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This charter school pays teachers a starting salary of $125,000 a year

Mar 31, 2015

Kristen Van Ollefen leads 5th graders to her music class at TEP.
Credit Dan Bobkoff / Courtesy of WBEZ in Chicago

This week, Michigan Radio is presenting Learning to Teach, a series of reports on the state of teaching in Michigan.

Teachers in Michigan average around $61,000 a year in salary, with starting salaries in the $36,000 range.

Would paying our teachers more lead to better teachers and more effective learning environments for Michigan kids?

A charter middle school in the Washington Heights area of New York City is testing this theory. It’s a school that serves mainly low-income Latino students.

Five years ago, The Equity Project set starting teacher salaries at $125,000 a year.

“It’s not that revolutionary in the sense that most people know that if you want talent, you want to attract it and retain it, you’ve got to pay for it,” Zeke Vanderhoek said. He's the founder and principal of The Equity Project Charter School. “So teaching is no different. If we want to value teachers in the country, then we have to be willing to pay for them.”

Before starting The Equity Project Charter School, Vanderhoek was a teacher at a traditional public school. He said it was easy to notice that students behaved and learned very differently depending on the level of their teacher’s “expertise and strength.”

His experience as a teacher led Vanderhoek to The Equity Project Charter School and its non-traditional budget.

“The idea was to have a school where all classrooms were like that, where all classrooms attracted really great talent,” he said.

This non-traditional budget, in which teachers are paid a more substantial salary than usual, was achieved by way of cutting administrators.

“Essentially what we did was reduced a lot of the non-teaching personnel in the school building,” he said. “That’s one way we saved considerable resources.”

In order to make up for personnel losses, each teacher was assigned what Vanderhoek calls a “whole-school service role.” In addition to teaching, each teacher took on another responsibility, whether that be coaching a sport, tutoring, or something else.

Class sizes remain at the average for New York City – about 31 kids per class.

“In an ideal world, we’d have teachers making a reasonable salary. We’d have class sizes that are very small. We’d have technology in all the classrooms, but ultimately there’s a finite amount of resources,” Vanderhoek said.

Sixth-grade social studies master teacher Ryan Silver works at The Equity Project Charter School. His salary doubled when he started. The salary jump, he says, was a way to compensate him for effort he had always been putting forth. But he says great teachers are never in this field for the money.

“You come into this field to make a difference in the lives of children,” he said. “If someone decides to work at the Equity Project Charter School because of this higher compensation, or this revolutionary compensation, they won’t survive, because their eyes are not on what’s most important.”