For many years, most of Duval County’s lowest-scoring schools have been the elementary, middle and high schools in the Ribault, Raines, and Jackson high school regions.
Those 36 schools struggled with high teacher turnover, falling enrollment, frustratingly poor report card grades. Their principals often struggled to fill open positions with high-quality teachers.
Now, these schools are being called “transformation” schools.
About 90 percent of the 200 open positions in those schools are filled, many by some of the district’s highest-scoring teachers, Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told parents last week. He expects all the teachers in place by the first day of school, Aug. 18.
Over the next two years, new technology will arrive in the schools in the form of faster Internet service, laptops for teachers and students, and interactive white boards.
The district is paying for the technology and the teachers, but is getting a lot of help from local donors, who so far have contributed $36 million to the Quality Education for All, a fund housed in the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, which pays for improvement initiatives in Duval schools.
A key strategy is to pay for better teaching.
Duval’s School Board will vote Tuesday on whether to accept a $15 million grant from the fund to be used for teacher and principal performance incentives at those 36 schools, where most students are poor.
“This whole process was to try to find ways to stop making excuses for how our students were doing,” Vitti told parents at a packed community meeting last week. “We did not have a focused, human capital strategy in Raines, Ribault or Andrew Jackson feeder pattern schools. We had looked at fixing schools individually, but not through their entire feeder pattern.”
The financial incentives target teachers whose student test scores show academic growth that outpaced the district’s average by 20 percent or more.
To keep the high-scoring teachers already at the schools, an incentive of up to $20,000 a year over three years is being offered — if the teachers stay put and if students’ academic growth stays above district average. Similarly, high-scoring teachers elsewhere have been recruited to the schools and can earn up to $17,000 in incentive pay for each of three years.
It’s the first time Duval has offered such large bonuses. Prior signing bonuses were several thousand dollars and were not tied to student performance, Vitti said.
To make room for new recruits, the district moved out 200 teachers from the 36 schools, “to create a culture where every teacher in the facility wants to be there,” Vitti said.
Those teachers were mostly put on a surplus list to interview for available jobs in the district. Vitti said he believes they’ll likely find jobs in other Duval schools.
Some community members had concerns about the process.
Virgina Thompson, whose grandson attends Raines High, worried the transfers might not be fair to the teachers. “That’s almost like saying they were a failure,” she said. “All teachers are supposed to be on the same level.”
Leandrew Mills III, a school volunteer and member of Friends of Northwest Jacksonville Schools, supports bringing different teachers to the 36 schools, but he wondered what effect those departing teachers will have on their new schools.
“If they’re already very high-performing schools that don’t have a laundry list of needs, then it would be easy for those [transferred] teachers to assimilate,” he said, but at struggling schools, “it could make their problems worse.”
Vitti said no one is labeling those teachers as failures. He predicted many will probably improve performance in a new environment, especially if the pressures and challenges of poverty are less at their new schools.
Vitti added that about five years ago, when he oversaw 500 teacher transfers out of Miami’s 66 “transformation” schools, most of those teachers who left low-performing schools got better at their new jobs.
Across the nation, schools in high-poverty areas usually struggle the most with high teacher turnover and too many inexperienced teachers.
Vitti told parents that the pay incentives will create stability in the 36 transformation schools.
“We have to create calm,” he said. “We have to create a culture so students and teachers and parents can trust each other and create real relationships.”
After Vitti spoke, parents said they were bowled over by the attention and planned improvements at these schools.
But a few were still skeptical at one of the meetings.
“What if we gave them these teachers and they still performed under par?’’ one woman asked.
Laurie DuBow, a donor and member of the Quality Education for All advisory board, told parents: “I believe students want to respond positively. But we cannot wait any longer. Now is the time to make improvements in these schools.”
Carrie M. Warren, an assistant principal at Rufus A. Payne Elementary, said more experienced teachers at her school will mean her academically advanced students will get more attention. Until now, she said, the school’s staff has been able to focus mostly on struggling students.
“Now we’ll have a lot of senior teachers, with 10-plus years’ experience, who have taught students at different levels and who’ll know how to pull from their bag of tricks,” she said.
Still, there will be some inexperienced teachers at the transformation schools.
For instance, Vitti said about 100 Teach for America teachers will be stationed in Raines, Ribault and Jackson feeder schools, mostly teaching middle and high school math or science.
Teach for America is nationally known for steering Ivy League college grads to teach in urban schools.
Supporters note their energy and smarts, but detractors note that many leave after only a few years.
Vitti said other initiatives also will help, such as a new teacher residency program that puts science, technology, engineering and math teachers in the schools for four years, and some programs to develop new principals.
“It’s not just about now; it’s about the future,” Vitti said, “so we’re not scrambling to find the best teachers.”
Sabrina Hall, a math teacher at Andrew Jackson High who likely will get the $20,000 in incentive pay, got emotional last week, not discussing the extra pay, but thinking about the old, overhead projectors and transparencies in use at her school that someday will be replaced by better technology.
They’re small symbols, she said, of a big community investment in her kids and others at disadvantaged schools.
“In terms of academic performance, you’re going to see something different, something really powerful,” she said. “There’s that old saying that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I think you’re going to see some positive returns each year.”
Denise Amos: (904) 359-4083