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Teacher paid $43,000 bonus as part of New Beginnings charter school incentive system

A fourth grade teacher at Pierre Capdau Charter School got a $43,056 bonus — more than 75 percent of her annual salary — based solely on improvements in her students’ test scores last school year.

Deborah Williams wasn’t the only teacher at Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network who took home a sizable bonus this winter, records show.

In all, five teachers were awarded more than $24,000 apiece, totaling $167,669 — nearly half the allotment available to all New Beginnings staff. And according to the original terms of the program, they should have gotten more.

Williams told The Lens on Friday afternoon that her take-home pay was much less than $43,000. After deductions for taxes and retirement, she took home $23,735, according to New Beginnings’ current CEO Sametta Brown.

Despite the bonuses, Capdau is still rated a D by the state. The year prior, it was a D-minus.

The sizable payouts show how one charter school organization has tried to get its teachers to perform in the face of high-stakes student testing. Year-end tests factor heavily into the state’s evaluation of schools around the state. If a charter school doesn’t demonstrate that its students are improving, the state can revoke its charter.

A lot rides on these tests, and the payouts demonstrate that.

But while Williams’ students boosted their average test scores by 88 percent over the course of the school year, they didn’t show the highest increase among all classes.

That distinction belonged to Ashleigh Pelafigue, whose students posted a 165 percent gain. But because she teaches kindergarten — and those test scores don’t factor into the state’s evaluation — she received just $4,086.

Vera Triplett, the former New Beginnings CEO who set the bonus system in motion, said she equally values all teachers but wanted to offer higher incentives to those teachers under the most pressure.

“Their risk is higher,” Triplett said, “So I think the reward should be higher.”

Bonus plan lagged as leadership changed hands

Vera Triplett

Vera Triplett

Though school leaders discussed a bonus system in 2011, records show Triplett first shared the details of the bonuses in a May 2012 memo that stated that they would be calculated solely on gains in student test scores over the course of the school year. “Please note that K-2 teachers merit pay bonuses cap at $5,000,” she wrote.

New Beginnings — a group of charter schools that serves almost 2,000 students in three elementary schools and one high school — allotted about $722,000 of a $2.3 million federal grant for a bonus system at its elementary schools, Capdau, Medard H. Nelson and Gentilly Terrace.

The goal was to improve teacher retention and student test scores and offer more competitive pay. The grant funds from the U.S. Department of Education’s Gulf Coast Recovery Grant Initiative were supposed to have been spent by August of 2012, but New Beginnings was granted a one-year extension.

Williams’ bonus alone was just below the average teacher’s salary of $45,781 at New Beginnings, according to the organization’s audit for the year ending June 30. Williams’ base salary in 2011-12 was $56,000, according to school records.

Triplett’s memo said that teachers would receive a bonus only if they returned to New Beginnings the following year. She then left New Beginnings in June.

New Beginnings’ current CEO Sametta Brown started in September. On Dec. 31, she decided to adhere to Triplett’s pay scale and award the bonuses.

Sametta Brown

Sametta Brown

“Basically we are honoring a memo and the formula as described in the memo,” Brown told The Lens. “It was a promise made to staff and I’m pleased we were able to live up to that promise.”

She did make “a few changes in terms of a cap and the recalculations.”

While it doesn’t appear that school staff were initially involved in determining the bonus structure, Brown said she allowed them to decide when and how much would be given out. The staff decided to split the $722,000 equally over two payouts: half in December, for the 2011-12 school year, and half later this spring for bonuses earned for the current school year.

The Payout

The Lens initially requested the formula for the bonuses in November 2011. Stephen Osborn, who was then chief operations officer for New Beginnings, responded that the information was “proprietary.” Eight months later, The Lens received a copy of Triplett’s memo.

It said that all teachers were given a classroom score, an average of their students’ previous test scores, at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year. Depending on the score, teachers had to improve it by either 5 percent or 10 percent. However much scores increased, teachers would receive the same percentage in bonuses.

Though bonuses for kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers were capped at $5,000, teachers in higher grades were not. And teachers in third, fourth and eighth grades were eligible for an additional $2,500 if they met growth targets.

At ReNEW schools, a similarly-sized charter school network in New Orleans, $2,500 was the largest award a teacher could receive. ReNEW serves about 2,400 students across four schools.

Besides the teacher bonuses, assistant principals at ReNEW could get $5,000 and principals up to $10,000. The network participated in the Teacher Incentive Fund last year, which uses a more complex formula for teacher bonuses.

“It’s essentially a value-added award, and not a retention bonus,” said ReNEW president Kevin Guitterrez.

All ReNEW teachers, regardless of grade or subject, were eligible for the award, but at New Beginnings, the focus was on third through eighth grades.

In a February interview with The Lens, Triplett said that’s because those test scores factor into the school’s School Performance Score — a state-issued score that determines what letter grade a school will receive for the year. Performance scores are derived from a formula based on student test scores and other data such as graduation rates and course completion.

“There was a cap on K-2 because they don’t have high-stakes testing,” Triplett said.

Williams, a fourth-grade teacher, received the biggest bonus at New Beginnings despite the fact that her class didn’t show the greatest growth during the 2011-12 school year. On top of that, she was eligible for the additional $2,500 because she taught in a high-stakes testing grade.

Williams told The Lens she had no idea that she received the highest bonus, and she complained about being singled out. “You have everyone thinking I’m a bad teacher, we have a bad school and I received all this money. … I feel that I am a good teacher, and I was no part of deciding how much I received.”

Many teachers did not get as much as they were supposed to, because the calculated bonuses ended up exceeding the $361,000 allotted for the 2011-12 school year. The December payments were about 20 percent lower than they had been promised.

The Lens emailed all teachers, including Pelafigue and Williams, whose names are listed on the New Beginnings website. Five teachers responded, but just one was willing to go on the record.

Walter Bridges, a second-year teacher at Capdau, contacted The Lens in mid-December when he said he was told by his principal he would be receiving a bonus. In January, after Bridges said he had not received a bonus, The Lens asked New Beginnings whether all bonuses had been paid. Bridges said he was later told by his principal he would not receive a bonus and it had been a miscommunication.

“I just wish communication from the higher-ups in the network was more professional and timely,” Bridges said about the bonus program.


Bonuses have become a popular tool as education reformers focus more on student outcomes as a measure of teacher success.

“Student performance is what we are all about,” said Brown when asked why the bonus was based on just one factor.

Some differ.

“There’s a feeling in the field now that you should use students’ performance as one measure,” said Laura Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research and development think-tank, “but it shouldn’t be the only measure.”

Hamilton said she had never heard of a teacher getting more than a 75 percent bonus. “Usually the measure to award the bonus is more complex,” she said.

Hamilton said the goal in these complex bonus formulas is to control for variables that are outside of a teacher’s control, such as student demographics. Many bonus formulas add in additional measures, such as teacher observations or student surveys.

Competitive Market

Brown said incentive programs hold promise for administrators like herself.

“I think it is important that teachers are rewarded for their efforts and that incentives will allow us to attract the best,” Brown said.

But Hamilton said research indicates bonus systems can have limited results.

“There’s no evidence that tying bonuses to student achievement itself is an effective way to improve student learning,” Hamilton said, regardless of whether they’re based on the performance of an individual teacher, a team, or an entire school.

It’s not clear if the bonus program was responsible for improvement in student test scores. Triplett’s formula memo was distributed in May, nine months into the 2011-12 school year as school was winding down — and after students had taken their tests. But it is possible teachers knew before then that they would be rewarded for student testing gains.

Moreover, Hamilton said there is a risk teachers may behave differently — “like excessive teaching to the test and possibly cheating” — when teaching in such a high-stakes environment.

New formula on its way?

When first interviewed in December about the bonus system set in motion by her predecessor, Brown told The Lens she would consider changing the formula in the future.

But, she said, she felt she needed to honor Triplett’s memo the first time around. “I believe in using several factors to determine incentive,” Brown said. “I don’t perceive that future bonuses will amount to 50 percent of their salary.”

Brown said she would get input from teachers before creating a new formula and awarding the second round of bonuses — an apparent departure from what happened when Triplett created the system. Though the original grant terms called for two task forces — one staffed by teachers — to help determine the bonus pay structure, The Lens learned from a lawyer for New Beginnings that that committee never materialized.

On Wednesday, as The Lens prepared to publish its story, Brown said she was working on a new formula with input from teachers and administrators but didn’t want to disclose its details until next week, after she has a chance to share it with employees.

This story was updated to include Deborah Williams’ take-home pay and to add her comments about the bonus system.

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.

  • nickelndime

    Tim Ryan, (UNO – Capital One “New Beginnings” Board) – are you out there, buddy??! I fell off my chair on or about line 25 and am trying to pick myself up. Recently, THE LENS reported that Gentilly Terrace (member school in the network) lost 25 students and will be operating in a deficit, and with a nod from the board and Tim Ryan, the CFO said that the board (network) will carry this for a year – recall that story? I am still trying to pick myself up and when I do, I will attack this with everything I’ve got.

  • Ok….what if you teach talented/gifted kids whose pre-test scores are very high to begin with? What if going from “good” to “great” growth is only 5-10% growth? How come we are only rewarding teachers with students who have a huge deficit to make up? As a teacher who has had classes filled with every level from developmental to gifted, I can HONESTLY say that the easiest to teach were developmental kids. Taking D-F students and turning them into B-A students is MUCH easier than moving a B student to an A student or an A student to an A+. It’s sort of like vacuuming after a party…there’s a big visual payoff when the carpet has lots of visible stuff on it – crushed chips, lint, streamers etc… and then you pass the vacuum and the dirt is instantly gone! But if the carpet doesn’t have any visual dirt, you still have to do all of the same things to vacuum…you STILL have to pass that vacuum back and forth using the same technique because you know the dirt is hidden…you can hear it going through the tube…even if the before and after visual payoff isn’t so drastic. I respect all teachers who give it their all everyday in the classroom…not just when being evaluated or when “teaching to the test”. Teachers are not necessarily working “HARDER” when huge growth gains take place on standardized tests. It’s about where the students started and how much ground needs to be covered. You try keeping high school Honors and Gifted kids engaged and challenged for 9 months and then we’ll talk about these $40,000. “bonuses” for 4th grade teachers.

  • Thank you Nickelndime! Everything about this stinks. The public should demand ,to see those “tests” that gained so much improvement. John White is laughing his Ar_ off right now and thumbing his nose at the teaching Profession. An investigation into New Beginnings and ALL the goings on of our TFA run Department of Education MUST be made. Are you listening U.S.Attorney? This time you have gone over the edge Mr. white.

  • roastbeefer

    we forget our country was founded on free enterprise and incentives for performance. you want to fix the education system in new orleans? you have to provide incentives and this is a good start. We need to expand pay for performance to all teachers. don’t be so quick to kill a new idea and jump to conclusions. once all teachers have a more direct incentive to perform, you’ll see new orleans turn around its failing education. half of all students don’t pass the regular exam-how can we sit by and let that happen. we have to do something now.

  • To check teacher certification and degrees (if there are any) go here.

    Sametta Brown has no teaching credentials listed. I will let you determine the rest for yourselves.

  • This is taxpayer money. Think a little deeper Mr. Roastbeefer. Are you just a little but curious as to how that incredulous score differential was attained? Does it matter to you that the other teachers with BETTER performance didn’t get anywhere near the top amount? Is that your version of free enterprise?

  • Justateacher

    As a teacher I think no amount of money is compensation for what we do!!!! It is my understand that a bonus like a salary is not an amount that is request, rather it is set. As for tax dollars, mine go to pay for lots of things I am not in support of. Education is the only profession that will allow people outside of the profession come in and practice; If I pass the LSAT can I try a court case. We need to focus on feed the hungry in the United States, getting better health care and bringing all of our troops home just to name a few things. Most people in general are to focused on the lives of others; we need to realize when we point fingers at someone there are three point back at us. The author of this article needs put some of this energy in to helping the teaching community locate Terrilynn Monnette!

  • liznola

    Outrageous, unethical, corrupt, unverifiable, arrogant, sleazy: get where I’m coming from? Welcome to the oligarchy . . . the shakedown, the globalization of our own third world populations.

  • nickelndime

    Lee, please continue to apply your expertise and don’t let up! You have landed some blows. I read 3 more lines, fell on the floor again, and am unresponsive at this point. Marta has done an excellent job. What do we call this situation? And where do we go from here? Attorney General, USDOE, Inspector General, LLA? This is the tip of the iceberg.

  • nickelndime

    I am back on my chair. Here’s another one: Einstein Group Inc. d/b/a Einstein Charter gets a $1,000,000 federal grant money from NSNO (New Schools for New Orleans – founder Sarah Usdin – now 1 of the OPSB) to take over the failing RSD “F” Intercultural Charter School, plus $800,000 for busing. The “F” will disappear from the RSD’s District score. ICS becomes Einstein 2 and CEO/Principal Shawn Toranto gets a salary boost of $183,000 (i3 application for federal funds administered by NSNO). Current CEO/Principal Toranto names (without public announcement of a vacancy) Glendalyn Irene Framer Lewis as the principal, who is not certified as an adminsitrator.

  • you, ‘roastbeefer’, are so drunk on the post katrina koolaid. this corporatist magic show isn’t about fixing anything but the wallets of bloodsucking, greedy, fat capitalist pigs. and what they’re capitalizing on is the ignorance of citizens like yourself who are so easily mislead into believing that teachers are or were the only factor responsible for students’ progress or failure, but also because many, if not most taxpayers choose to be oblivious to the fact that their taxes were not, and still are not being utilized properly vis a vis public education. it’s the old ‘i don’t want to think about all that’ excuse with it’s twin ‘let someone else handle it’ cop out.

    if you and those like you were to even cursorily examine the situation with n.o. public schools before and since katrina, it would be easy to see the discrepancies with where funding went before and is now going. if all these public funds, which are being used to staff, supply, renovate, rebuild, and build from scratch all these facilities now being allocated to/occupied by charters, had been used instead on real public education, both before and after katrina, we wouldn’t be having this ridiculous debate about ‘teacher merit’, since most of the problems in public schools had nothing to do with teachers’ abilities. obviously you know very little, if anything about what teachers really experienced under those deplorable circumstances, or you’re just a paid shill trolling here for john white, jindal, or some despicable corporation.

    if you’re not just another shill, you should educate yourself on what is really happening with this charter/voucher scam, which is nothing less than the destruction of public education and the teaching profession and replacing it with unaccountable, autonomous corporations and inexperienced, uncertified, unprofessional persons posing as teachers (tfa and the like). and this accountability bullshit, along with this (sub) standardized testing crap are just smokescreens to keep the ignorant in the dark about where our money’s really going.


    What does John White have to say about this? Nothing much.

  • Jim Anderson

    In the earlier days of the new educational reform movement in Louisiana, there was a section of the
    Louisiana Department of Education devoted to monitoring achievement test score
    gains. Expected test score gains were calculated based upon the
    previous year’s test data and if new scores exceeded these projections by a
    certain statistical amount, the scores were determined to be suspect.

    In other words, statistically these gains could not have occurred without some outside
    interference (cheating).

    When such occurrences were discovered a complete audit of the test score documents was
    done along with interviews of those conducting the testing. Analyses of
    the test documents included such techniques as erasure analysis of the number
    of answers changed from incorrect to correct answers, comparing documents of
    children seated next to each other, etc.

    With the arrival of Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek the test score monitoring function was
    abolished in the name of departmental reorganization.

    So the problem continues with our new new education reform movement that not only factors test
    score achievement into teachers’ tenure rights but also provides cash rewards
    to teachers and schools.

    Just how much gain is too much gain and where is the accountability to determine such?

    If our esteemed education leaders would do a little investigation of their own they would find
    a bundle of research showing that the more heavily test scores are factored
    into teacher evaluations and rewards, the greater the increase in ’suspect’
    test scores.

    Jim Anderson

    Former director of Accountability/Assessment,
    New Orleans Public Schools

  • nickelndime

    Yes, Lee, and when John White said, “What is your specific objection?,” I would have said, “All of it.” (back on the chair but falling off every time I read more of this story). Beside the U.S. Attorney, how about the United States Government Accountability Office ( b/c I would definitely say that there is something afoul with the LDOE favored-nonprofits, e.g., New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) which acts on behalf of the LDOE/RSD to award federal grants to favored nonprofit charter boards, such as UNO’s Capital One “New Beginnings” Board, and other similar instances. And hey, Jim, how you doing, man? Remember when standardized testing security meant something – like when you were there.

  • Carrie N.

    Have you every taught in a New Orleans public school before? If it is so easy to move D-F students to A-B students then how come more teachers are not doing it??? It is a lot easier to keep gifted and talented kids engaged since they typically have more support at home and see the importance of education. Take the “D-F” scholars, what role models do they have at home? Do they see the value in education? With that said, all teachers need to be applauded for their work, it is truly an under appreciated profession!

  • hahahalol

    Seriously, your lack of capitalization discredits anything that your write- especially anything concerning education.

  • hahahalol

    Pierre Capdeau was rated a ” D- ” in 2012 and is now a ” D “. Care to justify these incentives again for me?

  • nickelndime

    Pierre Capdau is a “D” school. Let me write this another way: pierre capdau is a “d” school. If it is lucky, it will remain a “d” school after leap testing in spring 2013. what about gentilly terrace? will it be remain a “d” school?!!! does the “d” stand for “deficit” or “declining”?
    does my lack of capitalization offend you? get over it. “there is many a good man under a shabby hat” (i cannot take credit for this quote). do not be swayed by appearances. the ldoe and the rsd will tell you that education in louisiana is alive and well. it is not. it is corrupt and detrimental to students.

  • Glenn Poirier

    She raised scores 88%? Yes, and I am Thomas Edison. I kid you not.

  • bravo to the students with improved scores….and if you know of a better way , SPEAK UP.

  • Ann Koloski

    Do your homework. Check Sametta’s credentials under Sametta Raybon.

  • calas500

    This is nuts. That poor K teacher!

  • That Poor K Teacher…

    Thank you!