Just a few years into her teaching career, Cindy Reyes was considered one of the best in the Fort Worth school district. So it’s not surprising she got a job offer to teach at another school.
The catch? The school was failing and on the state’s list of low-performing campuses.
She’d get more money to work there – $10,000 extra a year – but she’d have to put in a lot more hours. Reyes didn’t hesitate.
“I love a challenge and I particularly feel connected with students that come from a neighborhood like this, because I grew up the same way,” Reyes said, "These kids are me when I was a kid.”
Last week, the governor, lieutenant governor and house speaker announced a school finance reform deal that includes money for teacher compensation. But in North Texas, some school districts have already been paying certain teachers, like Reyes, more money to work at low-performing schools.
Reyes is a first grade teacher at the Leadership Academy at Como Elementary, where she and the other teachers there are guaranteed annual stipends for three years.
Como is one of five schools the Fort Worth school district has poured more money into in the hopes of turning it around. Other North Texas school districts, like Dallas and Richardson, have done this too.
The goal? To attract the best teachers to schools that need the most help. So far in Fort Worth, it appears to be working – Como and the four other schools have improved on the state’s rating system. In fact, Como has earned a B.
Valencia Rhines, principal at Como, said the stipends were key to getting teachers to work there.
“I definitely think as a school is trying to turn around, it is important to have some type of incentive to attract teachers that may not normally look at an underperforming school,” Rhines said.
At Como, many students were below grade level in reading. So teachers like Cindy Reyes have been spending lots of time helping students read.
On a recent morning, they discussed a book about a first-grade girl named Junie B Jones, who’s scared of Halloween and monsters. Reyes asked the kids about Junie B, who dresses up as a clown to scare others.
Reyes said she loves her students and loves teaching. But it’s hard work.
It means starting at 7:40 a.m. and staying till 6 p.m. It means spending more time in training, more lesson planning and analyzing student test data. And then there are the job’s other demands, like building relationships with students.
“We truly are unsung heroes, just like a mom,” Reyes said.
The extra money makes her feel appreciated, Reyes said, and it helps her students, too.
“In these schools, there are lot of kids who don’t have the experiences that we have,” she said. “For me to provide pictures or bring artifacts from different places opens up their eyes, and that requires us to spend money.”
The five Fort Worth leadership academies were launched a couple of years ago. Fort Worth ISD is spending $4.5 million annually on the schools and it’s also received $2 million so far from the Richard Rainwater Foundation. But the future of the teacher stipends is unclear.
That’s why earlier this year, it partnered with Texas Wesleyan University to oversee its leadership academies. Under a new state law, school districts can get more funding if they partner with a charter school or other entity, like a university.
“We would get additional $1,800 dollars per student and that would help us be able to utilize those dollars for any type of resources for the campus, for students, for the stipend,” said Karen Molinar, chief of staff for Fort Worth ISD.
Molinar said the program will look different under this new partnership with Texas Wesleyan. Teachers will continue to get a stipend, but she said she doesn’t yet know how much.
Como principal Valencia Rhines said money can’t be the only reason to work there.
“Because if you go anywhere just for the money, the money will only please you for so long,” Rhines said. “At the end of the day, it does have to go back to your heart and you have to have a heart to work at this type of school.”
Teachers and staff, she said, will have to keep putting in the extra work to keep the school moving in the right direction.