TAMPA – School Superintendent MaryEllen Elia is asking her best teachers to get out of their comfort zone, as she puts it, and “teach at a school where the challenges are great.”
It’s a plea heard in school districts nationwide as educational leaders look to teachers to step up and help turn around schools with chronically poor performance.
In Hillsborough County, the eighth biggest school district in the nation, what Elia seeks is a tall order.
By one key measure, these “high needs” schools account for nearly two-thirds of all elementary, middle and high schools in the district, a Tampa Tribune analysis shows.
And the best teachers, those rated “highly effective” on the district’s scale, are far more likely to be working in schools with the best grades — especially at the middle school level.
Only 23 percent of middle school teachers in high-needs schools are rated highly effective compared with 44 percent at the other schools, the Tribune analysis shows.
The district has no formal list of high needs schools, but Elia’s plea — and financial rewards the district is offering teachers who make the move — is targeted in part at schools that receive federal Title 1 funding. These are schools that enroll a high proportion of students eligible for free or reduced price meals.
Poor performance, in other words, can track closely with poverty levels, and Title 1 schools account for 152 of Hillsborough’s 243 schools.
Fifty of those Title 1 schools are known as Renaissance schools, where at least 90 percent of the student body qualifies for free meals. Most of these schools received a C grade or lower from the Florida Department of Education.
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Districtwide, about 37 percent of all teachers are rated highly effective. The vast majority of the rest have been deemed “effective.” A small fraction are in the “unsatisfactory” or “needs improvement” categories.
Elia wins praise in many quarters for focusing attention on what appears to be a disproportionate distribution of talented instructors.
“These are kids that are most in need of highly effective teachers,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based policy and research organization. “If they’re good in one school, they’re good in another. I would be very confident that if the district is putting in really good teachers, you’re going to see schools turn around.”
Still, educators and analysts say, moving teachers around isn’t likely to lift school performance by itself.
“It’s not as clean cut as that,” said Kathy Christie, a vice president with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “If they’re moving into a school where there is still significant dysfunction, the situation is probably less hopeful. If they’re moving into schools that have strong leadership to support the teachers and are all about service to kids, they probably (improve) immediately.”
Walsh, too, pointed to principals as key figures in any turnaround effort.
At opposite ends of the scale in Hillsborough, according to the Tribune analysis, are Westchase Elementary School in the planned northwest Hillsborough community, where 83 percent of teachers are rated highly effective, and Jennings Middle School in Seffner and Rodgers Middle School in Riverview, where just 3 percent of teachers get the top grade.
Walsh doesn’t see a campaign to shift the best instructors from one school to another as shortchanging the schools they leave behind.
“I don’t think families have to worry they are somehow going to lose access to really great teachers,” Walsh said. “Schools serving middle-class kids have very little trouble attracting talented people.”
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At Jefferson High School in Tampa, a Title 1 school where more than three-fourths of the students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, 32 percent of the teachers were deemed highly effective last school year — 5 percentage points below the districtwide figure.
But Jefferson received a B on its state report card and the school on Cypress Street near Westshore Boulevard is home to the Hillsborough district’s teacher of the year, Patrick Boyko.
One reason high-needs schools have trouble recruiting the best teachers, Boyko said — especially middle and high schools — is the difficulty some adults have relating to teens.
Other teachers, he said, worry that if they switch to a low-performing school they risk having their own rating drop.
Students’ scores on standardized tests account for the biggest share of a teacher’s evaluation — 40 percent in Hillsborough and 50 percent in most other Florida school districts. In Hillsborough, the balance comes from observations by the principal and a peer evaluator.
Stereotypes add to some teachers’ reluctance to switch to a high-needs school, said Boyko, a social studies teacher.
For him, the benefits far outweigh the challenges.
“You hear about the fights, the crime in the area,” Boyko said. “Teenagers are teenagers. And if you can get past them and see them as kids who want to learn, you’ll never make a bigger impact.
“There is a reward you cannot quantify teaching at a school like this.”
The financial incentives for highly effective teachers can help, Boyko said.
Teachers who transfer to one of 30 Hillsborough schools that receive money from a special grant, including Jefferson, will receive a $1,000 bonus at the beginning of the school year. They will receive a second bonus worth as much as $3,700, or 10 percent of a starting teacher’s salary if they’re rated highly effective again at evaluation time, and another $2,000 if they stay at the school for a second year.
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Christie with the Education Commission of the States said one recent study shows that financial incentives may lure teachers to a struggling school but won’t necessarily keep them there.
“It might for a couple of years, but if they run into dysfunctional leadership, it doesn’t tend to pay out as far as them staying,” she said.
What does make teachers stay is good leadership and working conditions, she said.
“Strong teachers don’t need to be micromanaged,” Christie said. At “a lot of those low-performing schools, it’s so bureaucratic that it’s difficult to enjoy working in those conditions. It’s a tough thing.”
In her recent appeal to highly effective teachers, sent during the school district’s teacher transfer period, Elia acknowledged it as a “very difficult career decision and a huge commitment” but invoked a deeper motivation.
“This letter is a direct appeal,” she said, “to your sense of idealism and your belief that you can make a difference in the lives of our students.”