Teachers aren't lining up to get into Pinellas County's toughest middle schools, and many of them are looking to get out. But school officials hope the possibility of an $11,000 carrot might turn that around.
The federal government on Thursday awarded the district a five-year, $7.2 million grant that will be used mostly for performance pay for teachers and administrators at Azalea, Bay Point, John Hopkins and Pinellas Park middle schools. The details must be hashed out with the teachers union. But here's the hope: up to $9,000 a year to teachers who boost student achievement, and up to $2,000 more if they take on tutoring, mentoring or other additional duties.
"Teachers that go to those schools are pretty devoted; they know it's going to be extra work," superintendent Julie Janssen said. "For the first time, we can say we appreciate you."
Sixty-one other entities nationwide — including the Hillsborough school district — won grants from the $1.2 billion Teacher Incentive Fund, which the Obama administration hopes will help keep top-notch teachers in high-needs schools and lure even more. Hillsborough won for the second time. It will get $10 million to expand a program it established with a prior TIF grant three years ago.
That money was used to award teachers in 116 high-poverty schools an additional $1,420 last year if they qualified for performance pay under a state program. Thirty-five more schools will be brought in under the new grant, said district spokesman Steve Hegarty.
Pinellas' first TIF grant is part of a bigger plan to focus more attention and resources on 15 struggling schools.
The TIF grant is set aside for just the four middle schools. But the district is hoping to cobble together enough money from other big grants to offer the same kinds of incentive in the other 11, which include Gibbs, Lakewood, Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins high schools.
The money will start flowing to teachers in the 2011-12 school year. In the meantime, the district and the teachers union have to settle on sensitive criteria for earning the extra pay — and on how big the checks will be.
"I don't want to describe it as a good thing," said Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, which has been cold to state directives for merit pay. But "if it works, I'm willing to keep it. If it doesn't work, we can put the genie back in the bottle and pick up the next bottle."
Azalea, Hopkins and Pinellas Park are C-rated schools. Bay Point is a B. All four have struggled with student discipline problems and high teacher turnover.
This year, 32 teachers at Pinellas Park Middle asked to transfer to another school, more than any other school but Gibbs at 36. Hopkins wasn't far behind with 28; Azalea and Bay Point each had 24.
Azalea Middle principal Teresa Anderson was hopeful the extra money would help keep staffers who might leave Azalea to be closer to their homes in north Pinellas or beyond. She singled out a guidance counselor who lives south of Pinellas and drives an hour and 15 minutes each way.
"I'm worried about being able to retain her," she said. "Hopefully (the grant money) will help her stay."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.