UPDATED: Performing Arts, Military Academies Among 6 Duval School Changes

Feb 3, 2016

Fort Caroline Middle will become a dedicated IB and visual performing arts academy.
Credit Duval Schools

Updated Wed. 2/04 at 10 p.m.:

Six Duval County Schools will become more specialized in the fall.

The School Board approved new programs and four school-zone boundary changes Tuesday evening that will take effect during the 2016-17 school year.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti believes new school options will address problems with low performance and under-enrollment.

“The reality is in many schools we have more children leaving those neighborhood schools than attending,” Vitti says. “That tells us something is wrong. In many of those schools we have historical low performance. We have a continuation of ‘D’ and ‘F’ schools. That has to change.”

The Jacksonville Public Education Fund Board also backs this slate of changes.

Vitti says the district is proactively changing schools before the state mandates the transformation. State statute requires schools earning two F’s or three D’s to submit a “turnaround” plan for the school.

But others were convinced boundary and program changes weren’t the answer. Education blogger Chris Guerrieri says the district should restore confidence in neighborhood schools by focusing on school safety and better curriculums.

“It seems like neighborhood schools are now being punished because programs the district created are siphoning away students,” he said. “It seems like for some of our schools the solution for kids’ leaving for magnets is to create even more magnets.”

Before Tuesday’s meeting, working groups made up of community members and parents tweaked plans submitted by Superintendent Vitti. Vitti accepted all working group recommendations. The changes include:

Edward H. White High School

The board voted unanimously for Ed White High School — with no boundary change — to become a grade 9-12 military leadership magnet.

The school is at a 79 percent utilization rate. It has the capacity for 2,190 students, but of the 2,885 students who live in the attendance area, half are opting for charter schools.

The data show Ed White ranks low and is stagnant in its graduation rate, as other schools in the district improve.

A community meeting was held in January to engage the community and present this data.

Samuel W. Wolfson High School

The board voted unanimously for Wolfson High School to become a dedicated advanced international studies and leadership academy with a boundary change.

Wolfson is at a 64 percent utilization rate. Board member Cheryl Grymes said transforming the school would allow the district to recapture those opting for other schools.  

“There are 1,200 students that live in the attendance zone at Wolfson who are not attending Wolfson,” she said. “I think that’s really significant.”

On Tuesday, members of the public voiced both support and opposition for the change. Many parents, including Alan Ridge, remember a time when Wolfson was different.

“When I was growing up, most kids in the Lakewood, San Marco area, everybody went to Wolfson and there was great school pride,” he said. “I remember you would walk into any restaurant in the Southside area, and there were Wolfson jerseys on the wall. That pride is gone.”

He says the program change could help restore it.

A community meeting was held in January to engage the community, and this data was presented.

Oak Hill Elementary School  

The board voted unanimously for Oak Hill Elementary to become an autistic center with a boundary change.  

Oak Hill is an “F” school built to serve 758 students, but only around 545 attend.

Vitti says Duval needs an autistic center because the district offers autistic education only in units at other schools. He says the dedicated autistic center will provide better services and could also draw autistic students away from private schools.

But special-education teacher and mother to a child with autism Melissa Lenertz urged the board to vote against the center because isolating children with autism isn’t to their benefit.

“If you have a parent who is already desperate for services for their child with autism, and you dangle all of these things in front of them, promising that you’re going to provide them with ABA [applied behavior analysis for behavior management] and increased services, those parents are going to send their children there,” she said.

She supports keeping those services in existing autism units.

“On the playground, during recess, to teach a child that doesn't know how to talk, let them have social skills and play skills with another child that already has those skills,” she says.

A community meeting was held in January to engage the community and this data was presented.

Fort Caroline Middle School

The Board voted 4-to-3 to convert Fort Caroline Middle School into a dedicated International Baccalaureate and visual performing arts academy with a boundary change.

Fort Caroline is at a 49 percent utilization rate. Superintendent Vitti originally proposed it to become young men’s academy, but the working group charged with this school recommended arts instead.

Board members Connie Hall, Paula Wright and Becki Couch voted against the switch after asking about the financial impacts of the switch. Retrofitting the school for the arts carries a $5 million price tag.

The district is applying for a Magnet Schools of America Grant, but it isn’t secured. Wright said she wasn’t comfortable with that, especially when working groups are considering more changes.

“So I’m just concerned that we’re making some decisions that may put us in a position that we’re not able to provide other needed services to other schools because we’re not looking at the total picture,” she said.

But Vitti says that risk is worth it.

“I think it’s a matter of priority,” he said. “The budget process is prioritizing what you believe we should do as a district. I think if we agree that Fort Caroline deserves a conversion, and we’re not successful with the magnet grant, then that would obviously be a cost that we have to prioritize.”

A community meeting was held in January to engage the community and this data was presented.

Hyde Grove Elementary and Hyde Park Elementary

The Board voted 5-to-2 to convert Hyde Grove Elementary into a pre-k-through-second-grade school and Hyde Park Elementary into one for third-through-sixth grade with a boundary change.

The schools have 60 percent and 69 percent utilization rates. Both schools have received grades of “D” or “F” in the last two years.

Vitti says splitting the schools will allow a focus on early learning at Hyde Grove and allow the older kids at Hyde Park to overcome the academic challenges of low performance.

Board members Becki Couch and Paula Wright voted against the split.

Hyde Park is in Becki Couch’s district. At the meeting, she asked the Board to consider pushing the changes back a year to 2017-18. She says after no parents took part in the working group meeting for the switch and only 20 showed up to the schools’ community meeting, she needs more time to engage the community.

“There is a major problem with parent participation, I would say, in both schools,” she said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to recognize that and go the extra step.”

Couch says she doesn’t think the proposal is a bad idea, but an extra transition year would have been appreciated. The board voted down Couch’s amendment to take more time.

A community meeting was held in January to engage the community, and this data was presented.

The original story is below:

The superintendent is still waiting on recommendations from six community working groups considering more school changes. 

Six Duval County schools will become more specialized in the fall. The School Board approved the school conversions and four school-zone boundary changes Tuesday night.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti believes new school options will address problems with low performance and under-enrollment.

The board voted unanimously for Oak Hill Elementary to become an autistic center, Wolfson a dedicated international studies and leadership academy, and Ed White High School — with no boundary change — to become a military leadership magnet.

The Board voted 4-to-3 to convert Fort Caroline Middle School into a dedicated IB and visual performing arts academy.

Board member Paula Wright voted against the switch, which carries a $5 million price tag.

“I’m just concerned that we’re making some decisions that may put us in a position that we’re not able to provide other needed services to other schools because we’re not looking at the total picture,” she said.

Vitti says he’s hoping the district will receive a magnet grant.

Also Tuesday night, the Board voted 5-to-2 to convert Hyde Grove Elementary into a pre-k-through-second-grade school and Hyde Park Elementary into one for third-through-sixth graders.

The superintendent is still waiting on recommendations from six community working groups considering more school changes.  

This story will be updated.