Top-notch educators embrace experiment
Hillsborough offered top-notch teachers bonuses to work in its poorer schools.
By Letitia Stein
Published March 5, 2007
TAMPA - Faye Cook begins class by reminding her fourth-graders how many days they have been together.
She puts the number - 102 - on the board, marking dashes below like the branches on a tree.
"Factors for 102?" she asks.
"One and 102," answers one child. "Two and 51," says another.
Is three a factor? The students' faces turn blank. To jog their memory, Cook begins to rap: "Divide, multiply, subtract, bring down, divide again."
It's a lesson she has sung before.
"We can do it wrong or we can do it right," the students chime in. "But if we do it wrong, we'll be here all night."
A year and 102 days ago, Cook decided to be part of an educational experiment - the public school equivalent of combat pay.
Hillsborough school officials were offering veteran teachers 10 percent bonuses if they agreed to work in one of 25 high-poverty schools. The idea was to lure the most experienced teachers to the neediest schools.
It worked for Clair-Mel Elementary.
The program drew Cook and four other veteran teachers to the school in a working class neighborhood west of Brandon.
They were friends, intrigued by the chance to work together. Collectively, they have more than 130 years of classroom experience and five master's degrees.
All have passed a rigorous test for National Board Certification, qualifying for an annual state bonus of about $4,300. Hillsborough's sweetener boosted their pay another 10 percent.
They felt valued.
"It really has elevated the classroom teacher," said Janet Caraballo, a 30-year veteran. "I can focus on being the best in the classroom, instead of 'What do I have to do in the classroom to move into administration?' "
But Hillsborough officials want more than happy teachers for a program that is costing more than $4-million. About 1,200 educators this year are getting the 10 percent bonus.
"It's a huge success," said Gwen Luney, an assistant superintendent who works with high-poverty schools. "The principals have been very happy with it, because they are able to keep a workforce that understands the needs of their children."
Teacher churn is common at high-poverty schools. Luney said turnover has slowed since schools began offering the bonuses.
But the district can't say how much impact the program is having on student achievement.
Luney said administrators haven't drilled into FCAT data to determine how much difference a veteran teacher can make. She said she doesn't see a way to make fair comparisons.
School Board member Jennifer Faliero hears positive feedback about the program. But she would like to see an in-depth analysis.
"Are those kids indeed performing better?" she asked. "The information is there, and I think that our assessment team should be looking at that."
The Clair-Mel teachers are feeling the pressure to perform. They are coaching their kids on test skills, hoping to improve their FCAT performance. But they're not afraid to take on other topics, like conflict resolution and personal responsibility.
"Sometimes when you close your classroom door, you just have to do what's best for our kids," said Donna Violette, who has been teaching for 33 years.
When Sue Creekmore and her colleagues arrived at Clair-Mel last year, students kept asking the same question.
"The children would look at us and say, 'How long are you going to stay?' " she said.
One student refused to believe her pledge to return in the fall. Shortly after classes started, he dropped by Clair-Mel from his new middle school. He looked in her classroom to see for himself.
"He said, 'Mrs. Creekmore, I've been in this school since kindergarten and you're my first teacher to come back,' " she said.
When the story was shared at a School Board meeting earlier this school year, Clair-Mel principal Shirley Sanchez noted that three-fourths of her staff returned this year.
About half of the teachers at her school are veterans who qualify for the 10 percent bonuses. Some have been at the school 20 years.
"We don't have the huge turnover that some schools have," said Sanchez, who herself qualifies for the 10 percent bonus after six years as principal at the school. "I think it's important too that the principals stay in a school as long as they can. Many of the teachers are here because they are loyal to me."
The Clair-Mel five came, in part, because they were impressed by Sanchez. She's retiring, but they intend to stay.
In fact, they're recruiting others. A sixth nationally certified teacher heard about the group at the school and decided to join them.
"I learn a lot from them," said Jennifer Begley, who is in her sixth year of teaching, making her the baby of the group. "They are so driven. And they aren't shy at all about sharing their opinions."
Increasingly, they are sharing their expertise with others at the school.
They have joined committees. Violette has a grade-level leadership post. Cook was named Clair-Mel's Teacher of the Year. She also chairs a school advisory council.
They know how to tap resources, including grants, that can benefit the entire school.
Creekmore used grant money to bring Japan to her fifth-grade classroom. From art projects to Japanese journals, she watched students flourish when class became a window to the world.
"These kind of experiences are meaningful, memorable and make children want to come to school," she said.
And their teachers, too.
"I feel like I have so much that I need to learn," Creekmore said.
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3400.