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District Gives West Jacksonville Teachers First Look At QEA Incentive Cash

Rhema Thompson

The start of this school year signaled the start of a new plan to transform nearly 40 struggling schools in Duval County. Monday, about three dozen local school and community leaders were at West Jacksonville Elementary to see how that effort is shaping up.

West Jacksonville is one of the nearly 37 underperforming schools being targeted by the privately funded Quality Education for All initiative. Initially, the plan focused on 36 schools, including Butler Middle School, but Butler has since divided into two separate single-gender academies.

The $50 million effort focuses on boosting student achievement by growing the education talent pool in the area’s toughest schools. That includes a performance incentives program which awards teachers at the 37 schools who have achieved significant student learning gains based on Florida’s value-added model, and principals who have shown overall improvement at any of the schools.

High-achieving teachers who already work in the 37 schools, which comprise the Raines, Ribault and Andrew Jackson High School feeder patterns, are eligible for a $20,000 a year raise over the next three years. Top teachers who agree to transfer to one of the so-called “transformation schools” from an outside school can receive up to $17,000 a year in bonuses for the next three years.

Third-grade teacher Asia O’Neal is among that group. She transferred to West Jacksonville this year from Westview K-8 School.

“The incentive is, of course, just something that’s an add-on, but we have the passion to work here and we definitely wanted to come here and make a difference,” she said.

O'Neal, as well as three other West Jacksonville teachers and principal Michele Floyd-Hatcher were presented with a mock check for $30,300, representing the first of three incentive payments each will receive over this year. The first will actually arrive Oct. 17.

For the past two years, West Jacksonville has been rated an F school, making it the lowest performing elementary school in the state. In 2012, it received a D.

In January, the school was one of about a dozen that underwent a mid-year principal swap. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti decided to bring back principal Floyd-Hatcher, who led the school to an A several years before.

Vitti said he chose to highlight the struggling elementary school Tuesday because of the difference Floyd-Hatcher, O’Neal and other employees are already making.

“I think this school is a strong showcase of the before and after. We’re starting to see the 'after' which is a much more positive view of the school,” he said. “I was here earlier this year on an unannounced visit, and I asked the kids what was different this year, and they’ll tell you ‘teacher quality.’”

Breonna Lee is a fifth-grader in Tomia Hodge's English Language Arts class, where the biggest struggle appeared to be getting an answer in. With each question, nearly every hand, including Lee’s, shot up along with an enthusiastic response.

“She just does fun activities with us,” Lee later said of Hodge. “It just breaks it down so you can understand it better.”

Like O’Neal, Hodge will receive a bonus this year. As a veteran teacher at the school who chose to stay, she'll get a $20,000 increase.

Vitti said altogether 17 principals and 87 teachers have been awarded a $20,000 bump this year. Another 60 high-performing teachers who transferred to the area will receive $17,000 bonus. Teachers and principals will receive their payments three times a year, beginning this month.

Meanwhile, the QEA initiative has garnered national attention recently from a report published in the Chronicle for Philanthropy.

In the report, released Monday, the nonprofit news publication credited the multimillion-dollar initiative with placing Jacksonville among the most charitable cities, per capita, in the nation.

According to the study, the city ranks 6th among the country’s 50 largest cities.

Also among the nation’s most generous largest cities were Salt Lake City, followed by Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta, and Nashville, Tenn.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.