Last September, when Hillsborough County school officials tried to get parents out to an informational session about the Gates project, barely a handful showed.
Wednesday evening at Robinson High School, it was an entirely different story.
Aided by PTA organizations throughout South Tampa, the district attracted several dozen parents and a long list of questions for the panel of speakers.
The Gates project, called Empowering Effective Teachers, is in its second of seven years. Its goal is to support teachers in their development and compensate them according to performance instead of seniority. The work centers around both a mentoring component and multiple-measure evaluations that replace the old evaluations performed by the principal.
Although there has been some resistance from teachers who resent a process that includes peer evaluations, leaders in the district administration and the teachers union say that it is far better than the education reform efforts mandated last year for the rest of the state.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia walked the audience through the basics of the project. "This is not about sorting teachers, but supporting teachers," she said.
It's also a step toward helping teachers become compensated like professionals. "Teachers today have a very difficult time having the things we want for our children, for their children," she said.
To that end, she and Hillsborough PTA Council President Melissa Erickson urged parents to become more active politically. Elia alerted the audience to an upcoming meeting in Tallahassee of the Florida Board of Education, whose agenda includes a vote on a harsh new system of grading schools.
Erickson called on families to elevate education from a personal value — expressed by securing the best possible education for one's own children — to a community value. She suggested parents use social media for that purpose.
"If we don't decide that education is a community value, it won't matter where we are in this process in 2015, because this grant will be over," she said.
The panel included David Steele, the district's chief technology and information officer; a peer mentor; a peer evaluator; a teacher; a principal; and a student.
Here are some of their questions and answers:
Q. Has Empowering Effective Teachers led to more teacher turnover?
Elia: Apparently not. Retention for first-year teachers increased from 72 to 86 percent when the mentors were added.
Q. Do the peer observations interfere with teaching?
Plant High School teacher Derek Thomas: No, they do not. "There's little to no interruption."
Q. How do you respond to the complaint that Empowering Effective Teachers leads to cookie-cutter teaching methods?
Thomas: "I disagree … I can honestly say there has been no affront to my classroom."
Q. Are the observations a source of stress for teachers?
Thomas: "There is additional stress." But he said the added stress brings about a positive result. "It ups the level for the teacher and thus it makes the job more complete."
Q. How can parents provide input into the evaluation process?
Steele: Among other things, they can complete the surveys that are sent out randomly to parents.