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Hamilton County Department of Education headquarters
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Hamilton County hopes to transform some of its worst-performing schools by building its school innovation zone. And the change also could deliver a financial boon to teachers, both on their paychecks and in their pensions.

Teacher pay in the five i-zone schools could far outpace that of any other county schoolteacher because of extended work days and bonuses for signing, retention and performance. If the district receives its multimillion-dollar grant, the i-zone will offer the largest opportunity for teacher salary advancement outside moving into an administrative role.

For the right combination of experience, hours worked and performance, a teacher could potentially receive upward of a $20,000 annual raise. Teachers' salaries currently range between $34,000 and $60,000 annually, depending on seniority and education levels.

Any potential raises also will boost retirement benefits for teachers; a couple hundred dollars extra each month in benefits could mean tens of thousands over two decades of retirement.

"It's really good compensation," said Stacy Stewart, assistant superintendent for human resources. "That's one of the benefits."

Hamilton County hopes to get about $4 million from a state grant to lengthen the school day, offer special programs and recruit the best staffs to its five i-zone schools: Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary.

Initially, principals with three or more years in those schools were transferred out. And in recent weeks, all teachers of math, science, social studies and reading were required to reapply if they wanted to keep their jobs, as the schools look to make staffing changes by next school year.

The i-zone represents the district's most sweeping school turnaround effort since the Benwood Initiative launched more than a decade ago to close wide achievement gaps at eight urban elementary schools.

I-zone is the single largest reform effort in Superintendent Rick Smith's year-and-a-half tenure in the school system's highest office. And it's the only time the county has attempted to attack achievement problems across a whole feeder pattern, addressing low performance at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

"These students deserve to have the same opportunities as any other student in our school system: to have really good teachers and really good support systems in place," Smith said. "And the i-zone is helping us to achieve that."

A relatively small group of teachers will be affected by the changes.

The few dozen teachers at the i-zone schools are a small group compared to the more than 3,000 teachers in all Hamilton County public schools. Numbers become even smaller when you consider that the bonuses apply only to teachers in core subjects, leaving related positions like arts teachers, physical education instructors and counselors out of the equation.

Some schools, like Orchard Knob Elementary, may see only a few staff changes because they have hired large numbers of new teachers in recent years.

Others could see a majority of the core faculty moving out, following the theory that fresh teachers are one way of changing a school's trajectory. Education researchers often cite a teacher's effectiveness as the best school-based determinant of student success.

Tenured teachers moving out will be guaranteed employment in another county school. And nontenured teachers will be able to apply for other openings, but they'll receive no job guarantee.

Students in the five i-zone schools are predominantly poor and racial minorities. And test scores there have lagged behind the rest of the district for years. But now, central office appears willing to pay for teachers who will work longer hours and in more difficult environments -- if the grant dollars come through.

Take a five-year teacher with a bachelor's degree who earns $37,101, according to the current county pay scale. If that teacher were to clock all 300 hours of class time, after-school programming and training the i-zone might offer, he or she could receive an additional $7,383 annually.

A 25-year veteran teacher with a master's degree already making $55,168 could earn close to $11,000 extra for banking all 300 hours.

That's separate from any of the bonuses, which start at a couple thousand dollars and could reach as high as $13,500 for the highest-performing teachers in core subject areas.

Teachers' retirement pay could see a boost, too. The state's teacher retirement program figures monthly benefits based on years of service, age and the highest average salary over five years -- or "high five." So a teacher who receives an extra $10,000 in an i-zone school for at least five years could receive hundreds more each month in retirement payouts. All together, that creates an unusual financial opportunity for Hamilton County teachers.

Still, officials stress that teacher pay is one small piece of the overall effort. They hope to create an environment in which teachers are appreciated. And they want to recruit and retain teachers with a passion for working in struggling schools.

I-zone director Le Andrea Ware said marketing efforts are attracting applicants from across Hamilton County. Many teachers from out of state also have applied because of interest in the work.

"We want people to come on board because this is the work they want to do," Ware said. "This is actually an opportunity to impact children for a lifetime."