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Online and face-to-face, Hillsborough school officials explain their $100 million Gates plans

TAMPA — The rumors have been flying among teachers since the Hillsborough County schools won a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Will the reforms make life in the classroom better or worse? Will they be the last straw for already burdened teachers, or the best thing that ever happened to an American school system?

Nearly two months after winning the money and national acclaim, Hillsborough officials have launched a major communications effort to rally teachers for big changes. The district has pushed out e-mails, Webcasts, and podcasts. And on Wednesday teachers will gather at Chamberlain High School for the first in a series of forums to learn more.

"This is not something we're doing to teachers," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia, speaking in a podcast on the district's Web site. "It's something we're doing with teachers, as full partners."

That partnership begins this spring when the district will form a corps of 200 peer evaluators, and put the finishing touches on a new evaluation system for teachers and principals.

By this time next year, officials say, principals and peers will have rated each of the district's 12,500 teachers on a new, five-point scale, from "below expectations" to "master teacher." By 2013, that process will serve as the basis for performance pay as well as termination. And except for veteran teachers who opt out of the new salary scale, seniority will cease to matter.

Some teachers are still getting their heads around it all, said James Gibbs, a teacher at Burns Middle School and a member of a district focus group on the Gates initiative.

"I know they're hitting us with tons of information," he said. "But right after the announcement the holidays came through, and now teachers are facing exams. Our focus has been on the academics."

Teacher reactions are running the gamut, said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association union, which must ratify changes connected to their contract.

"I think there's actually a lot more emotional reaction now, both the good and the bad, because people know more about it than they did," she said.

Many teachers told the district in a survey that they would rather get an e-mail or view a Webcast than travel to a meeting after school, said communications director Stephen Hegarty.

But the district still plans to offer face-to-face meetings for those who want to stand up and pose a question.

"Will we only get the people who want to complain, or will we only get the people who think this is great?" Hegarty said. "I think most people just want more information, and some of them might be disappointed because we don't have all the answers yet."

Teachers already have posed questions on issues like pay, curriculum and evaluation, and the district has answered them on its Web site.

"Why should 'young, exceptional teachers' be able to earn as much as I do in my 20th year?" asked one teacher.

"We believe that a great teacher should be able to reach the top of the scale more quickly," the district said, adding that performance should trump experience or degrees. "This belief necessitates a compensation plan under which a great fourth-year teacher would make more money than an average 20th-year teacher on our current scale."

At a workshop session last week, Elia and members of the school board began to prepare themselves for tough questions.

Some teachers will struggle under the more intense evaluations, Elia said. But she noted in a podcast that teachers will get new chances to become leaders without leaving the classroom, and earn more if they excel.

Elia also addressed taxpayer fears about the program's long-term cost.

It's true, she said, that the district must find more money — $102 million in addition to the Gates grant over the next seven years, and at least $30 million a year thereafter — to pay for the reforms. But many of those costs can be met by redirecting money from similar programs.

"The grant cannot be used to plug holes in the budget," Elia said. "It must be sustainable and stand on its own."

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

Read it online

To see the Hillsborough County School District's online effort to explain its $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, visit communication.sdhc.k12.fl.us/empoweringteachers.

Online and face-to-face, Hillsborough school officials explain their $100 million Gates plans 01/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 10:42pm]

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