Darryl Willie, a former teacher and now the Executive Director of Teach for America Jacksonville, was recently elected to the school board Duval County’s 4th District, which covers parts of Jacksonville’s Northside and Eastside.
He beat Cynthia Smith to replace school board chair Paula Wright, who was termed-out.
In the second of a three-part series with the new school board members, Willie sat down with WJCT News to discuss his new job.
Here is a condensed version of the interview.
What would you say are your three most important priorities?
“When I think about priorities, first I’ll back and say that our job is really to make sure the superintendent is living into her vision for the school district. And we have to be able to support that. And when I think about that, I am thinking about a couple of things right now.
Number one is safety. It’s top of mind for everybody. When I think about my three daughters and when I send them them - they’re not in school yet - I want to make sure they go to school and come home and they’re safe. So that’s number one. And that’s from a physical standpoint, making sure the barriers of entry and things like that. But also from a mental space. Mentally safe, too, like making sure our kids see a lot from every walk of life, through media and their neighborhoods. So, we gotta make sure we have people in place that can help them talk about those things and empty their containers, so to speak.
Two, we have to get our monies… money is everything like if we don’t have money we can’t do the things we need to do within our district, so it’s a big priority of mine. And I know [it is for] our superintendent and our whole board. Looking at money from a couple of different angles: number one, are we being fiscally responsible with the money we have, locally? And I believe we are. We’ll do full audits and we’ll make sure people are in place. But two, making sure we’re bringing in additional valor, so working with [the] Duval delegation, who goes up to Tallahassee every year to ensure they are taking our agenda forward and making sure they’ll pull as much money down to Duval County as possible, so we can continue to do the great work. So we can get to that A district that we want to be, but also we can pay our teachers a fair wage. And so we we can pull in additional resources. Then we gotta work with our public-private partnerships is another key of mine when it comes to the money piece. We have so many businesses and people who are willing and ready to sort of assist and lock arms and move forward as a district. And now we have an amazing opportunity. A new board, a new superintendent, and we’re so close to being where we want to be.
Last is I think in my district, one of my big priorities is how do we increase or figure out what we do to utilize our schools in the most appropriate way. We have schools that are aging, we have schools that are somewhat under enrolled. That combination can be dangerous. So what we have to figure out is how do we turn that around. So we gotta market our schools. We have some amazing magnet programs, for example, in Ribault and Jackson, that if we market them the right way we can pull in some students and really increase that enrollment. And I have some creative ideas about how we utilize our schools, like we have early childhood centers that can be housed in our elementary schools. We can use schools at night for GED programs and other things. So I think we have to be creative and figure out how our schools can serve as community hubs. And I think if we do that we’ll be in a different place.
So safety, budget, and then school utilization are the three keys I’ll be pushing for, moving forward.”
How will the work you’ve been doing, prior being elected to the school board, inform the ways you serve on the board?
At the end of the day, my experiences will be the thing that will allow me to be a dynamic board member on this board. I taught in the classroom for a while. I taught at the college level for a while. So I understand both K-12 education and higher education. So when you think of that access to that. And, I run an education nonprofit in town called Teach for America. So with that program I work in and around the schools all the time. I recruit teachers from various parts of our state and various parts of our country. So when it comes to retaining and understanding what our district employees and staff go through, I’ve seen it. I’ve been a teacher before. I’ve been in that seat where I help students gain access and higher education. I recruit teachers, so all those perspectives come to play when I am at that board table.
I’ve noticed people have many different opinions on Teach for America? What’s your stance?
I am a little biased because I came through the program, but I think at this point in time, especially within our district, we have to utilize all the resources we can to put quality people in front our kids. And I think Teach for America can do that.
We’re in an interesting spot because [of] the budget and other situations… But we have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) that says ‘hey we want Teach for America teachers to be in our schools.’ Our principals are hiring Teach for America teachers, so half of our teachers that we brought in this year are in our Duval County Public Schools. So, I think we have to revisit it. I think we have to revisit every single option that this is going to put a quality person in front of our kids, cause right now we’re dealing with a lot of vacancies. We have to figure out how do we put more teachers in the classroom because know we’re dealing with long term subs and vacancies and that’s just not what I want as a parent. And I am sure a long term sub is not what anyone would want in their kid’s classroom.
What do you think about the criticism that Teach for America teachers are only here for a few years and resources are better spent on supporting teachers who will be in Duval County in the long term?
I think what we found now is that retention is a big deal. Not just with Teach for America teachers, but across the board. We’re find that our retention is actually pretty high. We have folks stay 60, 70 percent into their third year and beyond. And you find, if you get another teacher, you’re getting the same sort of path and same sort of retention. What I think we have to do is - and I tell this to people all the time - this not just a teach for America issue, it’s a larger school issue that we have to combat. You have millenials who are coming into the profession. Many of them are not staying in any career longer than two or three years before they’re jumping and bouncing around. So we have to figure out how do we accelerate their development and how do we entice them to stay in the profession. Maybe that means giving them other leadership opportunities. Maybe that means providing them opportunities to develop themselves in different areas.
That’s what we’re trying to do as an organization and really trying to push the district to do. And I think there are folks in the district thinking heavily about it because in the next two to three, five years, you’re going to see a huge gap.You have a bunch of folks who are getting ready to retire then you have a bunch of younger folks who could be coming in and we have to figure out how we’re going to train, develop, and retain these individuals.
What do you see as the Duval County Public Schools’ strengths?
I would say the strength is you have such a diverse district. It has so much history. So if you go to the district, there’s probably someone who has tried that before. So when you think about potholes you could potentially step in, or hurdle you could potential leap over, someone's probably tried it before. What we have to do though is get those people into a room and figure out how we come up with a plan, so we don’t have to step in some of those potholes and hurdles. So I think our strength is our experience. Our strength is we have such a diverse array of schools and more than likely if you have an idea, one of the schools around this county has done it before. So I think that’s an advantage. Another strength is we have a lot of connections across the state. We are a large district, who can really collaborate with different counties across the state to see how it can be done, too. And I think we’re leading the way.
What would you say as the weaknesses?
I would say our weaknesses are our diversity and the array of different neighborhoods. You have folks who are at the Beaches, you have folks who are up in the Northside. Those are very different populations, in some regards. Socioeconomics, I mean you talk about it - the continuum - the span of folks from affluence to being low income is huge. And to think that you’re going to give those types of neighborhoods or those students the same is not likely. So, what one neighborhood needs may be different than the other neighborhood. So in many districts that may not be this size, you can have a blanket, one size fits all mentality, but here you really have to piece and pocket and put things together. Differentiation is the key. You gotta differentiate based on geography, based socio economics, based on race, even. We have to figure out how to put culturally relevant texts and materials and content in front of our students.
What do you think about charter schools?
For charter schools, for me, it’s about making sure kids are in the right environment. And I think parents are probably the best person, or people, to choose that for their kids. So I am not against charter schools. I think charter schools have their place and they’re not going anywhere in Florida. But as for as my district goes, like there’s not a bunch of charters in District 4. So when people ask me about charter schools, especially within District 4, I think charter schools have their place, I think that’s a great option for parents. In District 4 we have to figure out how do we fund traditional publics at their highest possible rate. That is the ultimate goal. At the end of the day, if there aren’t charter options within District 4 and children are going to traditional publics - we gotta make sure we’re boosting those. I think what we have right now is this battle between charter schools and traditional publics. But charter schools are public schools. And charter schools are getting money and public dollars, so we have to make sure we’re holding all of those schools accountable.
Why is this work so important to you? Why are you on the school board?
I tell people all the time it’s personal and professional. I’ve been doing it for 15 years. I taught in the classroom, taught at the college level. I run an education nonprofit. So I’ve seen so much and I am a military kid. So I’ve seen so many different communities and so many different types of schools. So that perspective puts me in a powerful place. I‘ve seen a lot and I want to be able to push that into something.
And personally, I have three daughters and I think about them every single day like when I wake up. When I think about them, I really think about what they’re going to be when they grow up and I think a lot of parents think about that. And i think about what can I do to help them be whatever they want to be. And I think public education is that thing. Education is that thing. I know it because it’s gotten me to where I am. So if I can do something for kids, for families, for communities that helps them to open doors and break the cycle of poverty for some of them, then I’ll be a happy person.