Duval County Public Schools ranks low among Florida's "big seven" systems and needs improvement, according to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.
"For the most part, we are at the bottom of the 'big seven'," Vitti told the Kiwanis Club of Jacksonville on Monday.
In his first two months on the job, Vitti has made many community presentations to introduce himself, listen and present his early plan on how to turn the system he describes as "good" to "great" and improve its ranking among its peer systems.
"I see our district as a good, average district right now," he said.
He referenced improved grade letters of schools as positives, but said graduation rates and reading, math, science and writing levels are all below other Florida districts and need to be improved.
Vitti said when it comes to the school system, people in Jacksonville "should stop comparing ourselves to ourselves" and instead compare Duval County's performance to the larger systems in the state.
Including Duval County, the "big seven" are Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Orange and Pinellas counties.
Vitti began as superintendent Nov. 12 and previously served as the chief academic officer with Miami-Dade Public Schools.
He said he is working with the Duval County School Board on a strategic plan with four main points of emphasis.
• Finding great leaders and teachers. "Our greatest vulnerability is our weakest link," he said. Asked about finding the right people and training them to reach their potential, Vitti said transition at the district level has made it "impossible to create sustainability."
In the current structure with testing, he said principals who have achieved tend to want immediate promotions to the district level. He said he wanted to create a culture where principals are "captains of the community" and remain in place for years, with better compensation.
Principals who remain could also become mentors and "training the next generation of what a great principal looks like."
He said he expects the district's chief officers who oversee the system's clusters — schools grouped by grade level — to be eliminated and many proved principals at the district level to return to schools.
He also said bureaucracy and micromanaging of principals will be reduced, but accountability — and results — will increase.
• Making sure there is an equitable and efficient use of resources, which includes eliminating duplicative roles and streamlining some functions.
• Finding ways to better engage parents. "I've never met a parent who doesn't want their child to do well," Vitti said. He said some parents don't know the facts or how to navigate the system, which a Parent Academy would help. The academy would not be based in one location. "That's not working," he said. Instead, he said the district would meet parents halfway by setting up the academy at places within the community to provide those foundational skills.
• Development of the whole child. He said he believed in FCAT testing, but "the pendulum has swung too far," in terms of teaching to the test. He said children need problem-solving and analytical skills in addition to music and art and civic awareness, all of which will continued to be offered.
Vitti said he already has filled five cabinet positions with "outsiders," or those who were not products of the Duval County school system, and instead were successful in other parts of the state. He said he will continue to evaluate the best talent inside and outside the system and put people in positions to succeed.
"I don't think the system improves unless you put the right people on the bus," he said.