TAMPA — Some teachers thrived. Others gritted their teeth and managed, while a few walked out the door.
It's been a trying year for Hillsborough teachers, as the district tried out a tough new teacher evaluation system with $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Most teachers got extra advice and support from peer evaluators or mentors. But officials expect many scores will drop compared with recent years, when 99.5 percent of teachers were rated satisfactory or better and one-third were called perfect.
"There's going to be at least hurt pride, and you've got to believe there will be some lost teachers due to the new system," said Aron Zions, a social studies teacher and union representative at Pierce Middle School.
Teachers interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times described the full range of emotions and experiences. Many said the evaluations helped them to improve. Others said the new system was being used to target "difficult" teachers for firing.
"It's still subjective," said Jason Romeo, an English teacher at Brandon High who resigned under pressure in January.
District officials declined to release data that would show how teachers fared under the new system, but say it is working as planned. Principals and peer evaluators each bear 30 percent of the responsibility for observing and rating teachers, with the remainder being decided through test score calculations that will be available this fall.
Over the course of the year, evaluators marked the lowest score of "requires action" around 2 percent of the time on the evaluation rubric, which includes 22 distinct teaching competencies, said David Steele, director of Hillsborough's seven-year Empowering Effective Teachers program. They marked "exemplary," the top rating, around 8 percent of the time.
"In general I think it's been an extremely successful rollout," he added. "We've completely changed our teacher evaluation system in one year, and overall people accept it, they've worked through it, and it's worked the way we expected it to."
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By any measure, rookie teacher Jessica Copeland faced a daunting first year at Middleton High. Her teaching load was divided between two of the most challenging groups in the school: mentally disabled students and those who had fallen behind on their credits for graduation.
On a recent morning at the start of her agriculture class with the first group, those challenges were in full view. A student sauntered into the classroom, took one look at the lesson outlined on the board, and turned to leave.
"I ain't doin' that," he announced. "I'm goin' home."
But Copeland didn't bat an eye.
"You want lunchroom detention?" she asked calmly. An aide followed the boy into the hall as Copeland continued teaching, and a moment later the student returned and took a seat.
Copeland, 25, said she initially struggled to manage behavior and communicate effectively with students. But her Gates-funded mentor, Woodrow Samuel, offered a steady stream of suggestions.
"When I felt like I was just at my wit's end, he gave me someone to talk to and suggested things I could try to modify their behavior," Copeland said.
Providing such mentors is one of Hillsborough's key strategies for helping teachers adjust to higher standards. While the peer evaluators oversee large numbers of teachers — up to 160 this year, and around 115 next year — mentors like Samuel support just 18 rookies and evaluate another group of the same size.
"It's like being an on-call doctor," he said, describing the constant motion of visiting classrooms and taking calls from overwhelmed new teachers.
In Copeland's case, the support worked. At first she struggled to formulate clear questions and help her students understand learning goals. But by year's end, she had no scores in the bottom half of the evaluation scale, and a few at the very top.
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Across the county, second-year teacher Jason Romeo was having trouble.
He had started at Brandon High as a long-term substitute during the 2008-09 school year, after working in the advertising and consumer electronics industries. He was excited about tackling what he saw as a more fulfilling career as an English teacher.
But Romeo said his status changed quickly when a new principal, Carl Green, arrived at the school in the fall of 2009.
"It was a personality conflict," said Romeo, 41. "For whatever reason, they were going to figure out a way to get me out of there."
In his first year, he said, they argued over whether he was teaching the approved curriculum. In his second year, there was a dispute over electronics he installed in the classroom.
And by Romeo's own admission, his evaluations didn't go well. Some students weren't engaged, he said, and during Green's visit he made the mistake of reciting a poem that included profanity.
"That's when I knew I was done," Romeo said. "He just sat and looked at the wall, the clock, the wall."
Green declined to talk about the specifics of Romeo's case. But he said there was nothing personal about his evaluations.
"What I do take personally is my kids and that they get the best teacher in front of them that's possible," Green said.
The new system, like all big changes, was a bit disruptive for teachers and administrators alike, he said. There are more than 200 teachers and staff members at Brandon High, and he was required this year to evaluate and confer with every one of them.
"I don't have time to focus and target a teacher," Green said. "All I have time to do is help someone to get better."
Romeo said his peer evaluator, Dawn Perez, was more helpful and encouraging. In one October report she praised him for checking students' understanding of a short story, but said he needed to take immediate action when students behaved inappropriately. She recommended a behavior-management class and two books on designing effective lessons.
Still, Romeo said it was clear that he would lose his job at year's end. He resigned in January and took a new job in consumer electronics.
"I feel I didn't get to that spot (where) people encouraged me instead of discouraging me," he said. "They want a robot, someone you can control. I'm not that guy."
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As the final evaluations rolled in last month, veteran Pierce Middle School teacher Aron Zions found himself in the hot seat.
His union, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, had embraced the seven-year Gates reforms. But as some teachers grappled with lower scores, they turned to Zions, a liaison between the union and teachers.
"I've talked with hundreds of teachers," he said. "I've got a teacher who I respect and admire across the hall from me who is just distraught."
And that teacher just got some "developing" marks, second from the bottom on the four-point scale.
Still, a district survey conducted June 14 showed broad support for the new peer-evaluation system. With 7,022 out of the district's 12,500 teachers responding, 96 percent said the evaluators had treated them with respect and professionalism. Eighty percent said the evaluators' suggestions had helped them improve their teaching, while 20 percent disagreed.
For now, a drop in scores won't bring immediate consequences for most teachers. Those whose evaluations are deemed unsatisfactory for two straight years — a cutoff that has yet to be defined under the new point system — could face demotion or termination. But by 2013, evaluations will determine pay rates for all new teachers.
The 49-year-old Zions, who has been teaching for 10 years, earned mostly "accomplished" marks in his own peer evaluation, a notch below the top. But he also got a handful of "developing" grades in areas like managing student behavior and setting high expectations.
"For me, it caused me to focus," he said. "For other teachers, man, it caused a lot of frustration. Teachers were embarrassed to get a 'developing.' "
Arlene Castelli, principal at Giunta Middle School, said she enjoyed spending more time watching her teachers in action. And when she saw problems, the new system helped her to make detailed suggestions.
But for teachers who didn't pay close attention to the flurry of district bulletins and meetings on the Gates reforms, she said, those evaluation scores may have come as a shock.
"I don't think they grasped it until it came to them at the very end," Castelli said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.