CLEARWATER — Before class begins, a stream of smiling brown faces ripples through the foyer at Eisenhower Elementary. Kids with chirpy accents walk with purpose, past portraits of George Washington and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and an American flag as big as a dinner table.
Thirty minutes later, an animated Chris Boulanger rolls a pair of dice to start a numbers game for his fifth-graders. "Mr. B" announces the results in two languages.
Half of the students at Eisenhower are Hispanic. Many speak English as a second language. More often than not, that's a recipe for poor performance.
But if Eisenhower's recent track record is any indication, its students will make steady progress this year. And for that, a growing number of education experts say its teachers should make more money than their peers in more affluent schools.
"We do work harder," said Liz Wiszowaty, a special education teacher at Eisenhower.
At issue is "differential pay."
Teachers tend to like it. Teachers unions tend not to. And because so few states or school districts have tried it in a meaningful way, nobody really knows whether it will make a difference. But given the potentially dire effects that high teacher turnover has on student achievement, there is growing consensus among researchers and policy experts that it is worth trying.
"The logic is pretty compelling," said Robert Gordon, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, who has researched teacher quality and pay. "Anything you can do to encourage good teachers to teach in poor schools is a good thing. And pay is one important piece."
Boulanger, 28, said more money wouldn't make a difference to him. But he offered conditional support for the concept.
"My heart sinks" for high turnover schools, he said. "If more money would retain teachers, then you know what? That might be the best thing."
For decades, teacher pay — which averages $46,844 in Pinellas — has hinged on years on the job and academic degree. But factoring performance and difficulty into the mix is being pushed like never before.
State education leaders are quietly exploring the idea of grafting differential pay on to existing bonus programs. And in Pinellas, new superintendent Julie Janssen has aired the possibility of bonuses for teachers in high-needs schools.
There are no details on either front. But Eisenhower may be the type of school they're thinking about: Last year it was 48 percent Hispanic, 72 percent minority and 80 percent eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
"I have kids wake themselves up, feed themselves, get themselves to school," Boulanger said. Some get their younger siblings ready, too. "For 10- or 11-year-old kids, that's the world on their shoulders."
Though it's rarely reported or discussed at the district level, such schools often have high teacher turnover, with veterans migrating to lower poverty schools and less-effective rookies taking their place.
A recent Times review found that 62 percent of Pinellas teachers who transferred over the summer went to lower poverty schools. Meanwhile, 73 percent of middle and elementary school teachers who asked to move were in high poverty schools.
Eisenhower is bucking the trend. Last year, only seven of its teachers requested transfers — less than half as many as 20 other high-poverty elementary schools.
At the same time, two thirds of its students are reading at grade level, up from 49 percent in 2002. And last year's gains were strong enough for the state to award Eisenhower its first A.
"What we're doing is working," said Natalie Gutierrez, 25, a third-year teacher who began her career at Eisenhower.
But Gutierrez is torn about differential pay. Schools without as many poor or minority kids have challenges, too, she said. And she's at Eisenhower because her heart is here, not because a bigger paycheck is.
"There's nights I'll be working until 7, and I think, 'Wow, I should be earning more money,' " she said. "But I chose this."
Wiszowaty, the special education teacher, said differential pay alone may not be enough to lure or keep veteran teachers. She said other factors need to be addressed, too — like, in her case, more planning time to whittle away at paperwork.
But Wiszowaty also said students at high-needs schools present more challenges. They haven't read as many books. Their parents aren't as engaged. And it falls on their teachers to pour more heart, soul and time into filling those gaps.
"Maybe more compensation makes it worthwhile," she said.
Polls show strong majorities of teachers support differential pay for high-needs schools. Some Pinellas principals say they like it. And hundreds of teachers on the other side of Tampa Bay are already earning it.
The Hillsborough program, now entering its fourth year, pays teachers 5 to 10 percent more if they choose to remain in one of two dozen high poverty schools. Hillsborough officials are now analyzing what impact extra pay has had on turnover.
In Pinellas, the idea is not likely to find support from the teachers union.
Union director Jade Moore called the emerging state proposal a "glitzy solution" that would be better spent on longer school days and more robust pre-K. Moore also said poverty remains the biggest factor in student performance and that keeping more experienced teachers in high-poverty schools wouldn't bring much improvement.
"I guarantee you if you put 25 rookie teachers in Garrison Jones (Elementary), that school would still get an A," he said. "And I guarantee if you put 25 national board-certified teachers in Lakewood Elementary … they might go from a D to a C."
Back in the foyer, Mr. B high-fived students he has known for years. How's your mom, he asked one.
"Good," she said. "She just quit smoking."
Mr. B high-fived the girl again. "Give that one to her," he said.
Boulanger said he wasn't confident education officials would find enough money to make differential pay worthwhile. But he said they were right to think that instability at some schools was a real problem.
"You need that base to build on," he said.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.