Vitti will close gap between Duval, St. Johns counties

From the publisher, James F. Bailey Jr.

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  • | 12:00 p.m. May 16, 2013
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In a previous column, I wrote that St. Johns County has been outdistancing Duval County in almost every economic category — especially real estate sales — in large part because of its high-achieving public school system.

Well, there's a new momentum surge happening in Duval County as a result of the aggressive leadership of Nikolai Vitti, the new Duval County Public Schools superintendent. You can sense a newfound optimism for the future.

Vitti provides those in Duval County many reasons to think Duval County might be catching up sooner rather than later.

The recent announcement of a privately funded $50 million initiative to improve public education in Jacksonville is just one indication there is recognition of the relationship between quality schools and economic growth.

It's also a huge expression of confidence in the leadership and direction Vitti provides. And, why not?

Right now, it looks like Vitti has public education in Jacksonville by the reins and will not release them until it's fixed.

Since taking over the helm six months ago, Vitti has rewritten the playbook.

Vitti not only has shown he's the person in charge, but he's proved to be open and accessible.

He has engaged the community in his vision and he's clearly placed improving the quality of Duval County schools in the community's headlights.

His road map, the strategic plan, received unanimous support from school board members.

His early action to reduce the amount of classroom testing was probably the first signal to parents and teachers that it might not be business as usual moving forward.

"We're creating test takers," Vitti said. His goal is to produce students who can think, write, debate and problem solve.

Vitti has made it clear that if we expect positive outcomes in the classroom, we must recruit and retain talented teachers. He's quickly acted to reduce head count and salaries in the district headquarters so he can boost talent levels in the teaching ranks.

He has presented a plan to the school board to spend $55 million of a $103 million surplus to add 1,251 employees in the schools, including new music, art and career technical teachers.

He also has signaled that our classrooms are technologically insufficient and intends to reduce administrative spending to put more money into technology. Vitti says he believes if a child arrives to the first grade and can't operate an iPad, the child already will be behind.

When local philanthropist Gary Chartrand confirmed his group already has collected $25 million of a planned $50 million campaign to boost public education in Jacksonville, it was a huge signal that Vitti's team includes some important heavyweights.

The money being raised is specifically targeted to places where Vitti wants to excel, including hiring 250 science, technology, engineering and math graduates as teachers.

To me, that says we will be hiring subject-matter specialists and training them to teach our children in the classroom, instead of hiring certified teachers, hoping they know the subject matter.

Some of the money will be used to reward high-performing teachers and send 19 outstanding teachers to Columbia University for leadership grooming.

And something that should not be overlooked is that funds will be provided to support about 500 Teach for America instructors.

Teach for America is a national nonprofit that recruits high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach for at least two years in low-income communities.

By partnering with the organization, Vitti will be able to boost educational equity in some of our lowest achieving schools.

Chartrand nailed it when he said, "It's about Jacksonville's future. It's about our employment rate. It's about reducing crime. It's about a living wage."

If we significantly raise the quality of classroom education in Jacksonville, it will drive economic growth and help provide economic opportunity for thousands of our citizens.

If Chartrand and his group succeed, former Gov. Jeb Bush predicted Jacksonville will have more homegrown businesses and more people employed in the next five years.

For our industries, it will mean more people building and buying homes.

Interestingly, Vitti recognizes that as he changes education in Duval County, he also needs to change the perceptions of our schools. We need to tell a better story to the world.

To do that, Vitti plans to develop a marketing department and a marketing strategy.

Of course, we often say that a key missing ingredient in education is the parent. Schools and children both suffer when parents aren't engaged.

Vitti has a plan for that, too.

He says many parents don't become involved because they don't know how to navigate the system. So he wants to create the Parent Academy throughout Duval County, including places like churches and hospitals.

"We're going to go where parents are to build their capacity to advocate for their children," he said.

There's so much to be done. There's a lot being done. And, there is much more to come.

Move over St. Johns County.

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(904) 356-2466

— Jim Bailey is publisher of Realty/Builder Connection and president of Bailey Publishing & Communications Inc. He can be reached at [email protected]