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Sunday, February 23, 2014

It is time to grade Superintendent Vitti. (rough draft)

Superintendent Vitti has been here for sixteen months now and it is time to evaluate his performance. When he arrived Duval County was nowhere close to where it should be and he was like a breath of fresh air. After years of stagnation finally many of us felt we could be optimistic again. However we shouldn’t let that initial feeling of euphoria stop us from examining the things that he is done because we have to know if things are truly different of if we are just getting more of the same.

He started a parent academy, which was solely needed because schools and teachers can only do so much and there has to be a partnership between parents and schools if we really want to be successful. I however have no idea how it is doing, if it’s a swing and a miss, home run or something in between. 

He brought back music and art to a lot of schools that had cut them. These important classes give kids a break from their academic courses and play to many of their strengths and likes too. A concern though is some of these teachers are seeing two classes at a time which makes things difficult for teachers and students a like.

He made discipline a priority and it had basically been ignored, under the previous administration. Middle schools and high schools now have deans and ISSP teachers’ positions that were also often cut in recent years. The problems I hear though is ISSP teachers and deans are often called to fill other positions and still kids don’t receive proper consequences or what we now call response cost for bad behavior. Furthermore I wonder why the administration, who knows there was a problem, if not why bring in so many deans and ISSP teachers, spent so much time arguing with Judge Davis when he brought up the problem of violence in our schools.

He has made over a hundred principal and administration moves. Chief concerns before he arrived were whom you know not your ability-determined promotions and the fact we had a lot of bullies masquerading as administrators wandering the halls of our schools. The problem however is if he replaces them with the same type of administrators or just moves them around then we will be right back where we started. We need leaders who can motivate and enthuse their staffs not ones who use fear and intimidation. 

He continues to put his support behind Teach for America even though his other actions seem to indicate he doesn't believe in thr program. If you didn’t know, Teach for America takes non-education majors puts them through a five week course and then into our neediest classrooms where they serve for two years or the exact opposite of what we now to be best for our children. We also don’t need them, it’s not like a few years ago when we were advertising in India, Canada and the business world for teachers. He has also told his personal people not to staff TFA teachers at John E. Ford in response to parents complaints about turnover and then with his experienced teacher initiative he admits we need our best and most experienced teachers at our neediest schools, the same places we have been shuffling TFA into for the last five years. At a recent board workshop he said he wanted to funnel them just into high schools going forward but how does that make sense as high school kids have to pass certain tests or they don’t graduate. I don’t understand why the districts number one priority isn’t putting experienced teachers or people who might grow into lifelong educators into our classrooms.

Speaking of his experienced teacher initiative his plan to pay teachers up to sixty thousand dollars over three years to work at our neediest schools on it’s face sounds amazing however when you look at it with a critical eye it kind of falls apart. First a plan like this has never worked and where the money being offered is a lot more than ever offered before it can still only be used to fill one hundred percent of the targeted positions.

The department of education did a study where they filled 88 percent of the targeted positions and where there were big gains in elementary schools, there were no gains in middle school and they didn’t even try it in high schools (where he wants to send TFA teachers). Then when the money turned off teachers began to leave in droves and I can't imagine things being any different here.

Furthermore what is this going to do to camaraderie and collaboration? This is my thought, it really takes a village to educate our children, we need art, music, history, p.e. English, math teachers and guidance counselors working together to be successful. The superintendent obviously thinks English, math and sometimes science teachers are much more important as they will be the only ones eligible for the bonus. I have grave concerns about what this huge influx of cash is going morale. In effect we are creating a two-tiered teacher system where one group of teachers is worth a lot more than the other. The short of it is he is making a very expensive gamble with zero evidence that backs it up, which makes me wonder where he got the idea.

I believe he got it from the chair of the state board of education, local businessman and education activist Gary Chartrand.  Some of you might think a cozy relationship with the chair of the state board of education is a good thing and if we had a competent chair I would probably agree with you even if I didn’t believe in everything they did. People are going to have legitimate disagreements. The thing is we don’t have a competent person running the board and I think I can make a case by looking at some of things he has said and done. He said we needed to stay away from controversial subjects that don’t reflect Florida’s values like homosexuality. He said we need a citrus grower on the state board of education and now we have one Andy Tuck, who has also disavowed evolution and promoted creationism. Under his watch we have had multiple commissioners of education, 4 if we count Stewart twice  and the accountability system has been changed so much that nobody believes it has credibility any more. He has said the class size amendment was a waste of money and he initiated Florida’s race based goals and here is a spoiler alert for you, we don’t have very high expectations for our African American students. Then just recently he arbitrarily cut public comments back at a BOE meeting from three minutes to two. Chartrand is a grocer who used his money to get on the board and it is showing and this is the person who seems to have Vitti’s ear as they have been seen together at conferences that promote charter schools and at education policy forums. One of the great things Vitti did when he first arrived was travel the city and listen to the people but now I wonder if that was just window dressing.

I can’t help but think it is because of this close relationship with Chartrand an advocate of the corporate reform movements (charters, vouchers, stepped up teacher evaluations, merit pay etc.) that Vitti is bringing in the New Teacher Project and ideology driven group supposedly here just to do our climate surveys, surveys that parents, teachers and school members take which hopefully reveal how schools are running.  The New Teacher Projects guiding principal is there are lots of bad teachers and if we can develop better evaluation tools we can replace them and things will improve. I was hoping our super’s position was we have lots of good teachers and if we can develop and support them things will improve. Why bring in this group? Why not go to the Jacksonville public Education Fund who already partners with the district on lots of projects and is known for their statistical analysis of data? I think we can all agree knowing how our schools are doing is a very important thing but I really question the use of this group to tell us.

I think the jury is still out. I like some of the things he has done or at least tried to do even if thus far the results have been mixed at best and some of the things he has done have caused me to scratch my head. But what scares me is the people of Jacksonville just seem so relieved that there has been a change they may not be paying attention and if we don’t pay attention we will be in trouble.   

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