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With Millions In Grant Money On The Way, Some Schools Feel Overlooked

Duval County Public Schools

Next month, more than $6 million in grants will go before the Duval County Public School Board for approval, and about $3.8 million will go towards support services for 37 struggling schools in Duval’s Urban Core.

But some parents and school staff  worry that schools that fall outside the so-called "transformation region" are being overlooked.

Those fears, along with growing angst over the high-stakes of the new Florida Standards Assessment, came to a head Monday night at Beauclerc Elementary School.

In a meeting in the school’s library, parents, faculty members and school advisory council members aired their frustrations to Duval County Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

But the media wasn't allowed in on the discussion. District officials cited an exemption from Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which states that school advisory council members and faculty can hold closed meetings “as long as they refrain from discussing matters that may come before the council for consideration. “

Tuesday, Vitti said the media was kept out so that those in attendance could feel more comfortable speaking openly about their concerns.

He called the situation at the school  “a perfect storm.”

“I think that that school was dealing with many of the issues that all schools are dealing with, the new standards, the new assessments, changes in that stress anxiety was already there,” he said.

Added to that, the school has seen three principals in three years, a four-year decline from an A to a C-grade and a recent string of teacher vacancies. About two weeks ago, the school’s only guidance counselor also resigned. She’s since been replaced, Vitti said.

Vitti said the school’s Spanish-English dual-language program can create the feeling that their are two separate schools in the building which adds to the tension over resources and support. 

“It’s created legitimate concerns among parents that are very active in their children’s education,” Vitti said.

'Under the radar'

Similar concerns were raised by Crown Point Elementary School guidance counselor Lou Nussbaum at a recent school board meeting where he noted the lack of a reading interventionists at the school. Earlier this year, Vitti said he planned to place a full-time or part-time interventionist at each school, but Nussbaum said that has yet to happen at Crown Point.

The former A-school received a C for the first time since 1999.

In Spring, about 70 staff members at the school of about 1,060 students signed a letter to Vitti requesting an additional guidance counselor. 

“Close to 60 percent of our students are on free and reduced lunch and their families are struggling to make ends meet…It is unfair that our students (especially those in crisis) do not have the same access to a counselor as those students at the vast majority of elementary schools in Duval County,” the letter reads.

Many of the district's other elementary schools have around 800 students.

At Beauclerc,  where about 1070 students attend, more than half are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Neither Beauclerc  nor Crown Point meet the threshold for receiving Title I funding.

In an emailed response to Nussbaum following this month's school board meeting, Vitti said the board will explore adding another guidance counselor.

“During the 2015-16 budget process, we(board and superintendent) will review the possibility of providing additional guidance support for large elementary schools,” the email states.

Vitti also stated that the district would provide the school with $15,000 for an itinerant reading interventionist. However, he also said all guidance counselors are still expected to implement a full guidance program for all students by which they would be evaluated. 

During Tuesday’s workshop, Chairwoman Becki Couch said she worried the district was focusing too little on the needs of schools like Beauclerc and Crown Point, which fall outside the Urban Core.  

“We have quiet parts of our city that go under the radar,” she said.

Limited Resources

Three of the five grants up for approval, which roughly amount to $2.1 million, will go toward mental health support, leadership development and education programs that span across the district. Two  of the grants—the $3.7 million STRIVE Grant which focuses on school-wide discipline and the $100,000 Duval “Now Is The Time” Project Aware program which goes toward mental health training--will target the 37 schools.

That's in addition to nearly $40 million in private funds which will also go toward several efforts in the transformation region schools.

While most of the grants come with specific targets attached, Vitti said the district needs to rethink the way it allocates its own funds.

“We’re going to have to focus more on resources at the school level and possibly, reductions at the district level,” he said.

Vitti said he plans to bring up the prospect of more guidance counselors and other additional support at larger schools throughout the district at the next school board workshop Thursday.

“You now have pockets of students that are growing up in poverty and pockets of students that are at-risk academically and behaviorally, spread out throughout the entire district, so it’s not just the Urban Core and so my challenge is as the district becomes more diverse and challenged, how do maximize the limited resources that we have,” he said.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.