"Teachers are the key lever to a great education for kids ... so every dollar spent on a teacher is more valuable than a dollar spent on a variety of other education reforms," says founder and principal Zeke Vanderhoek.
Educators and policymakers nationwide will watch the experiment closely as they debate compensation reform and other proposals for attracting and retaining quality teachers.
Mr. Vanderhoek will pay himself $90,000, while the eight teachers he recently hired will earn a base salary of $125,000. In a nationwide talent search, he winnowed hundreds of applications and visited top candidates' classrooms to see the magic for himself – how these teachers engage their students in special ways that can't be summed up on a résumé.
They'll teach 120 fifth-graders this year, many of them coming in with low academic scores or hailing from the largely low-income, Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood. The school will gradually expand to eighth grade. On top of core academic subjects, all students will participate in Latin, music, and physical education classes.
In addition to the rigorous standards for test scores, attendance, and parent satisfaction by which all New York charter schools are measured, The Equity Project has set its own goals. It expects students to show progress in writing, for instance, by adding a sample to a portfolio every two weeks from each subject area. And within four years, they should be able to perform competently in a musical ensemble.
In exchange for salaries that ring in at more than twice the national average, teachers will work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and spend most of the summer on professional development. They'll each take on an administrative role – overseeing everything from assessments to technology – so the school will save money typically spent on support staff. They'll teach about 30 students per class, sub for one another, and conduct their own cross-classroom observations and professional development, rather than paying for outside help.
"The salary was certainly attractive," says Judith LeFevre, who relocated from Arizona to teach fifth-grade science. As she moved around to teach in different settings to gain a deeper understanding of education, she missed out on seniority raises. After three decades and recognition as an Arizona master teacher, she made only about $40,000 a year. But as important as the money is the opportunity, she says, to "have a new education adventure ... [and] work with a team of master teachers."
That team includes Gina Galassi, an award-winning teacher and orchestra director who once adapted Homer's "Odyssey" for sixth-graders to perform by setting it to Beatles music. And Joe Carbone, who will bring to physical education classes both a master's degree and experience as a trainer for the likes of basketball star Kobe Bryant.
For her administrative task, Ms. LeFevre will wear the hat of "dean of discipline and incentives." Finding creative ways to motivate students, she says, will head off many behavior problems.
As a charter, the school has a high degree of autonomy but receives the same $12,400 base per-pupil public funding that any New York public school gets, plus money distributed based on the number of special-needs and low-income students. It does need to raise money for its facility, but for regular operations, it won't accept extra donations.
"Part of the mission is to inspire other schools to reallocate their resources by investing in teacher equity," Vanderhoek says. "It would not be inspiring if we had a pot of money that other [public] schools did not have access to."