So what kind of teachers could a school get if it paid them $125,000 a year?
An accomplished violist who infuses her music lessons with the neuroscience of why one needs to practice, and creatively worded instructions like, “Pass the melody gently, as if it were a bowl of Jell-O!”
A self-described “explorer” from Arizona who spent three decades honing her craft at public, private, urban and rural schools.
Two with Ivy League degrees. And Joe Carbone, a phys ed teacher, who has the most unusual résumé of the bunch, having worked as Kobe Bryant’s personal trainer.
“Developed Kobe from 185 lbs. to 225 lbs. of pure muscle over eight years,” it reads.
They are members of an eight-teacher dream team, lured to an innovative charter school that will open in Washington Heights in September with salaries that would make most teachers drop their chalk and swoon; $125,000 is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, and about two and a half times as much as the national average for teacher salaries. They also will be eligible for bonuses, based on schoolwide performance, of up to $25,000 in the second year.
The school, called the Equity Project, is premised on the theory that excellent teachers — and not revolutionary technology, talented principals or small class size — are the critical ingredient for success. Experts hope it could offer a window into some of the most pressing and elusive questions in education: Is a collection of superb teachers enough to make a great school? Are six-figure salaries the way to get them? And just what makes a teacher great?
The school’s founder, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, 32, a Yale graduate who founded a test prep company, has been grappling with just these issues. Over the past 15 months he conducted a nationwide search that was almost the American Idol of education — minus the popular vote, but complete with hometown visits (Mr. Vanderhoek crisscrossed the country to observe the top 35 applicants in their natural habitats) and misty-eyed fans (like the principal who got so emotional recommending Casey Ash that, Mr. Vanderhoek recalled, she was “basically crying on the phone with me, saying what a treasure he was.”)
Mr. Ash, 33, who teaches at an elementary school on the outskirts of Raleigh, N.C., will take the social studies slot.
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The Equity Project will open with 120 fifth graders chosen this spring in a lottery that gave preference to children from the neighborhood and to low academic performers; most students are from low-income Hispanic families. It will grow to 480 children in Grades 5 to 8, with 28 teachers.
The school received 600 applications. Mr. Vanderhoek interviewed 100 in person.
Along the way, Mr. Vanderhoek, who taught at a middle school in Washington Heights before founding Manhattan GMAT, learned a few lessons.
One was that a golden résumé and a well-run classroom are two different things. “There are people who it’s like, wow, they look great on paper, but the kids don’t respect them,” Mr. Vanderhoek said.
The eight winning candidates, he said, have some common traits, like a high “engagement factor,” as measured by the portion of a given time frame during which students seem so focused that they almost forget they are in class. They were expert at redirecting potential troublemakers, a crucial skill for middle school teachers. And they possessed a contagious enthusiasm — which Rhena Jasey, 30, Harvard Class of 2001, who has been teaching at a school in Maplewood, N.J., conveyed by introducing a math lesson with, “Oh, this is the fun part because I looooooove math!” Says Mr. Vanderhoek: “You couldn’t help but get excited.” Hired.
Teachers said the rigorous selection process was more gratifying than grueling.
“It’s so refreshing that somebody comes to a teacher and says, ‘Show me what you know,’ ” said Oscar Quintero, who goes by Pepe and will teach special education. “This is the first time in 30 years of teaching that anybody has been really interested in what I do.”
The school will use only public money for everything but its building. It is close to signing a lease for private space on 181st Street, to be covered by a combination of public school financing, a charter school grant and what Mr. Vanderhoek described as a “small amount” of private donations (he ultimately hopes to raise enough private money to build a permanent space).
To make ends meet, teachers will hold responsibilities usually shouldered by other staff members, like assistant principals (there will be none). There will be no deans, substitute teachers (except for extended leaves) or teacher coaches. Teachers will work longer hours and more days, and have 30 pupils, about 6 more than the typical New York City fifth-grade class.
The principal, Mr. Vanderhoek, will earn just $90,000. Teachers will not have the same retirement benefits as members of the city’s teachers’ union. And they can be fired at will.
That did not scare Mr. Quintero, who is in his 60s and is moving from Florida; Heather Wardwell, 37, who is leaving East Greenwich High School, in Rhode Island, after a decade, to teach Latin; or Judith LeFevre, 54, the Arizona teacher who earned about $40,000 as recently as two years ago.
Ms. LeFevre, who will teach science, wrote via e-mail that the school was “an experiment of sorts, in which I’m one of the subjects.” She added, “This could be unsettling were it not for the excitement of working with a team of master teachers, all of whom are motivated to help every student succeed, with no excuses and no blame.”
Her other teammates: Damion Frye, 32, who teaches English at Montclair High School in New Jersey, has a master’s degree from Brown University and is pursuing his doctorate at Columbia’s Teachers College, and Gina M. Galassi, 40, who teaches music at Kingston High School in Ulster County, N.Y.
Mr. Carbone, 44, spent four years as head strength and conditioning coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. He left for a quieter life in Spring Valley, N.Y., last year, after overhearing one of his three sons say, “I want to play basketball, but my dad hasn’t taught me yet.”
Whatever the magic formula for a great school or teacher may be, Mr. Vanderhoek has come to believe that there is an essential ingredient to the search for such teachers: Time spent in that teacher’s classroom, watching students learn. Then again, his team has yet to hit the court.
“I have tremendous confidence that the staff is going to be excellent,” he said. “But we will see.”