Duval Schools Competing For $3M Grant To Expand Charter School

Oct 31, 2014

Duval County Public Schools is among four Florida districts vying for a multi-million dollar charter school partnership grant from the Florida Department of Education.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti
Credit Duval County Public Schools

The district applied for a $3.3 million cut of the award earlier this month. It seeks to partner with “highly effective charter schools in low income areas," the application states.  

According to the state department of education, the grant is the first of its kind in Florida.

Duval Schools plans to use the grant to work specifically with KIPP Jacksonville Inc. on improving access to quality education to low incomes students, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. KIPP currently operates two schools in the district’s Westside and applied to open a third school next year.

“The reality is that KIPP has done fairly well with students at the middle school level, where we have struggled at scale and so this was an opportunity to use the grant in a mutually beneficial way to address challenges that both the district and KIPP are facing,” he said.

Vitti said he wants to use the money toward three specific areas: creating a stronger teacher talent pipeline through a university partnership; enhancing lessons that integrate computer-based learning; and creating a new district-level position dedicated to overseeing charter schools.   

“We now have over 30 charter schools in Duval County, so we’re hoping to use this position for a single point of contact,” Vitti said.

The district submitted its application on Oct.17, along with Broward, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties.

The application is a departure from recent conversations among Vitti and Duval County School Board members, when multiple concerns over the negative financial and academic impact of several charter schools were raised.

Last week, school board members mulled over eight new charter school applications--six of which, the district disapproved--and the School Improvement Plans for eight other failing charter schools. Both the applications and the plans will go before the board for a vote Tuesday.

Another new charter is facing closure next month after failing to satisfy several enrollment and personnel requirements. Scholar Preparatory Academy received a 90-day termination notice from the district in August. It has since appealed for a hearing on the matter.

Vitti has previously cited that the loss of enrollment in traditional public schools due to charter school expansion amounted to about $50 million in taxpayer dollars last year.

He said he’s received criticism for latest grant application to expand ties with KIPP. To some, it seems counterintuitive.

“I am sensitive to that critique, but at the end of the day, I think we have to be honest and realistic,” he said. “If we say we’re child-centric… then we can’t deny the fact that KIPP has not only been successful in Jacksonville and even more successful than traditional middle schools, but we also have to accept the fact that more parents want to go to KIPP schools.”

Since opening in 2010, KIPP Impact Middle School has received an F in 2011, a B in 2012, and a C in 2013. This year, the school received another B. School grades for KIPP Voice, which opened in 2012, are not yet available. According to the state department of education, it must have two years-worth of testing data in order to generate a school grade.

An application for the opening of KIPP Academy K-8 in 2015-16 will go before the board Tuesday.

“KIPP is here to stay, and the KIPP expansion will occur with or without the grant,” Vitti said. “If there’s an opportunity to write a grant that benefits KIPP but also the school district, then I think it would be rather foolish financially to walk away from that.”

Vitti said the district also did not commit to sharing public school facilities with KIPP or promise to lend an empty building.  Such promises can sometimes be indicative of future public school closures.

“I often hear that the theory of action is to have more charter schools,” he said. “That’s actually not the theory of action at all.”

Over the last month, the district has received  more than $6 million in other grants toward efforts to improve education, discipline and leadership, particularly within its middle schools and 37 low-performing schools in the Urban Core.

A spokeswoman for the state department said officials hope to announce grant recipients by December, but that is tentative. The grant can be awarded to as many as three districts and selection is based on how the proposals score on a 100-point scale.  

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.