TAMPA — Hillsborough County schools took a bow on the national stage Thursday, officially winning a $100 million teacher effectiveness grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The award — part of a $335 million investment into a handful of districts the foundation believes can unlock America's stickiest education challenges — puts Hillsborough squarely on the cutting edge of national reform efforts.
"It is groundbreaking work," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "The ultimate goal of the whole thing is higher student performance. We will have 90 percent of our students college and career ready by the time we finish this grant work, and our teachers really will be the deliverers of that."
For around an hour, the congratulatory calls and e-mails poured in from Gov. Charlie Crist and former Gov. Jeb Bush, Education Commissioner Eric Smith, both national teachers unions, and the legislative delegation.
And then the hard work began. By 3:45 p.m., Elia was off to a closed-door meeting to prepare principals and senior staffers for ambitious changes.
Over the next seven years, Hillsborough aims to transform the way it recruits, trains and retains high-quality teachers. It will have to match the Gates funds with $102 million, and at least $30 million a year after the grant runs out. Officials hope to raise that money through other grants, and by redirecting money now used for teacher development.
It will do things few school systems have ever attempted: give every new teacher a full-time mentor; create a corps of trained teacher-evaluators to rate every teacher in the 190,000-student district; and give high-performing rookies a chance to out-earn veteran teachers on the pay scale.
It will also take a harder line on awarding tenure, and dismiss those who don't measure up.
Foundation officials said Hillsborough has already made significant progress in many of those areas, pointing to the district's efforts in piloting merit pay programs and providing incentives for teachers to work in high-needs schools.
"These communities have shown extraordinary commitment to tackling one of the most important educational issues of our time," said Melinda French Gates. "We must do everything we can to understand what makes teachers effective and cultivate those qualities across the profession, in every school and classroom, so that all students can benefit."
The foundation has committed up to $1 billion to school reform efforts, with the long-term goal of preparing 80 percent of the nation's children for college-level studies.
The Pittsburgh and Memphis school districts also won grants Thursday, along with a consortium of Los Angeles charter schools.
Those districts have been urged to develop multiple measures of teacher effectiveness, said foundation education director Vicki Phillips.
"So that teacher evaluations are not based solely on popularity, the perfunctory judgments of supervisors, or one-shot assessments at the end of the year," she said.
Hillsborough will use the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and other student exams as the basis for 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation, but will average scores over three years rather than only use the current single year. Peer reviewers' and principals' ratings will count for 30 percent each.
Many of those changes will have to be negotiated with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. But president Jean Clements was part of the team that assembled the district's winning proposal, and teacher focus groups provided advice along the way.
"We're going to have higher standards, but we really expect people will be able to meet them," Clements said. "I'm extremely excited about the possibilities this brings the teachers in this district, and ultimately the children. But there is so much work to do, so much to work through and negotiate."
Some of that work has begun.
A teacher evaluation committee is at work on new rating systems. The human resources department is expanding to help principals manage the higher tenure standards. And on Tuesday, the School Board approved four manager positions to oversee the Gates grant.
Money will be arriving soon: $6 million from the foundation is expected next month, and $11 million more in May. After that, funds will be doled out twice yearly in $5 million to $10 million increments, as long as the district makes progress.
Well before the first check arrives, the district will be selling the plan to the teachers and staffers. A webcast, town hall meetings and teacher surveys will be conducted before the holidays, with more to come in January, Clements said.
Several teachers said they were proud of their district's sudden prominence, and felt hopeful about the reforms.
"I work very hard at my job," said Dawn Perez, a ninth-year language arts teacher at Martinez Middle School in Lutz. "I like for people to notice that I am, and to be paid for how hard I am working."
A few voiced worries about the new peer review system. But Citrus Park Elementary School teacher Danielle Earle said it would give the district a more balanced view of its teachers.
"I'm hoping that this project will really put that positive spin on it, and let those teachers who are doing so much in the classroom and are so passionate about their children be recognized," she said.
Times staff writers Jeffrey Solochek and Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.