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Guilford County school board members are asking the state to give nine schools the kind of flexibility normally reserved for charter schools.

They voted to send the state an application for “restart” status at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting.

District leaders said they gave principals at low-performing schools in the district a couple of different options for models to jump-start academic performance at their school.

The principals at nine schools are interested in pursuing “Opportunity Culture,” a strategy that involves using the schools’ best teachers to reach larger numbers of students than they typically would teach. Those schools are Bessemer, Cone, Falkener, Foust, Hampton and Wiley elementary schools and Ferndale, Jackson and Hairston middle schools. (Information has been corrected to fix an error. See correction at end of the story. 11:55 a.m./April 12, 2018)

With this strategy, highly effective teachers could earn more money for taking on more classes per day or larger class sizes. Or the schools’ could hire “multi-classroom leaders,” highly effective teachers who have responsibilities to coach other teachers and work with students outside of their own classrooms. They would earn $6,000 to $20,000 more per year. Conversely, this would mean less effective or inexperienced teachers could take on smaller loads and get extra help.

Interim Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley said when students experience an ineffective teacher one year, studies show they’ve generally got to encounter an excellent teacher later if there’s hope of them catching up. It’s not that various kinds of incentives or extra pay for extra duties for teachers are an entirely new concept in Guilford County Schools: some schools have used federal “Title I” funds to do some similar things and the district has used grant money for incentive programs.

But Oakley said the district keeps running into the problem of grant money ending and then the best teachers melting away to other jobs or schools when the extra money is gone.

If they can get the state to approve flexibility to get them out of the normal regulations governing what gets spent on what, they can move money around at these schools and make these plans work year after year, she said. Getting out of the typical class size requirements would also help them give some highly qualified teachers extra students.

The superintendent’s budget proposal for 2018-19 gives about $1.8 million to teacher recruitment and retention incentives for teachers at the district’s 10 lowest performing schools. That’s a separate initiative from this Opportunity Culture one, albeit with some similar thinking involved, and including three of the same schools. The $1.8 million includes about $200,000 in additional money newly allocated to incentives, plus a $1.6 million budget line that had been used to pay out the last of the district’s obligations for a wider, discontinued incentive program. (Information has been added to clarify this paragraph. 11:55 a.m./April 12, 2018)

A variety of other school districts around the state have been trying out the “restart” flexibility option, but it would be new for Guilford County Schools. The state allows it specifically for low-performing schools who apply and receive approval from the state Board of Education.

Guilford board member Linda Welborn asked if there were strings attached to the flexibility by the state and Oakley said, “no.” Schools have to set out goals in their application, but there’s no catch she sees to getting the flexibility, Oakley said.

Board member Byron Gladden used his closing comments at the end of the meeting to share his gratitude to the board for agreeing to seek the flexibility for the struggling schools.

“I have really been in these schools and seen principals and teachers and children have so many challenges, and it’s always, ‘the funding, the funding, we can’t do this, this is blocked off, can’t do this,’” he said. “So I am really grateful that we have taken a very significant step in hopefully providing much needed support and resources. ... I just thank y’all.”

Correction: Story initially stated Fairview Elementary was one of the schools involved. It is not. 

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Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.

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