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Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Jacksonville Public Education Fund's one on one conference review, part 2, The Panel Discussion

By Greg Sampson

One X One conference 2016
Part Two, Panel Discussion

When Dr. Vitti completed his presentation, he sat on stage with a panel moderated by the chair of NE Florida United Way. On the panel were a student, a teacher/parent, a parent/community member.

The student led off and asked the superintendent about teacher creativity in lessons given the new curriculum mandated and monitored by the district.

Vitti response (hereafter V:) We need the curriculum to match rigor to the standards (Florida standards, which are in essence Common Core—this parenthetical explanation is mine, not Vitti’s.) Individual teachers will have a hard time developing lessons on their own that will attain this level. When they teach the curriculum as written, they will automatically reach the level required by the standards. Teachers do have flexibility; teachers do improvise. As time goes on, the District will begin to differentiate among teachers who produced the desired results (high passing rate of FSA) and allow them to amend the curriculum in their classrooms. Teachers who do not do as well will have to follow what is set forth.

Teacher/parent: It is hard to follow a rigid timeline in the classroom. Students don’t relate to the content of the curriculum. Could we have courses that allow students to study their own cultures?

V: There is more flexibility to offer such courses in middle school and high school. Elective courses are needed to keep students engaged.

Parent/Community member: The superintendent is consistent in the message he brings. His answers do not change from place to place as the audience is different. As a member of the Jacksonville community, who hears from many people, I will raise their concern: boundaries matter. Why do some schools have resources while others lack, especially in the DTO schools (DTO schools are those in the special Quality Education for All initiative, essentially the schools that feed into Raines/Ribault/Jackson high schools)?

V: DTO gets substantially more resources than other schools in the District. For example, all DTO schools will have 1 to 1 technology by the fall. (This means there will be one computer for every student.) If parents have a concern that their children do not have a textbook for their grade level content areas, they should call the school, the principal, or me.

P/C: How do we get a school out of DTO? When do we figure it is successful? And will the larger salaries continue for the teachers who work there?

V: DTO schools follow research-based strategies and have reduced bureaucracy to deal with. For example, the regional superintendent, Iranetta Wright, does not report through the Chief of Schools; she reports directly to me. Some DTO schools are performing more highly than other schools in the district. We placed schools into DTO based on their feeder patterns (to Raines, Ribault, and Jackson). Some schools will exit the program. They will receive greater autonomy and flexibility at that point.

Teacher/parent asked about the boundary changes.

V: The proposed changes are across the district. We targeted schools with low enrollment based upon capacity. Our changes are for schools where over 50% of the students have left for other options: magnets, charters, home schooling, vouchers. We want children to return to their neighborhood schools. Increasing the utilization of available seats is important. We are prevented from building new schools in areas of population growth if we have under-utilization elsewhere. We can’t build new schools in Mandarin if we have seats available in Northwest Jacksonville. That gives the charter operators freedom to move into such areas as Mandarin and open new schools when we cannot.

The changes are also related to performance issues. We need to fundamentally restructure schools that are not performing (according to state tests). Saying we will try harder is not enough. Parents are leaving underperforming schools. Some schools are broken. We need to transform them so parents will buy back in and re-enroll their children.

For the most part, principal changes have settled. Things are stabilizing. There will be fewer changes in the future.

I didn’t write down who asked it, but the subject of school grades came up.

V: Give it time. At this moment, you cannot decide upon school performance based upon the grade. The state is undergoing a massive flux given the change in standards, tests, and performance levels. Eventually things will settle, hopefully, and when we again have consistency from year to year school grades will indicate the quality of a school. Until then, look at more things: the school culture, the relationships between children and adults, and the program offerings of the school when making a decision about what school is right for a child.

We were done. They released us to have discussions at our tables about the question of the conference—equity in education.

I didn’t keep notes when a few tables were randomly selected to report to the whole assembly, but I do remember that another table reported an issue I raised: given that we are going to online curriculums, where students do not receive a textbook, aren’t we creating inequity for students whose parent cannot afford a computer and/or an internet connection? Go to the library is not an acceptable answer given the cutback in library hours over the years, especially in the evenings and weekends, and the environment is not the same as a quiet place at home.

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