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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Hillsborough teachers react to the Gates grant



The $100 million, seven-year grant that Hillsborough schools received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Thursday has the potential to significantly alter the teaching landscape, both in Hillsborough County and nationally.

Its focus on reforming pay structures, evaluation procedures and other matters related to teaching promises to bring change to a culture where change is not always welcomed. And if the teachers don't buy in, it's possible that the best of intentions here could run aground.

That in mind, we interviewed some educators to gauge their views of the new direction. We found a range of reactions to the plans, from wariness to full-fledged support. Read on for a sampling.

Dawn Perez, a language arts teacher at Martinez Middle School in Lutz, backed the idea of performance pay, saying the new systems are much less subjective than the old ways, when being friendly with the principal mattered as much as classroom results. She also liked the idea of having peer evaluators, suggesting that it will lead to improved teaching as methods are shared.

"I work very hard at my job," said Martinez, a ninth-year educator who has participated in Hillsborough's performance pay program for two years. "I like for people to notice that I am ... and to be paid for how hard I am working."

Magda Mixon, a National Board-certified math teacher at Martinez Middle, shared in the enthusiasm.

"A lot of people may see it as a threat," said Mixon, who also trains new teachers for the school district. "I feel like there is a need for accountability. We need to be looking at how kids are doing in the classrooms and are they actually learning."

Jackie Reinhart, a first grade teacher at Citrus Park Elementary, looked to the grant as providing opportunities for educators who don't want to move into administration.

"I do want to stay in the classroom, but I do want to increase my salary while doing that," said Reinhart, who's in her 18th year of teaching. She figured the mentor and peer evaluator positions on the career ladder could be "fun and interesting" possibilities.

Citrus Park Elementary fifth grade teacher Danielle Earle expressed some leeriness at the increasing use of test scores to evaluate teacher performance.

She said she expected that having peer teachers in classrooms reviewing teachers would balance the view. End results cannot be the whole picture, she said. If done well, Earle said, the initiative could reignite the spark in teachers who came to the job to help children and not to fret over whether students will meet arbitrary testing goals.

"I think there's some trepidation," Earle said. "But from what I've read, I'm definitely positive."

Dianne Rossi, a third-grade teacher at Bryant Elementary in Westchase, agreed that some teachers are wary of people coming into their classrooms, "if they don't trust them." She said she hoped the addition of mentors will help all teachers.

"It can be isolating being a classroom teacher," said Rossi, a 20-year veteran. "When you're brand new, if you don't have a supportive team, you might start looking elsewhere. This type of program is really going to support them."

Bryant fifth-grade teacher Pam Ankrum, a 23-year educator, said even long-timers like herself could benefit from mentoring. "If you've taught a long time, people think you have everything," said Ankrum, who has helped many teachers succeed. "For me to participate and have a mentor would be wonderful."

She acknowledged that there might be the chance to lose performance pay, or a fear of evaluations. But over time, she said, "that fear might go away because we're receiving the support."

Many teachers already assist their peers, modeling lessons and offering support, said Cheryl Kloehn, a Bryant kindergarten teacher. The grant should provide this backing at all schools, she said, and financially benefit those who are already doing the work.

Bryant third-grade teacher Nancy Fink said she liked having the Gates name attached to the district. "That's one of the most exciting pieces," Fink said. "It will probably bring us technology that we do not already have in our hands."

And that, if nothing else, will help energize teachers and students alike, she said.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:42am]


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