Duval School Board Chair’s Open Letter To Vitti: 'Children Do Not Have Time To Wait'
Updated at 7 p.m.
Duval County School Board Chair Ashley Smith Juarez sent an open letter to Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, Tuesday.
Board member Scott Shine sent a letter to media Sunday alleging Smith Juarez would call for Vitti’s firing at a special meeting she scheduled for Friday.
Smith Juarez confirmed the request for Vitti’s resignation in her letter released Tuesday.
“With regret that we were at impasse, I, privately, professionally and with no malice, asked that you use your talents elsewhere,” Smith Juarez wrote. “Because, while it was difficult for me to think about losing a friend in reform, I serve and I stand for the success of all children.”
Smith Juarez ended the letter with, “I am open to discussing our path forward, as I always have been, but I will not compromise significant improvement of all students’ achievement.”
Vitti, who said he does not intend to resign, responded to Smith Juarez’s letter in a phone interview Tuesday evening.
He said he believes he and Smith Juarez are both driven by the need to narrow the achievement gap. And, he said, there are signs of improvement.
“The point that that sticks out to me the most is the fact that we have the narrowest gap between white and African American students among the ‘Big 7’ in third to tenth-grade reading, third to eighth-grade math and algebra,” he said.
The Big 7 encompasses the seven Florida school districts similar in size and demographics.
Vitti said he came to Duval as a reformer, which can lead to conflicts and disagreements, but hopes he and the board can continue mediation and get to a better place.
He added he’s not worried about Friday’s meeting because it’s not something he can control.
“I’m at peace with what I have accomplished and I’m peace with what I know I can still accomplish if I’m still allowed to be superintendent,” Vitti said. “That determination is out of my hands.”
This month Smith Juarez had been tough on Vitti during his review and much of her concerns then are repeated in her open letter. She said three years ago the board adopted literacy as a priority and the numbers haven’t improved enough.
“In the 2015-2016 school year, 46% of children in grades 3-10 were proficient in reading, less than half. Only 35% of 3rd grade African American students were proficient; these are students for whom you have been Superintendent since they were in kindergarten,” she wrote in her letter.
She also said Vitti’s projected goals weren’t aggressive enough, a topic the board discussed with him last week.
“In second grade reading, your projected increases would take 140 years to reach 100%, 140 years! 140 years from now, the technology of today will be an ancient relic of the nearly forgotten past,” Smith Juarez wrote.
Smith Juarez has been passionate at meetings about the district's widening achievement gaps between white, black and hispanic students in some academic areas.
“All students deserve a high quality and equitable education; these results do not meet that standard. To accept these results is to accept the racism that has plagued our district for decades; that is unacceptable,” she wrote.
Smith Juarez added: “You have had four years to demonstrate marked acceleration of student achievement, to demonstrate impact to reflect our core belief that all students can achieve at or above grade level. The current results and the future projections do not meet my expectations of a Superintendent. I expect better for the children we serve, especially minority children.”
Read the full letter:
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, We both joined Duval County Public Schools in November of 2012, you as Superintendent and me as a Board Member. We joined an organization committed to student success and we were determined to elevate and accelerate student achievement with bold reforms and measured impact. Our students are the reason we do what we do. The success of Jacksonville’s children is paramount. Our children get on the school bus eager each morning and are one day older each evening; they do not have time to wait. We must honor that in all we do. Three years ago the board adopted literacy as a priority. In the 2015-2016 school year, 46% of children in grades 3-10 were proficient in reading, less than half. Only 35% of 3rd grade African American students were proficient; these are students for whom you have been Superintendent since they were in kindergarten. Third grade is the critical year when children should transition from learning to read to reading to learn, yet less than a third of African American students read at grade level, while 65% of their white peers are proficient. You propose that reading proficiency will grow 2% per year; that rate means all students will be proficient in 27 years. Kindergarten students could complete their k-12 continuum twice in less time. If children never get behind it is easier for them to stay on grade level. In 2015-16, 53% of children demonstrated reading proficiency in k-2. Your projections for growth (+.5% per year) will take 92 years to reach 100%; that is longer than the average lifespan of infants that are born this year. In second grade reading, your projected increases would take 140 years to reach 100%, 140 years! 140 years from now, the technology of today will be an ancient relic of the nearly forgotten past. During your 2014-15 evaluation, the board asked for concentrated focus on secondary math. Districtwide, Algebra I proficiency increased by 6%. But, while white students demonstrated an 8% increase, African American proficiency declined by 1%. The result is a 9 point widening of the achievement gap in just one year. If African American students progress at your proposed rate of growth for all students, it will take 6 years to achieve the proficiency rates their white peers do today. It will take multi-racial students 7 years to make up the one-year 11 point widening of the gap between their white peers. A mere 11% of African American students in 2015-16 demonstrated proficiency on the Algebra II End of Course Exam. That is down from 12% the previous year. In 2015-16, of 29 unique academic areas, achievement gaps widened between white and African American students in 15 areas while achievement gaps narrowed in only 9. Achievement gaps between white and Hispanic students widened in 17 areas, only 7 areas narrowed. Achievement gaps between white and multi-racial students also widened in 17 areas and narrowed in just 8. All students deserve a high quality and equitable education; these results do not meet that standard. To accept these results is to accept the racism that has plagued our district for decades; that is unacceptable. I have mentioned students and student performance quite a bit, so I want to be clear that the demonstrated proficiency of students is a direct result of the systems, curriculum and services that we as adults provide and that you as Superintendent are charged with administratively designing and managing. As you indicated during your recent evaluation, your board has never denied your recommendation for a program, initiative or staff in the area of literacy. I would contend the same is true of math and other academic areas. In our governance role, we have set goals and given you support to achieve them. Duval County Public Schools has to do better and we have to do it much more quickly. We as adults must better serve children. I can handle disrespect and strained relationships. I am grown and I have my education. I cannot tolerate mixed results and low expectations. That affects our students’ future. The success that you promised and that I expected has not been realized. And, the expectations you have for children are not high enough. We have done some good work as a governance team. We will hold fast to those. We have been able to enact reforms that were much needed in the district such as graduation support, Arts education and school reorganizations. But academic results have been mixed and achievement gaps are widening more than they are narrowing. It is clear to me that the Board needs to own our expectations and we need to do what we can to change our results. You have had four years to demonstrate marked acceleration of student achievement, to demonstrate impact to reflect our core belief that all students can achieve at or above grade level. The current results and the future projections do not meet my expectations of a Superintendent. I expect better for the children we serve, especially minority children. You have insisted this is the best you can do. You have brought the same projections to the board twice and you and I have had at least two additional conversations when you defended your low projections. You have not come forward with a plan to accelerate improvement nor have you incorporated the recent suggestions of the board. When we last spoke, you told me, again, that you could do no better for children. With regret that we were at impasse, I, privately, professionally and with no malice, asked that you use your talents elsewhere. Because, while it was difficult for me to think about losing a friend in reform, I serve and I stand for the success of all children. I am open to discussing our path forward, as I always have been, but I will not compromise significant improvement of all students’ achievement. Sincerely, Ashley Smith Juarez, Chairman
Editor's note: This article was updated with a response from Vitti.
Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at@lindskilbride