Schools may turn to merit pay

Board's new majority sees program as boon for high-poverty schools

Staff WriterNovember 30, 2009 

— A North Raleigh elementary school's use of merit pay for teachers could become the model for other high-poverty Wake County schools as the district stands on the edge of abandoning busing for diversity in favor of neighborhood schools.

Wilburn Elementary is the only Wake school that offers merit pay, in which some teachers could get bonuses while others get none based on how their students and the school perform.

The Teacher Advancement Program at Wilburn has been embraced by the new school board majority as a way to help high-poverty schools under the system of neighborhood schools they hope to put in place.

"Under community-based schools, we may have more schools with higher needs," said Debra Goldman, a newly elected school board member. "We need to figure out how we can get more resources to those schools. TAP is a way we can do that."

Four new board members take office Tuesday. They and current board member Ron Margiotta will form a new majority that backs neighborhood schools and opposes busing for diversity and mandatory year-round schools.

The new board members hope Wake will secure a federal grant that will allow more schools to start using TAP next fall.

But outgoing school board member Patti Head said she hadn't supported using TAP in place of the diversity policy.

"My support of the program wasn't just so that we could concentrate all the free-and-reduced lunch students at some schools and slap a TAP program there," said Head, whose term expires today.

TAP, also known as the System for Teacher and Student Advancement, is a national program backed by the Milken Family Foundation, a grass-roots education group.

"This is a proven program that works," said outgoing school board member Eleanor Goettee, who has been TAP's chief booster on the board.

Jennifer Carnes, principal of Wilburn, was attracted to TAP as a way to help a school that was labeled as needing improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind program. The school began using TAP last school year.

Wilburn is the first school in North Carolina to use TAP. It's now in 130 schools nationally, serving 85,000 students and 7,500 teachers.

As part of TAP, two Wilburn teachers applied to become master teachers earning an additional $9,900 a year. Seven teachers applied to become mentor teachers earning an additional $5,000 a year.

The master and mentor teachers test lessons with students to see whether they should be used by other teachers. They lead weekly 90-minute planning sessions with the teachers during the school day.

"We have so much more responsibility," said Jacqueline Grant, a Wilburn master teacher. "TAP means you don't have to leave the classroom to have a leadership position."

The master and mentor teachers also observe the other teachers, doing evaluations that help determine bonuses. Depending on the evaluations and how well the school performs academically, teachers can get bonuses of up to $2,000 a year.

Carnes said Wilburn handed out $52,000 out of the $94,000 it had set aside for bonuses last school year. The rest was put back into this year's budget for the program.

Carnes said the program has been successful, noting how Wilburn met No Child Left Behind standards last school year and also met state academic growth goals. She also pointed to how there's now a lower turnover rate among teachers.

"This is the one program that helps all the students," Carnes said. "It benefits students, and it benefits teachers."

Tapping Title I

Carnes came up with most of TAP's $300,000-per-year cost by using Wilburn's federal Title I funds, which go to schools that have high percentage of low-income students. This year, 59 percent of the students receive subsidized lunches.

But Goettee said Wake should have been more aggressively applying for federal grants to fund TAP instead of making Wilburn come up with the money.

The school board told administrators to survey Title I schools to find out whether they want to use TAP. The board also told administrators to apply for the federal grant.

Goettee's lobbying for TAP has received a receptive ear from the new board members.

"This is something you'll see get more traction this time around," said John Tedesco, a new school board member.

Goettee is a diversity policy supporter who doesn't want TAP used to justify neighborhood schools. But she still wants the program expanded.

"The means by which they get it into schools is not as important to me," Goettee said. "But it shouldn't be construed as me being against the diversity policy."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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