

FAYE COOK, 54: Fourth-grade teacher. Master's degree in special education. Certified, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. A 15-year teaching veteran. Taught last eight years at Springhead Elementary in Plant City.

DONNA VIOLETTE, 59: Third-grade teacher. Master's degree in reading. Certified, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. A 33-year teaching veteran. Taught 32 years at Gibsonton Elementary School.

[Last modified April 16, 2006, 00:42:15]


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