Duval County schools officials have until Friday to make decisions about the future three of the district’s most at-risk schools - Lake Forest Elementary, Matthew Gilbert Middle and Northwestern Middle — should any of the schools fail to earn a C grade on state report cards this summer.
Duval must choose now from among four options for those schools if they get graded a D or F. The district could close them, turn them over to an outside operator, turn them over to a charter school or convert them into a “district-run” charter school.
These schools, which serve 1,324 students, have only the coming testing season to save themselves, because they each in the past several years or more failed to make a C grade and because House Bill 7069, which became law in July, shortened the time they have to turn around performance.
Interim Superintendent Patricia Willis told the NAACP’s education committee that the district is taking extra steps to improve the schools, and they all have a chance to remain open as they are. But more help from community partners and from parents is needed to keep up momentum.
“We are trying to ensure that those schools have full support, so that they won’t have to face the consequences of not making a C,” Willis said.
She said she fears that just submitting the plans may touch off school-wide panic or despair in staff and students, with testing season several months away.
“We’d have to work on their culture and climate so they don’t feel defeated,” she said. “Everyone is working hard in those schools.”
Yet she is being realistic with school administrators about what’s at stake, she said.
“I told the principals today that if those schools don’t make a C, they won’t have a school. We’d have to make a decision about their roles,” she said.
Hank O. Rogers, a former school board candidate and long-term education advocate, said he is worried about too much pressure on students at those schools. Last year before the state tests, Gilbert Middle students told him they didn’t want to disappoint their teachers and school on exam day.
“Once this story hits, our students are going to go into a frenzy; our community is going to go into a frenzy,” he said.
Yet there is reason for feeling encouragement, because last year each school missed earning C last year by only a few points, said William Mason Davis, chief of academic services.
“They are all within striking distance of making a C,” he said, adding that Northwest Middle was four points away, Gilbert was 13 points and Lake Forest was 31 points away.
“The community can help us keep everyone on-task and calm,” Davis said.
Getting a C this year is do-able, Willis agreed.
The schools are using reading coaches to help teachers and reading interventionists to help students. Willis said she is trying to put more textbooks and other reading materials into elementary students’ hands, since recent research shows that books improve reading comprehension better than computer screens.
For the middle schools Willis mentioned getting tutorial reading programs to help students.
There still are major questions about the possible takeovers, if Duval considers those options rather than school closure. For instance, Willis said, the state hasn’t indicated which outside operators are approved for running public schools, she said, and it’s unclear what charter school operators the district would have to choose from.
No matter what option is chosen, teachers and principals’ retirement funding and livelihoods could be affected, she added.'