DOVER — Mentors were the focus Wednesday as Hillsborough County school administrators welcomed some 700 new teachers.
Standing in a line in the auditorium of Strawberry Crest High School, dozens of mentors waved to their charges, who are joining the district in the third year of an ambitious, Gates-funded education reform effort.
"We all know teachers are the ones that really make a difference for students every day, every day," superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the crowd.
"And that's why we want to make sure that we have high-quality teachers and committed professionals in our classrooms every day."
Mentors are a lesser-known component of Empowering Effective Teachers, a seven-year experiment the district has undertaken with a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The ultimate goal is to use a structured observation process and student performance data, instead of seniority, to reward and retain teachers.
Mentors, who have no classrooms of their own, are assigned to new teachers in relationships that are confidential. They trade places with other mentors when it is time to perform evaluations.
It's a far less controversial feature than the peer evaluators for seasoned teachers, who have drawn some criticism this year.
"I know there are some people that have not had the most pleasant experiences and have been upset," said Barbara Miraglia, the program's lead mentor. "But the majority of people have been very happy with their peer evaluators.''
She acknowledged, however, that focusing on mentors makes the whole concept more palatable to new teachers.
"I think the message is that the district is there to support them," she said.
David Steele, the district's chief technology officer who oversees EET, said mentoring is a point of pride for the district.
"We feel like it is the focal point of our future success," he told the teachers. "By investing in beginning teachers, we do the best we can to ensure the success of our students down the road."
And it is an investment. The Gates money does not cover the entire seven-year process, and the district will need to pay the full cost when the grant runs out. By one conservative estimate, maintaining EET will cost $32 million a year.
The mentoring program alone costs approximately $4,000 for each new teacher, said School Board chairwoman Candy Olson.
She told the teachers, "we are investing heavily in you because we believe that investment will pay off in student achievement."