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Strengthening Middle School Leadership And Instruction Focus Of School Board Workshop

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Duval County has the framework for effective instruction, but it lacks the practice and the support, particularly in its highest need schools. That’s according to the results of a seven-month audit of the district.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti presented the findings before members of the Duval County School Board Tuesday as part of a larger discussion on middle school reform.

The study was conducted from January to June by New York-based non-profit The New Teacher Project as part of a Quality Education for All initiative and examined the district’s human resource policies regarding leadership, training, instruction, support and retention.

“I think when you talk about retention of teachers, retention of parents, it’s all about culture,” Vitti said. “How are middle school principals using evaluation data and survey data to reflect on what’s working, what’s not  and are they going to create environments where teachers feel empowered and supported?”

Among the data compiled in the 56-page report (below), TNTP found:

  • The district has put a strong infrastructure for effective instruction in place--an important component of transitioning to the new Florida standards, which will be assessed next year.
  • However, in classroom observation of 152 teachers, there was limited evidence of the shifts in instruction needed for students to meet the new Florida standards.
  • Nearly 75 percent of classroom assignments showed weak or no alignment to the new standards.
  • Duval’s most high-need schools are disproportionately disadvantaged by ineffective recruitment, selection and staffing.
  • Duval has had success in retaining effective teachers at a greater rate than ineffective teachers, but still has a high percentage of low-performing teachers in its schools.
  • The district routinely loses effective teachers during the surplus process and places teachers in schools where they haven’t been interviewed by the principal.
  • About 23 percent of the district’s most effective teachers say they plan to leave this year or next; and cited workload, dissatisfaction with leadership and discretion with curricular decision-making as the top reasons.

“I think it highlights a couple of areas that we certainly need to focus on next year, which is creating the right kind of culture at each of our schools where the principal takes ownership in developing the culture, where teacher voice is heard,” Vitti said.

He said the study also highlighted the need to have higher expectations for grade-level work. That rings especially true in middle school where the district faces its biggest challenges in student performance and enrollment.

“Strictly looking at middle school, you can see historically, we have and remain toward the bottom of the big seven when it comes to reading,” Vitti said during his presentation.

Last week, the Florida Department of Education released this year’s FCAT results in fourth through 10th grade reading; fourth through eighth grade math; and fifth and eighth grade science. While the district showed modest gains in science as well as sixth and eighth grade reading, middle-schoolers in the district at grade-level fell significantly short of statewide averages; and ranked at or near the bottom among the state’s seven largest urban districts.

Likewise, middle school enrollment in the district has been on the decline, dropping from more than 25,000 students to about 19,000 over the last 10 years. Currently, about 75 percent of sixth-graders continue on in the district after completing fifth grade, according to Vitti.

The district has recently approved a series of changes aimed at improving leadership and performance at the area’s most challenged schools; and there are even more changes to come, from new marketing strategies to evidence-based discipline plans.

Monday night, the board approved more than 30 principal changes in the district. Board members also approved the fall opening of the district’s first gender-based public school. The all-male and all-female academies will open in Eugene Butler Middle School. The troubled middle school has had a history of falling school grades and enrollment over the last few years.

The new school will now hold single-gender core classes with an emphasis on leadership and technology as well as a mentor pool of local fraternity and sorority members. Students will be required to wear preparatory-style uniforms.

Additionally, Monday the board approved the conversion of Joseph Stilwell Middle School to the district’s first military-focused academy; and the conversion of two elementary schools: Rutledge Pearson and Pickett, which will open as kindergarten through sixth-grade schools this fall.

Initially, Vitti proposed a plan to convert Pinedale and North Shore into kindergarten through sixth-grade schools as well.

“We just looked at the different programs at those schools, the comfort level, the principal and we felt that two were enough for the pilot,” he said.

The district may expand Pinedale and North Shore next year after reviewing Pearson and Pickett’s 2014-15 performance data to see if the new program is effective.

Meanwhile, school board member Paula Wright said Tuesday she would like a chance to revisit some of the other programs the board has approved. At the time the decisions were made, she was not aware that positions in the district might have to be cut, she said.

“We voted for 13 or 14 items before we really got into the budget, and I would not have done some of those things had I known we would be here,” she said, referring to the recent decision to reduce security staffing.
Recently, the board agreed to cut the district's 239 security guards by 65.

Wright cited the board’s approval to open GRASP Academy for 225 dyslexic students at R.L. Brown and the three-year Teach For America contract to hire at 300 more TFA members over the next three years.

“I think it’s grossly unfair that if we’re going to be reducing all the other items that we’re reducing and leave these items over here,” she said.

However, Vitti said both GRASP Academy and TFA are largely funded through money outside of the district. GRASP is funded through federal money. The TFA contract is funded through federal and private money, however, the district is still responsible for paying $600,000 out of its general fund.

Wright and School Board Chairwoman Becki Couch also questioned whether TFA recruits would get priority in placement over surplus teachers, who have been removed from their positions due to budget restraints. Vitti said surplus teachers would receive priority.

“We place surplus first and then we look to any new hires and TFA are considered new hires,” Vitti said.

Just how many teachers face that prospect has yet to be released. Vitti said Tuesday he did not expect the list to be complete until next month.

The TNTP study finds that about 63 percent of principals reported losing teachers they wanted to keep due to the surplus process over the past three years.  Another 79 percent said they have ended up with a teacher on their campus that they were never able to interview.

Vitti said the focus for next year will be increasing the comfort rate among teachers district-wide through activities like common planning, classroom visits and positive feedback.

"It's interesting because I think the schools that are moving in the right direction academically are also the schools that have higher comfort rates from teachers as far as the instructional culture in schools," he said.
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

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