TAMPA — The billionaires ate chicken wraps from the school cafeteria. They donned goggles in a chemistry class. And they chatted up teachers whose lives they have drastically changed.
Bill and Melinda Gates, one of the wealthiest couples in America, spent Wednesday at Tampa's Jefferson High School checking on their $100 million investment in Hillsborough County to reform teacher training and pay.
Sitting in student desks after eight hours of conversations with teachers, students, principals and administrators, the Gateses said they liked what they saw, even as they acknowledged the work is not easy.
"The sense of progress, the sense of improvement is really phenomenal, and I do believe this is how it should be done nationwide," said Bill Gates, 51.
The founder of Microsoft and his wife have bankrolled education reform all over the nation through their foundation. Hillsborough received its grant in 2009 to change the way it recruits, trains and retains high-quality teachers. The 193,000-student district is in the second year of its project, having already completed an initial round of teacher ratings.
The new approach calls for peer evaluations, principal observations and using student test scores — which has become one of the more controversial aspects.
Bill Gates noted Wednesday that using test scores to evaluate teachers does involve some "complicated statistics" but added: "It's a very simple outcome. If you help the kid learn more, you will do well."
And he believes the "new approach really pushes for student engagement, and that's critical to learning."
Teachers who met with Gates said they were impressed that the business mogul and philanthropist took a genuine interest in their concerns as they make their way through a radical change in how they chart their careers.
"He wanted to hear our feedback," said math teacher Allyson Vail, who was one of four teachers selected to talk with the couple. "He took extensive notes the whole time."
Hillsborough's grant is part of a $335 million investment by the Gates Foundation into a handful of districts that also include Memphis and Pittsburgh, along with a consortium of Los Angeles charter schools. The Gateses have already visited Memphis and the charter schools and are scheduled to visit Pittsburgh.
At the end of their daylong visit, the couple shared their impressions with the St. Petersburg Times and two other news outlets. They took turns answering questions.
Repeatedly calling the Hillsborough school district a "pioneer," Bill Gates and his wife lauded the collaboration between the district and union as a model.
When asked what they thought about the Florida Legislature's move to make other school districts revamp teacher evaluations — but without the financial support or lengthy timetable Hillsborough has — the couple said they didn't expect a one-size-fits-all answer.
In the end, some districts will have to make some tough choices on funding, said Melinda Gates, 47.
The couple's day in Tampa included early morning meetings with superintendent MaryEllen Elia and other administrators. At Jefferson, they spent time in an Advanced Placement chemistry class, where Gates watched as students worked with lab equipment.
Vail said Bill Gates came across as "just a regular guy," and Melinda Gates was equally unassuming.
"He reminded me of my dad," said law teacher Robert Bailey. "He had a sense of humor."
Gates wanted to hear the advantages and disadvantages of Empowering Effective Teachers, they said. Though nervous at first, the teachers soon felt comfortable enough to share their concerns.
"I want to see the observation process be as consistent as possible," Vail said she told him.
Marketing teacher Rochelle Stanfill said the district needs to fine-tune its procedures for teachers who do not get favorable reviews.
On other issues, there was less consensus. Some asked for more frequent observations; others thought they were being observed too much.
"What I got out of it was that it is evolving," Bailey said. "It is not a stale document."
The teachers said this is the third time the Gates Foundation has sent a delegation to Jefferson. It was the first time the couple visited a Hillsborough public school personally.
Most of them found out at a faculty meeting on Tuesday. A few didn't know until they arrived for work Wednesday morning.