On Feb. 2, the Duval County School board passed the first major chunk of school boundary and program shifts that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti proposed last summer.
The massive changes across-the-board could ultimately affect up to 30 schools, directly or indirectly, and have been criticized by board members as “too many, too fast.” (See Folio Weekly Magazine, “Boundary Issues,” Dec. 2; folioweekly.com/BOUNDARY-ISSUES, 14164).
As a result of the vote, Fort Caroline Middle School will gain magnet programs for pre-International Baccalaureate (IB) and performing arts. The working group there rejected Vitti’s call for moving the boys’ academy from Butler Middle to Ft. Caroline, and proposed the magnets instead.
Wolfson and Ed White High Schools will roll in new magnet programs — IB and military leadership, respectively — with incoming ninth-graders next year.
The Ed White High and Stilwell Middle working group modified Vitti’s original proposal to make White a military leadership magnet for grades 7-12; Stillwell will keep its middle school military component instead of adding performing arts.
Hyde Park Elementary will begin serving pre-K through second grade, with Hyde Grove hosting third through sixth. And Oak Hill Elementary will send its regular education students to Jacksonville Heights and Cedar Hills. The facility at Oak Hill will become a specialized laboratory school exclusively for children with autism.
In a discussion with Vitti the day before the vote, board members Becki Couch and Dr. Connie Hall voiced concerns about community buy-in for the Hyde Park/Hyde Grove reorganization, and about breaking up siblings into lower and higher elementary groupings. They also expressed concern that the district was experiencing a “turn-around crisis” in a growing number of elementary schools, and that this fact had not been adequately communicated.
“As a board member, there’s so much that I didn’t know,” Hall said during the meeting. “Are we moving too fast for this?”
Couch and Hall also indicated their doubts about moving students
from one D or F school to another D or F school. Vitti countered that the receiving schools were more stable, and showed more promise for improvement than Oak Hill.
Couch suggested phasing in changes at Hyde Park and Hyde Grove over two years, instead of changing the grade structures all
Hall concurred with Couch’s plan, saying, “This is an opportunity to show the community we’re listening to [them].”
But Vitti argued for wholesale change over a partial phase-in.
“You need more faith,” he told them.
The board rejected Couch’s phase-in suggestion Tuesday night in a 4-3 vote, ultimately granting Vitti’s plea for trust.
GETTING AHEAD OF STATE FORCED ACTIONS
“[T]he state is not forcing us,” Vitti said in a recent discussion about boundary changes, implying that the state could force changes. He added, “It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s fix the schools.’”
The cold, hard truth is that Duval has dozens of under-enrolled, low-performing schools, particularly elementary schools, many of them in low-residency neighborhoods. And keeping them all open, Vitti says, isn’t sustainable — neither financially nor in terms of human capital.
“The board doesn’t like it when I say it,” Vitti says about the professional talent shortage that makes it difficult to improve struggling schools. “But we don’t have 30 high-level instructional leaders.”
And the customers, he says, are opting out. The most active and involved neighborhood parents are opting for charter, voucher, and non-neighborhood magnet schools — whether we like it or not.
According to Vitti, consolidating schools to use talent and money more efficiently doesn’t endorse prevailing education reform policy.
“I’m a hybrid thinker,” he says, refusing
to commit to any ideological position on school reform.
Ultimately, he’s a pragmatist who doesn’t want to spin his wheels fighting the parameters authored by the anti-public-school legislature: a funding squeeze, favoritism toward privatization, and punitive high-stakes testing.
Instead, he wants to keep as many public schools as practicable open and running well, by consolidating students into the schools which he believes have the best chance to succeed. That includes designing new magnet programs to retain students in their boundary zones, which turns the traditional notion of magnet schools on its head.
“The easy thing to do is to close schools,” Vitti says.
“Realize that the state is not forcing us to do anything this year,” Vitti told board members Couch and Hall on Feb. 1. While the state has issued “simulated” grades for schools, the simulations cannot be used this year to force state or charter takeover or closure.
“The simulated grade does give you a sense of a school’s potential,” Vitti told Couch and Hall.
“The boundary change proposal coupled with the program changes is to get ahead. It’s an opportunity to take ownership.”
PUSHBACK FROM AUTISM ADVOCATES
But not everyone agrees with Vitti’s vision for getting ahead of potential adverse state action.
The Oak Hill proposal to create a laboratory school for children with autism was passed unanimously, despite vigorous parent and teacher opposition on social media and at the board meeting.
Prior to the vote, former special education teacher Melissa Lenertz spoke to Folio Weekly Magazine. “Eleven years ago, I might have said ‘yes, please,’ to a laboratory school like Oak Hill,” says Lenertz, mother to a middle-school-age child with autism. “I’ve worked in this field. Now I have the experience and education. I know more about what’s best for my child.”
Lenertz believes opportunities for inclusion with nondisabled peers are important and says she’s fought for inclusion “every step of the way.” Anything less, she contends, signals to families of autistic children that they don’t belong.
Regarding the Oak Hill lab school, Lenertz says, “It’s putting a Band-Aid on a wound that’s going to keep gushing.”
As an advocate, Lenertz works to help ensure that the Individual Education Plan team holds high expectations for students.
“Often they don’t,” Lenertz says, “but even when they do, there’s not sufficient resources for them to be able to implement the plan effectively.” She adds, “[Vitti] could provide all these things in the current [autism] sites. He could provide ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy.”
Lenertz continues, “I think you can spread the love. It’s unfair to give state-of-the-art to one set of kids and not the rest.”
Vitti points to his success in transforming Justina Road Elementary into a school exclusively for students with dyslexia as proof that he can deliver on what he promises, and do it quickly. He holds up the conversion of Butler Middle School into single-gender academies as further proof.
Lenertz echoes many parents’ complaints that the district does a lousy job overall of serving students with special needs. She agrees that, when it comes to promises attached to the new Oak Hill Autism Lab School regarding inclusion, high quality, and no diminution of other programs, it will be up to parents to hold Vitti’s feet to the fire.