Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti addressed the Downtown Council of the JAX Chamber Friday and delivered a report card on the school system’s performance.
“We are on the rise,” he said, citing the 72.1 percent high school graduation rate for 2013-14. That’s 4.4 percentage points better than the previous year and four times the state average increase.
“It’s the highest it has ever been and only 2 points below the state average,” Vitti said. “Our target is to exceed the state average next year and the following year, to be the highest-performing big city school district in the state.”
Eighty percent of graduating high school seniors are ready for college in reading and 60 percent are prepared for college in mathematics skills.
“Students don’t have to take remedial courses in college. A high school diploma is harder to obtain in Duval County than it was five years ago,” said Vitti.
Stating that education is linked to improving the economic development of Jacksonville and the future development of Downtown, Vitti said there is a change in focus in how students are taught and how their performance is evaluated.
“We are shifting what we are doing away from testing and toward analytical skills, writing and articulating an argument, both in writing and orally,” he said. “We improve by developing students who can critically think.”
Vitti said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is seeking to fund public education. The foundation is focusing on several states, including Florida, which makes Jacksonville a candidate for support.
He said the foundation is looking for school systems that demonstrate four elements: strong administrative leadership, a “progressive-minded” school board, a teachers union that is willing to collaborate with the school board and a community that is willing to match funding.
Vitti said a new “CEO Partnership” is scheduled to be implemented in schools. The program will pair a business executive with a principal in order for each to gain insight.
“It will be an opportunity to learn from each other and it doesn’t have to be the CEO of EverBank, it can be any business owner,” he said.
Conducting classes year-round has often been discussed in Duval County as a way to improve student performance. Vitti said based on his experience with an uninterrupted school year in Miami, where he worked before coming to Jacksonville, eliminating the traditional summer break could be counterproductive.
“It’s in vogue to think about year-round school, but funding is an issue and summer school doesn’t necessarily impact learning. Students get burned out. Teachers get burned out. In Miami, it led to some good teachers leaving,” he said.
The Downtown Council meets at 7:30 a.m. the first and third Friday of each month at The University Club in Riverplace Tower along the Southbank. Guests are invited to attend. To view the schedule of programs and speakers, visit downtowncouncil.org.