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Despite lackluster start, high-paying school still draws teachers

Nearly 100 teachers from the Tri-State area packed the auditorium of George Washington High School Tuesday evening to meet Zeke Vanderhoek, the principal behind a three-year-old charter middle school whose $125,000 salaries are fueling a high-profile experiment in human capital.

The teachers were lured to the school’s Washington Heights campus — a cluster of classroom trailers just off George Washington’s athletic field — with the promise of higher pay and a teacher-centric educational philosophy. Those features garnered the school, called The Equity Project, or TEP, extensive media attention and hundreds of job applications even before it opened in 2009. But since then, its student performance has been lackluster, and nearly a quarter of its hires have left.

Vanderhoek, a 35-year-old former Teach For America teacher dressed in a pinstripe suit, told the crowded room that TEP is exceeding the trajectory he hoped for when he envisioned the school 2007 but has significant room to grow.

“We’re slightly ahead of where I’d hoped to be in terms of year three,” he said. “Are we anywhere near where we need to be and want to be? Absolutely not. This is not a school that I would say you should come to if you’re looking for the well oiled machine that has already achieved its vision.”

TEP, located in District 6, earned a B on its first city progress report last year, with high marks for its attendance rate (96.6 percent) but low scores for student performance. TEP students have so far scored below average on state math and reading tests. The school has roughly 120 students in each grade and will have nearly 500 students when it adds an eighth grade this fall.

The school famously forgoes amenities, support staff, and small classes — each class has 30 students — to be able to afford teacher salaries that exceed the very highest the city offers.

So asked about technology in the classroom, Vanderhoek joked that TEP doesn’t “believe in technology” — at least not enough to purchase Smartboards or iPads to outfit the cramped trailers. And as he walked would-be TEP teachers through the school day, he emphasized that the experience is consuming.

Teachers and students have breakfast together at 7:30 a.m., and the school day can extend past 5 p.m., with after-school sports, arts activities, and staff meetings. Teachers must also take on extra administrative duties to keep the school running without deans, parent coordinators, or assistant principals.

The tall order means Vanderhoek is looking for teachers with closer to 10 or 15 years of teaching experience than two, expert knowledge in their subject areas, and “outstanding” verbal skills, he said. To save even more money, TEP does not pay for extra training for its teachers beyond what can be developed in-house.

“We are not a school that has the capacity to take very raw talent and develop that,” he said. “For the most part we are looking for teachers who are already good. There are other schools that are a better fit for folks who are new to the profession.”

Vanderhoek stressed that his goal is to build a community of teachers who have found “the right fit.” But TEP isn’t there yet, he said. Of the eight original hires in 2009, six were invited back for a second year of teaching. And in 2011, 11 of TEPs 16 teachers were invited to return for the current school year. Just nine took up the offer, meaning that more than half of the teachers in place last September were new to the school.

“We assume that your performance at the school is outstanding. We would not keep you at the school if it wasn’t,” he said.

Another challenge TEP faces as it grows to full capacity at about 500 students this fall is its location. Nestled in a set of red trailers, each with its own bathroom and beige carpeting, TEP will not move until it raises the final $3.5 million needed for a $28 million building project it has planned for a piece of land in the district.

“This is not the Taj Mahal. These are trailers. If you’re looking for the iSchool — wrong place,” Vanderhoek said, referring to the technology-laden Manhattan high school. Then he led a group of 30 teachers on a winding trail from the cluttered gym room to math, science, and music classrooms — each located in its own trailer, at least one with a low ceiling prone to leaks.

But the educators on the tour did not appear deterred.

Some of the recruitment session’s attendees were current charter school teachers from networks such as Achievement First and Uncommon Schools, who told me they were attracted to TEP by Vanderhoek’s philosophy and positive reviews from current teachers.

At least two attendees were among the hundreds of teachers at 24 “turnaround” district schools now facing uncertain futures. The teachers, who came from work at Manhattan’s High School for Graphic Communication Arts, said they were “just keeping our options open,” while waiting to hear if they can keep their jobs this year.

Terry Campbell, a teacher at the phasing-out Norman Thomas High School in Midtown East, also said he was attracted to TEP out of fear that his position would be cut in June.

“Everyone is looking for places to go,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”

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