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Hillsborough School Board unanimously approves $100M Gates grant

TAMPA — The finish line is in sight for the Hillsborough County School District, which agreed Tuesday to accept a $100 million teacher effectiveness grant if the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers it.

The School Board unanimously adopted a grant agreement, and will now wait for a final announcement Thursday from the foundation. Other potential winners in the national effort include school districts in Memphis and Pittsburgh, as well as a group of Los Angeles charter schools.

"This has been a long time coming," said Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia, referring to the nine month application process. "I am so pleased we've moved to the next step in this process."

If it wins, the district has promised to revamp its entire system for recruiting, training and retaining high-quality teachers over the next seven years. It would introduce a new performance pay system — optional for veteran teachers and mandatory for rookies — and mentor the new ones intensively.

The district would also create a corps of peer evaluators to help support and rate every teacher in the 190,000-student district and weed out those who fail to perform.

By itself, the grant would be a windfall for a school district that has been pushed to the edge of furloughing teachers because of a shortfall in state funding. But Hillsborough has pledged to match the Gates money with $102 million over the seven-year life of the grant, and expects additional costs of more than $30 million per year thereafter.

Financial pressures forced one district, Omaha, Neb., to withdraw its grant application. But Hillsborough officials have said they would redirect funds already reserved for similar activities, such as teacher mentoring and evaluation, and pursue private and federal grants for the remainder.

A visiting foundation official left little doubt the district would be among the leaders of its latest, $1 billion effort to improve American schools.

"The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is seeking educational lighthouses across the country," senior program officer Don Shalvey told the board. He said the foundation would be entering a partnership "that I truly believe will make a difference not only for the youngsters of Hillsborough County, but for youngsters across the nation."

Hillsborough would become one of a handful of "deep dive" research sites for the foundation, which hopes to use the data to settle a national debate on how best to identify and develop effective teachers. The foundation has said it wants to use student data and performance pay incentives to invigorate American schools, with the goal of ensuring that 80 percent of U.S. graduates are prepared for college.

But the district faces big changes, School Board members said Tuesday.

"It's not always easy, but it's very clear what has to be done," said member Candy Olson. "And I think the challenge is going to come when we have a teacher in front of us that we have to consider for termination."

"We know a good teacher's impact lasts for years, and the same goes for a not-so-good teacher," she added.

Member Doretha Edgecomb said she was confident teachers would rise to that challenge, particularly with the added support. "I think there may be the possibility we'll have some turnaround teachers," she said.

But chairwoman Carol Kurdell said there might also be some push back from those who don't like change.

"Some people will be shocked," she said. "It's a process we'll have to work through."

And the teachers' union membership must agree to any contract changes, including those related to pay and evaluation. Officials said the district was already planning a series of seven town hall meetings in December and January to explain the grant to its teachers and staff.

One goal: "To kind of crush the rumor mill and let them know the time frame, that everything isn't going to happen at once," said Nick Whitman, executive director of the union, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers' Association.

"My role isn't really to be a cheerleader for this," he added. "My job is to make sure our endorsement of those policies is implemented in a way that is most protective of our members."

That effort will go into full swing as soon as the grant is officially awarded, officials said.

"If all goes as planned, we will immediately begin implementing this proposal, hiring staff and communicating with teachers," Elia said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hillsborough School Board unanimously approves $100M Gates grant 11/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 12:00am]
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