Duval schools Wednesday told the state it will pick an outside operator to run the district’s three endangered schools Matthew Gilbert Middle, Northwestern Middle and Lake Forest Elementary if those schools earn lower than a C grade this year. 

 

A new state education law this year forced that selection by cutting the time schools have to turn around their D or F grades and it reduced options district’s had for selecting turnaround strategies.

The change puts the three Duval schools in danger of being taken over or closed next year if they don’t score a C this year. All three scored D’s last year after years of D’s or F’s.

Duval officials have said they are confident all three schools will earn a C grades this year and won’t have to undergo the changes.

“Matthew Gilbert, Northwestern, and Lake Forest are all within four percentage points of attaining a C grade” last year, said Patricia Willis, Duval’s interim superintendent. “While our focus continues to be in providing extensive resources to these schools to improve outcomes for students, we also knew it was critical to invite community input on such a crucial decision for these school communities.”

Willis considered input from school leaders, parents and community members during two community assessment meetings.

Duval officials had until Wednesday to choose from the turnaround option plans provided by the state: close the school and send students elsewhere, hire an outside entity to operate the school, convert it to a district-run charter school, or allow it to be taken over by a regular charter school.

All of those options would likely result in major changes for students and staff.

Willis said last week that she and community members leaned toward keeping the schools open. She said at the time that an outside operator managing them is the most flexible option, given state law.

Also, the district has used outside operators for several schools in the past with success, Board Chairwoman Paula Wright said last week.

The district will pick the operator and must sign a contract by January 31. This option requires that the external operator have a proven record for supporting high-poverty, low-performing schools.

The option also requires Duval only employ schools teachers who were “effective” or “highly effective” based on student test performance and the state’s value-added model calculations.

Several Duval Board members say the new education law almost forces districts to turn over endangered district schools to charter operators or close them.

For instance, the new law makes districts plan to close or pick a turnover option months before districts will learn what the new school grades are. Districts won’t know until July whether these endangered schools earned a C or better this year and won’t need to a takeover or closure.

But the law also requires districts who choose to convert the schools to a charter or to hire an outside operator to sign a contract with the parties in January, six months before grades come in.

Also state law imposes a set template on charter contracts which prevents districts from adding to or changing the contracts. District who choose a charter operator will likely find it hard or impossible to back out of those contracts come July, Duval Board member Rebecca Couch said this week.

Charter schools are public schools which are run privately. They typically have an appointed board of directors and their teachers are rarely unionized.

About 13,000 Duval students attend charter schools.

The new education law contains a variety of measures that will increase funding of charter schools and will encourage the opening of more charter schools, Couch said.

Willis said she prefers entering into a tentative agreement with an outside operator instead because the state doesn’t impose a boilerplate contract in that case and it’s possible to word the deal so the district has more flexibility to change it should these schools earn a C or better.

Beyond these three schools, next year eight other Duval schools could be in danger of the same thing — closure or takeover — if they don’t score a C or higher in the next two years.

School districts around the state, including Duval and Clay counties, have challenged the new education law in state court, and nine districts recently asked Florida’s Supreme Court to review it.

The district plans more “stakeholder” meetings at the affected schools during the next few months. Also the district is posting its turnaround plans and efforts on the district website: duvalschools.org

Denise Smith Amos: 904-359-4083