Hillsborough schools win $100M grant from Gates foundation
TAMPA - Hillsborough County schools have won $100 million to overhaul how teachers are trained and evaluated, with the hopes of increasing high school graduation rates. The school board voted Tuesday to accept a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation but did not get the official word until today that it would receive the money. Cheers erupted from Superintendent MaryEllen Elia's office when foundation officials announced in a conference call that Hillsborough was among four recipients nationally. The winners - Hillsborough; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Memphis, Tenn.; and a group of Los Angeles charter schools - will share $290 million from the foundation, with Hillsborough netting the highest amount. Elia called the award groundbreaking and one of the most exciting opportunities the district has ever had."Am I happy? Yeah," she said, grinning. "Very, very happy." The funds will be parceled out during a seven-year period, with the first installment of $6 million expected by January. Hillsborough also must match the Gates money for the grant's duration and expects to pay about $32 million annually after the grant ends to sustain the program. Elia was confident the district could come up with the match, though school officials did not specify exactly where they would find the matching money. The school district's annual budget already includes funding for staff development that could be reallocated to support the grant's goals, she said. School board chairwoman Susan Valdes said she did not anticipate any problems, either. "I think we have a huge support system out there in the business community," she said. Business leaders with concerns about the quality of education their future employees are receiving will want to rally behind the district, Valdes said. The foundation also has several reviews set up to hold recipients accountable for how they spend their money, which Valdes said should give potential donors confidence. The Seattle-based foundation is striving to improve student achievement and better prepare them for college by making sure they have effective teachers. "Teachers matter more to student achievement, more than any other factor inside our school buildings," Melinda Gates said in a conference call today. The foundation looked for districts with a high number of low-income students and that have tried to improve teacher effectiveness.. Recipients also needed to show they had the support of teachers unions and other stakeholders and could keep their programs going once the grants expired, said John Deasy, a deputy director of education for the foundation. Vicki Phillips, a Gates director of education, said Hillsborough stood out for encouraging teacher quality and student improvement, including efforts to direct highly skilled teachers into low-performing schools. Hillsborough worked closely on the grant proposal with the teachers union and conducted surveys and formed focus groups of educators, parents and community members. "This gives us a unique opportunity to implement changes that we couldn't afford to do otherwise,'' Jean Clements, Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president, said in a news release. "The success of this plan begins and ends with meaningful input from teachers.'' The grant money will allow the district to revamp teacher evaluations. Teachers will learn where they need to improve and receive the coaching, technology or other help necessary to make that happen, Elia said. Teacher pay increases would be linked to more than test scores or years of employment. The district also would expand mentorship, removing 200 to 300 successful teachers from classrooms and setting them up as mentors to new teachers. The grant would help pay for their replacements, although the mentors would return to the classroom in two or three years before another group of mentors stepped in. Training of teachers, administrators, mentors and evaluators will begin in 2010, Elia said. The Gates foundation has set aside an additional $45 million for research on defining and measuring effective teaching. Hillsborough is getting $2.3 million during a two-year period to participate. The district will gather data through videotapes of teachers in the classroom, surveys and student testing to help pinpoint high achieving classes or teachers.
Reporter Courtney Cairns Pastor can be reached at (727) 451-2343.