Jacksonville is a city committed to improving its school system and there's no time to lose, according to education leaders gathered Tuesday for the Champions for Education conference at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse.
Every second wasted is a missed opportunity to improve the life of a local child, said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools.
"The window for getting this right for children really closed yesterday. We have to get this right," he said.
"As a community, we must seize this moment. The time to act is now," said Jacksonville businessman Gary Chartrand, chair of the Florida State Board of Education.
At the same conference a year ago, Chartrand announced a drive to privately raise $50 million over five years to fund programs in Duval County schools.
"We have successfully raised over half our goal," said Chartrand. He said the fund is now moving from a "quiet phase" to a "noise phase" and will begin putting that money to work.
In addition to raising $50 million from local donors, Chartrand's fundraising plan anticipates seeking matching grants from some national foundations. However, the fund's leaders will take
some time before applying for outside funds.
"We wanted to make sure the community stepped up first," he said.
The PGA Tour, which hosted the conference in conjunction with the upcoming The Players golf tournament, also has made a financial commitment to education in the area. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said the organization is raising $50 million over 10 years to fund programs promoting character development, health and education for children in Northeast Florida.
"We're a little north of $11 million," said Finchem, putting the golf organization's effort "on track."
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, the conference's keynote speaker, said the community's involvement in education is critical. In some cities, education is left up to the school system without outside help.
"Fortunately here in Duval County, that's not the case," he said.
Bush said a great teacher is able to impart a year and a half of knowledge to a student in one school year, but an ineffective teacher only provides a half-year of knowledge. That means a student with a bad teacher loses out on a full year of knowledge, he said.
All of the speakers at the conference stressed the importance of recruiting and retaining great teachers and school administrators as key to improving the quality of education.
"Let's just start there. We can control that," said Tony Bennett, Florida Commissioner of Education.
Bush thinks that colleges are not providing the right training for teachers because they remain too focused on old methods. New tools like use of the Internet should be incorporated into training, he said.
"I think we should blow up schools of education and start over," Bush said.
"The teaching profession should be a 21st century endeavor," he said.
Bush also said a quality education system will help the Florida economy. He said only 40 percent of students in the state graduate high school with the necessary skills to succeed in college or in a job.
A strong education system will help the state's economy by encouraging more Floridians to stay and create home grown businesses. It also will entice other businesses to locate in Florida, because they will be able to find a quality workforce, Bush said.
Speakers at the conference believe that the community is making the commitment to have a high-quality education system in Jacksonville.
"I think it's real clear we want to be the best large urban school district in the country," said Chartrand.