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THE PLAN THAT NEVER WAS

Open enrollment is dead. What's next for parents in struggling Duval County schools?

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Just before 7 on a mid-March morning, when everyone else in her home is waking up, Errin Walker starts her commute to work. She dodges the drivers who text with one hand, the other on the steering wheel. The single mother of four merges onto I-95 as her cell phone rings. It's her mother Edith. "Did you watch the news this morning?" Edith asks.

"Yeah."

Edith recaps the big news. Duval County's school superintendent has introduced a plan to allow parents to send their student to another public school anywhere in the district. He's lobbying to get parents' and school board members' support. Errin is intrigued.

She was optimistic after that conversation, not just for her kids' futures, but also for other kids stuck in dead-end schools, relegated to lesser lives by virtue of their ZIP code. In short order, that optimism would be crushed. Within weeks, Nikolai Vitti's open enrollment idea became the plan that never was. It died on that pewter-gray carpet in West Jacksonville Elementary School's library, having suffered from a lack of support from two key school board members and Jacksonville's black leaders.

Vitti didn't expect this level of discomfort from the black community, but he's since re-grouped. He's now molding a new proposal that he hopes will bring together all those leaders who criticized open enrollment and entice them to convince more parents to choose public schools over other options.

In the next month, Vitti's goal is to pull together very detailed information — down to the grade and neighborhood and proficiency levels — on which parents have yanked their children from public school and into a charter or private school. He'll then present those data to organizations like the PTA, ICARE, the Friends of Northwest Jacksonville and the NAACP, one of the biggest opponents of open enrollment. When these groups see the numbers, Vitti believes, they'll be willing to go door-to-door on behalf of public schools.

"I'm expecting those people to be part of the solution," Vitti says. "We need more people on the playing field. We can't transform these schools without community support."

When Vitti says "these schools," he's talking about schools in the black neighborhoods, specifically ones that earn D or F grades on the state's convoluted report card year after year. The parents of kids at these schools, like all parents, expect more. They have high hopes for their child and their child's education. It wasn't too long ago that William Raines High, for instance, was the lowest-performing school in all of Florida. The kids there deserve better.

From changing principals to paying rock star teachers extra money to take positions at urban schools, Vitti has already introduced several initiatives he believes will help struggling schools experience a renaissance. But these improvements haven't manifested just yet, and parents are eager to find other options — some glimmer of hope somewhere.

Jacksonville's NAACP chapter opposed open enrollment because members believed parents would abandon struggling schools in black neighborhoods, forcing those empty schools to close. Through its education committee, the NAACP has become the aggressive guardian of Northside schools, a group that has its ear to the black parents in Jacksonville and can often mobilize those parents en masse. When talking to the education committee, these parents tell stories of mostly black schools with rotating principals, teachers who stay for only two or three years and academic programs offered one year and dissolved the next — places without continuity and stability.

Hearing about Vitti's new proposal to enlist foot soldiers, local NAACP president Isaiah Rumlin says the group "is willing to sit down and do whatever we can do to help" Vitti and the school district.

But some homework must be done first.

"A comprehensive study has to be done at the school board level to determine the reason why students or parents are taking their children and sending them to charter schools or private schools," Rumlin says. "I think it's up to the school board to come up with a plan. They have to get better principals and better teachers. And when that is done, we won't have to worry about things like open enrollment."

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Vitti knows the reality of public education in Jacksonville: Parents no longer have to send their students to public schools and, more and more, they're deciding not to. Private schools. Charter schools. Homeschooling. The competition grows stronger each semester.

Charter schools have multiplied from seven in 2003 to 21 in 2013. Charter attendance is growing at a similar clip: 609 students in 2003 to more than 7,500 today. And even if the school board or Vitti didn't want any more charter schools in Duval County, as long as a charter management company completes all the necessary paperwork, state law mandates that, in most cases, its application be approved. Meanwhile, the chance for parents to choose a private school may soon become easier. Top Republicans in the Legislature are pushing to expand private school vouchers. Such an expansion would funnel more public dollars into the voucher pot and make more students eligible to receive that money.

"That would add to the challenge," Vitti says. "There's a lot of controversy on it right now because tax dollars would be used for tuition and it remains to be seen if they [the students] would have to take the FCAT."

As the students leave neighborhood schools for other options, so does the money. In Florida, the tax dollars spent to educate a child go wherever the student attends school. So, for every student the district loses, it also loses a few thousand bucks. For Duval, in 2012, that number totaled $36.1 million. This school year: $49 million. Vitti says that amount could grow to $66 million in the next school year. This is money sucked away from neighborhood schools that need it most, places where many students are battling poverty and in some cases tumultuous home lives, where there are myriad barriers to learning. In Vitti's view, the way to counteract this seemingly inexorable trend is for more parents to think favorably of the programs, staff and reputation of public schools, no matter which public schools those may be.

When Vitti announced open enrollment in mid-March, he hoped it would help combat the rise of charters. There was momentum at first. The story led all the local news outlets. The city was abuzz. Perhaps the underlying reason why so many people attended the informational meetings, why so many people were commenting about the plan, why open enrollment became the talk of the town, is that it fed directly into what parents have always wanted. The untold truth of this county is that there are parents who feel, or know for certain, that their child would receive a far superior education if only they attended a different school. There may be great schools and great teachers in Duval, but that greatness isn't at the school four blocks down and around the corner.

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Escaping a not-so-great school is the main reason Errin Walker moved her children to a charter school.

She lived on the Northside most of her life, but she and her mother relocated to a ranch-style home nestled in a subdivision where there's a sago palm on every front lawn. Technically it's the Biscayne Village area, but more important, it's a neighborhood of black first-time homebuyers, truck drivers, real estate agents, policemen and firemen. Errin's dad calls it a place where black people move "when they got a little bit of money." It's a neighborhood perfect for finishing homework because things are always quiet.

All of Errin's children are quiet and athletic. They love fidgeting with digital devices. William — Errin's oldest at 17 — wants to be a pilot. He is enamored of everything aviation. Second-oldest DeShay is the family jock, good at math but fancies himself better at football. Jean is the oldest daughter, a tomboy obsessed with apps, always in basketball shorts. Then there's Daysha, the youngest, a child the family believes has dyslexia, though they're unsure how to begin testing her for the disorder.

DeShay and Jean go to Somerset Academy, a charter school. Years ago, they went to Highlands Middle. It was a nightmare.

"Highlands Middle has a terrible reputation," Errin says. "They weren't learning anything. When they would bring information home to me, I'd say ‘What did you do in school today?' and they'd say ‘Not much of anything. My teacher just yelled at the class all day and started writing people up.' "

When Errin tried to get to the bottom of her children's claims, she learned that students did classwork on the computer and there was little teacher-student interaction. Errin remembers the phone calls she would receive about other students misbehaving in her child's class.

"After a while, my children did join in because if the teacher isn't doing her job, nobody is paying attention," she says.

While open enrollment had its critics, many parents heralded the plan. They saw it as a way to extract their student from a Northside school that failed their child, as the safety float out of the sea of troubles. And although these parents were excited about sending their students to another school, many quickly realized that there would be logistics involved — namely, how to get the kid to that different school on the other side of town. And so, the excited parents also became anxious parents. They envisioned a school bus whisking their children away, but doing that, Vitti said, would have meant reducing costs elsewhere in the district. (Vitti couldn't produce the exact amount it would have cost to bus children around the county because he didn't know how many students would take advantage of open enrollment.)

Still, Errin was excited, school bus or not. She was so excited that one late March afternoon, she sat down with her family and determined which school they'd each attend, given this sudden plethora of options.

Errin was stretched across the couch; her mother relaxed on the loveseat. DeShay and Jean shared the armchair, where they always sit, hips smashed together, denying that this particular seating arrangement was uncomfortable.

The family tradition is to watch the 5 o'clock news and ponder aloud the events of the day. This day, William was a no-show for the news. When the broadcast ended, Errin muted the television. As her mother spoke about Vitti's plan, Jean listened and then smiled.

"I wanna go to Raines," she said.

"Why?"

"For the computer program."

Errin pondered. Jean and DeShay have attended school together since fourth grade. Now's not the time to split the two. She asked DeShay how he felt about attending Raines. He shrugged. All roads lead to the NFL anyway.

"If you let Jean go to Raines, you gotta make DeShay go there, too," said William, who finally walked into the living room.

Then and there, it was settled. William would go to Ribault, Jean and DeShay to Raines and Daysha, the little one, would remain at Somerset Academy.

But none of that happened.

And so, for parents like Errin, those without the means to spend tens of thousands of dollars on private or parochial schools, their children can only attend either their neighborhood school or a nearby charter. And now they'll have to wait for Vitti's next move.

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