Tucson teacher will be part of NYC education experiment
Project focuses on teacher quality, professional pay
By Rhonda Bodfield
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 06.14.2009
As a science teacher, Judith LeFevre is all about watching experiments unfold.
So perhaps it's fitting that the 54-year-old recently left her Tucson home and boarded a train for New York City. Upon her arrival today, the Arizona master teacher will begin participating in a revolutionary education reform effort.
With the backdrop of the common refrain that teachers are woefully underpaid, LeFevre in September will begin teaching fifth-graders in a start-up inner-city charter school, where she'll make $125,000 a year, with the potential of an annual bonus as high as $25,000 her first year.
Granted, some teachers in the Tucson Unified School District, where she used to work, make in the $60,000s. But it's rare. And even in pricey New York, $125,000 is generally twice what teachers make.
LeFevre's world will be atypical in other ways, too.
Class sizes will be slightly higher, at 30 students apiece.
Her workdays will be a mandatory 10 hours, with four spent teaching. She'll have three hours to plan and observe other teachers teaching. She'll work in the after-school program and will pick up administrative duties at the school, which will ultimately top out at 480 students.
She'll have just three weeks off in the summer, because she'll be in training every summer for six to eight weeks.
There's no tenure and every teacher is required to take a yearlong sabbatical every fifth year.
The ideology of The Equity Project Charter School is that the single-most important element in a quality education — more than class size or any other kind of reform — is the quality of the teachers.
And that they need to be paid as professionals.
LeFevre and her seven colleagues were selected from 600 applicants after a rigorous, year-long hiring process.
The school isn't doing any fundraising to support teacher wages, as an attempt to show that the model could work for other schools if they reallocate resources. It does accept donations for the school facility itself because charter schools don't get capital funding for buildings.
LeFevre has taught in private and public schools since the '70s. She's handled special-education and gifted courses. She taught in rural Coolidge, in the Catalina Foothills, and in inner-city schools in the Tucson Unified School District.
And as a single mother of two, she often had to work two or three additional jobs, from tutoring to doing seasonal work at retail stores, to make ends meet on the roughly $40,000 she made in the classroom.
She spent the past two years as a program manager at the Arizona Department of Education because she couldn't afford to teach with two college-aged children, including a son at the University of Arizona.
"The issues are really complex and there are many opinions about the salary issue, but I do not think as a single parent raising two children, that the salary was adequate," she said. "I missed being in the classroom, but I didn't feel that it was affordable. So this is a great opportunity to return to the profession and still have a salary that will allow me to get ahead."
It wasn't, of course, just the salary that drew her to the adventure. "My salary is no secret. It's front and center in this experiment, but it was really the whole concept and the thought and research that was put into the project that really intrigued me."
Frustrated by the slow pace of education reform and wowed by the ability to work exclusively with a team of master teachers, she said "it was an opportunity that was too good to pass up."
While LeFevre believes that all teachers should be paid more, she doesn't believe pay should be automatically linked to seniority. As a parent and a professional, she's seen driven, enthusiastic teachers alongside others who were just putting in their time. Extensive observation has to be part of determining pay, she said, adding she'd like to see a community dialogue about what quality teaching looks like and how it should be valued.
Tom Horne, the state schools superintendent and LeFevre's most recent boss, said he's looking forward to seeing how the project plays out.
"I do believe the most important factor in education is a highly qualified teacher, and salaries are an important part of retaining them," he said. "It's my hope when the economy turns around, we can place a bigger priority on K-12 education."
Luci Messing, head of the Tucson Education Association, the local teachers' union, said she, too, also will be watching the results. She'll be interested in whether the long hours will result in burnout, and if any success of that project could translate into improvements here.
"You can't compare New York to Arizona, because we'll never have that level of funding," she surmised, "but if there's some success there, then perhaps more of the constituency would be willing to go after the Legislature and ask them to pony up."
Meanwhile, LeFevre has been been brushing up on her New York survival skills. She thinks she can get through the subway system without looking like a tourist, and she's learned to jaywalk with the best of them.
"I'm very excited. In some ways, it's daunting because it's such a high-profile position, but I look forward to the adventure."
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at email@example.com or at 806-7754.