High-poverty schools such as Matilda Dunston Elementary need the best teachers they can get.
Nearly all of its North Charleston students are considered low-income, and third-grade teacher Jennifer Nimphie said they need as much intervention and help possible for positive effects in their lives.
“In a school like ours, a teacher is vital to making that difference,” she said.
A $23.7 million federal grant announced this week will help Charleston County school leaders recruit and retain high-quality teachers to schools such as Dunston, and reward educators who see the best results in students' achievement.
The school district planned to institute a performance-based compensation system as part of its five-year plan, Vision 2016, but officials said doing so without the federal grant would have been far more difficult.
“What this grant enables us to do is really address the complex issues in creating a teacher compensation system,” said Superintendent Nancy McGinley.
She wants to use the money to tap into national organizations and experts who have successfully created evaluation and compensation systems elsewhere. The district will be developing a new way to evaluate teachers that takes into account students' achievement, and it will create criteria to reward the top performers.
Much of the five-year Teacher Incentive Fund grant will go toward bonuses for teachers in 14 high-need schools, and those will be offered to all district schools by 2016-17. The amount of those bonuses have not been decided yet.
The money also will be used as recruitment bonuses for proven teachers who transfer to high-need schools. Retention bonuses will be given to those who stay.
Master teachers, assistant principals and principals will be eligible to advance their positions and earn more money by taking on mentor roles and supporting their colleagues
Charleston was one of 35 winners nationally out of a pool of more than 120 applicants; no other South Carolina district received the funding.
The district in the past has given recruitment bonuses to teachers and principals who work in at-risk schools, but those haven't always been successful. The A-Plus program at Burke High School once offered an extra $10,000 annually to teachers to encourage them to work there, as well as $6,000 signing bonuses for hard-to-fill subjects, such as math and special education.
The district discontinued the program in 2008, and Burke High has struggled since then, most recently appearing before the state Board of Education this summer because it was considered persistently failing.
McGinley said that was a different situation because the funds were not contingent on teacher quality, and that will be the case now. Those were not performance-based rewards, but these will be.
Nimphie, the third-grade teacher, said teachers at Dunston Elementary are there because they want to be, but it's a great idea to provide more incentives to go there and stay.
“It's a little something extra,” she said.
Teachers who don't meet certain standards will not suffer any financial penalties under the new pay structure, but like the current system, their jobs could be in jeopardy if they don't fare well on the new evaluation.
Melissa Matarazzo, the district's executive director of achievement and accountability, said the new evaluation could have ramifications for struggling teachers because they should receive better feedback about how they can improve, and the grant will provide more coaches to help their instruction.
The next year will be spent planning the implementation of the new evaluation process and criteria, and performance-based compensation for the 14 schools. The new evaluations will be implemented in 2013-14, and teachers would see the bonuses the following year.
In 2014-15, the evaluation system would be phased in district wide, and in 2016-17, the rest of the district's teaching force would have the potential to earn the bonuses.
The district will be working alongside the state as it implements a new evaluation system, but McGinley said it's unclear whether the state will have to approve the district's plans.
Dunston first-grade teacher Samantha Fuller said teachers put so much work into their daily lessons that it would be nice to be rewarded for that.
She liked the idea that test scores would not be the only factor in their evaluations, and she hoped classroom observations that took into account their teaching strategies and efforts to meet individual children's needs would be part of it too.
Teachers just found out about the grant Friday, and they already were talking about the great things that could happen because of it, she said.
“We really don't know (a lot of specifics),” she said. “I'm waiting to see how it plays out.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.