Duval Board deems Vitti "effective" but disagrees about academic progress

Steven Dial reports. 9/8/2016

The Duval School Board gave Superintendent Nikolai Vitti an “effective” rating during his annual performance evaluation Thursday, but some members also leveled tough criticism about his slow progress at closing academic gaps among minority students and those with disabilities.

During the sometimes tense meeting, Board Chairman Ashley Smith Juarez asked Vitti to look at her while she spoke with him.

“This is not the progress we were expecting and this is not what we asked for when we said yes to your initiatives, recommendations and plans,” she said. “We have got to get better; we’ve got to do something differently and we’ve got to do it quickly.”

Vitti said district leaders should discuss creating targets specifically for measuring achievement gaps. He said he has worked on strategies to make sure fewer students are harmed by that gap.

FLORIDA TIMES-UNION | Duval Board deems Vitti "effective" but disagrees about academic progress

“When we talk about the achievement gap, it should not be a battle over who cares more,” he said. “It should be a conversation about what’s broken and how can we fix it.”

Vitti said he felt uncomfortable with Smith Juarez’ “alarming tone.”

Smith Juarez said she took the tone because Vitti had been snickering and shaking his head during the feedback session, which is why she asked for eye contact.

Overall, Vitti received 38.5 points out of a possible 60 on the written evaluation.

The evaluation gives Vitti a score of 1 to 4 points on each of 15 measures or categories, everything from “managing district resources” to “using student achievement data for ...planning.”

The points on each Board member’s evaluation sheet were totaled and then averaged.

A range of 46 to 60 points means highly effective, while 31 to 45 points means effective and 16 to 30 points means needs improvement. A total of 15 or below means unsatisfactory.

Vitti received high points – 3 out of 4 points – for managing district resources, adding arts and other extras to the school day and for leveraging community support for the schools.

Two school board members, Cheryl Grymes and Paula Wright, commended Vitti for the growth of students taking accelerated courses and college-credit-bearing courses.

Board member Becki Couch credited Vitti with obtaining grants for district initiatives. Grymes mentioned the district’s new partnership with the Jaguars to develop students to become athletic trainers.

Vitti received the least points – less than 2 points out of 4 – for fostering teamwork and cooperation with the Board and the district’s senior staff and for communicating short-term and long-term challenges to the Board.

The Board and Vitti have had several public conflicts as well as ongoing tensions, sometimes delaying or frustrating Vitti’s proposals for changing schools over the past year.

Most recently, Board members voiced displeasure at learning just before the school year started that the district had to send school assignment letters to hundreds of parents which some members considered confusing. The letters were mandated by the state, based on laws for turning around struggling schools.

Shine and Grymes said the communications issues aren’t all Vitti’s fault, that board members should take responsibility for their part in the conflicts.

“We have to own our successes and failures,” Scott said. “I know (the teamwork challenges) are a failure on the part of the Board and ... of the superintendent. We are the highest level of authority within this organization. We need to do what we can to change it.”

Couch said there is a separate evaluation time for the School Board by its members.

She added that some of the miscommunications between the Board and Vitti have made it into the agenda documents Board members use to decide their votes. She said there were times when the Board was surprised by the district’s actions because they were not spelled out in those documents.

Vitti had few initial responses to their criticism.

He noted that last year the board charged him with improving academic performance in the D and F rated schools. He said he accomplished that over the past year.

“We obviously have more work to do with literacy, but did see solid improvement in math,” he added.

Smith Juarez noted the district’s scores in biology scores leaped last year, showing that achievement gaps among disadvantaged students and their peers had closed in that subject.

However, she noted that gaps among minority students and their peers widened in more than half of the other academic measures.

For example only 31 percent of Duval’s African-American students were reading on grade level from grades 3 through 11.

“Mr. Superintendent I agree that we all have to do better, but you have to do better,” Smith Juarez said.

Couch agreed, noting that last year Vitti said “this is a no excuses year.”

She said his performance did not live up to his prior predictions,which had the district showing “substantial progress” for minority students and those with disabilities within three years.

“We have to have a literate city,” she said. “There’s no time to waste. We’ve got to be aggressive with literacy.”

She noted the Board doesn’t even agree on how to score Vitti on academic performance, noting that some members gave him 4 points while others gave him 2 on the same measures.

Shine said Duval has done better than most major urban districts to narrow achievement gaps. “The challenge is huge,” he said. “We need a fair measure” of the progress on achievement gaps.

Vitti noted that national trends show little progress on shrinking achievement gaps among minorities or disadvantaged students because other student groups also are improving.

“African Americans and Hispanic students are improving. It’s not like they’re going backward. Everyone’s improving so we still have a gap,” he said.

He said he is committed to making the achievement gap a main issue this year. He added that Duval has narrower achievement gaps than Florida’s other large districts.

Wright suggested that all district staff, teachers and Board members receive training in how to better communicate and understand each other despite cultural or racial barriers.

“You want to close the gap and communicate better? Let’s look at creating cultural competence, where we all receive training,” Wright said.

She recommended the Board “going behind closed doors” and talking frankly with each other, without having to “model respect” to the public.

Grymes agreed with having such a session.

“I hurt for those students, too,” Grymes said. “How do we get there?”

The School Board is limited by state law from having closed-door meetings except in certain cases.

Denise Amos: (904) 359-4083


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