Some of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s backers and detractors agree: There’s a lot more work to do to push Duval County Schools toward success. But they disagreed about whether Vitti should stay in Jacksonville to do it.
Some community leaders were dismayed to hear Saturday that Vitti is one of three finalists for the Detroit superintendent’s job. Vitti in a statement said he applied for the position to explore the chance to return to the Detroit area, where he was born and raised.
Some prominent Jacksonville leaders said if he left, it would be a blow for Duval County.
“We absolutely would prefer that Dr. Vitti remain in Duval County,” said Nina Waters, president of the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, which manages millions of dollars in donations and civic funds, including a $40 million educational effort called the Quality Education for All initiative, designed to help the district’s most disadvantaged schools in inner-city Jacksonville.
“He’s brought the leadership we needed to make the necessary progress now being documented in multiple performance measures,” Waters said. “There is clearly more work to be done, and we would be delighted to continue to partner with him and the School Board to build on this initial success.”
Over his four years in Duval, Vitti has improved graduation rates and the district has gone from a C state grade to a B, even as state academic standards and exams got tougher.
Wayne Weaver, a businessman and chairman of the Quality Education for All fund: “It would be a tremendous loss for the district to lose Dr. Vitti.”
Yet among African-American leaders, the reaction is mixed. Some say Vitti targeted low-income and high-minority schools for initiatives; it would be a shame if he leaves before he was close to finishing them.
“All of us know that transformation takes years,” said the Rev. John Guns, senior pastor at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, which houses one of Duval’s out-of-school suspension programs.
“At one level, I see him as a friend, someone who is committed to the children of the district,” Guns said. “Yet, hearing that he’s leaving … there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. That’s where I have mixed emotions.”
Other local NAACP leaders were more convinced that Jacksonville would do better seeking a different “change agent.”
“He has done a lot of positive things here, but there are still quite a few negative things going on,” said Elnora Atkins, head of the NAACP of Jacksonville’s education committee and a retired principal.
“There are still a lot of students who can’t read, even in high school,” she said.
“I wanted to see somebody who would improve the reading level for all students. I know it’s not all the superintendent’s fault; some of it’s the parents’ [fault]. But I want somebody who’s going to come in here and walk on water and get things done.”
She said Vitti has failed to make much progress on closing a wide disparity between minorities’ discipline referrals and suspensions at school compared to other student groups.
Still, Vitti has been willing to be open and answer the NAACP’s questions and concerns, Atkins said.
“I wish him all the best in getting the position in Detroit,” she said. “That will give Duval County an opportunity to start over again with someone who is more conducive to children learning.”
Some teachers, too, are of two minds about a possible Vitti departure.
Gregory Sampson, a Duval teacher and blogger, says he is “never a fan … but not a hater” of Vitti. He believes Vitti cares about students and their learning needs, though he may be abrasive at times and he has disrupted the district’s status quo.
“He took the blame for the disruption, but he was doing what he was hired to do,” Sampson wrote in his blog, “disrupt the system in an effort to reform [it] and bring swift results. It didn’t happen. There were higher school grades, but not all schools improved to the level of the goals set.”
Denise Smith Amos: 904-359-4083