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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Sep. 4, 201312:00 PM EST

Horner: Education 'better today' than two years ago

by: David Chapman

Two years after the creation of the city's education commissioner office, its first occupant says he's leaving a foundation for his successor to build upon.

"We are better today educationally in Jacksonville than we were two years ago," said Donald Horner Jr., a Jacksonville University management professor and the school's chief government and community affairs officer.

His last day was June 30. His successor, JU communications professor Annmarie Kent-Willette, was named Tuesday. She will begin this month.

Horner said the office was created from a blank slate and represented "uncharted waters" for an executive branch because the mayor has no authority or fiduciary responsibility for education.

Tangible results from his first two years as education commissioner can be seen, he said, in establishing the Mayor's Mentors program, which pairs City Hall and nonprofit agency representatives with students, and the work to find private funding for JROTC and middle school football programs that were on the brink of being eliminated during one school year.

He said there is "no doubt" there will be a second phase of Mayor's Mentors, which will involve community- and faith-based organizations working with students outside the classroom.

He also said working on a second education summit likely will be a priority. The first summit, headlined by Bill Cosby, fell substantially short of its $2 million fund-raising goal to finance education initiatives, such as the mentoring program and Learn2Earn. The latter is a summer program to expose low-income students to college. This year's program received only enough funding for about 75 students instead of the 200 that were helped last year.

Horner said he is most proud of the relationships established with the Duval County school board, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and other education leaders.

"We are very fortunate to have a city that embraces and supports our efforts in delivering high-quality educational opportunities to students," Vitti said after Tuesday's announcement. "It has been a pleasure to work collaboratively with the education commissioner's office and know that there are continued successes to come for our students, community and the city under Dr. Kent-Willette's leadership."

Horner said one of the missions of the office was to have a legitimate role in education that complemented, not competed, with the work of others.

"It was important for us, and me personally, not to screw that up," he said.

Horner said he has not met Kent-Willette, but said "My opinion is she will excel in this role as commissioner."

Kent-Willete did not return calls for comment.

She will be an executive-on-loan, like Horner was. A program manager and other expenses will be funded by Florida Blue.

Horner said he knew going into the role that the office would be lean and he was "very weary" of growing the office instead of the programs.

He said it is "very possible" for additional public funding in the future, but said with the current economic climate there "is not an appetite for that."

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