JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – School board members approved a plan Monday night to bring sweeping changes designed to improve academic performance at all 29 Duval County middle schools.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti's plan adds themes and special tracks to the school that don't already have them, brings principal changes, teacher support and professional development to help improve the schools' academic performance.
""I think a lot of times the kids get lost in middle school, so part of this is really individualizing the kids, making them feel like someone really cares about them," said School Board chairwoman Cheryl Grymes. "It's a tough time for kids. Middle-school-aged kids are very confused. There's just lots of things that we can do to help them not get to the point where they would consider dropping out."
Last year, four of Duval County's middle schools received an F grade from the state, and five more received a D. Duval County's sixth-graders had the lowest passing rates in math and reading among Florida's largest school district, and the county's seventh-graders were second-lowest in math and reading, and its eighth-graders were second-lowest in reading.
On the other end of the scale, eight Duval County middle schools received A grades. Of those, four of which are already designated magnet programs for academics or the arts.
Not only is there a desire to raise test scores, the school district has another motivation to make the schools better. Enrollment in the county's middle schools has dropped 7 percent since 2011. New data shows that while parents are satisfied with their children going to elementary school in Duval County, once they reach middle school, parents are looking to options like charter or private schools. Vitti thinks these changes will help.
"What we're trying to do is replicate the same kind of relationships, the same focus on the child as a whole that we've done at the elementary level and bring it up to the middle school level," Vitti said.
Some of the reforms have already begun, like reassigning 17 middle-school principals.
Some of the new themes have also been implemented:
- Matthew Gilbert Middle is focusing on early college education with a emphasis on technology, as well as single-gender classes.
- Highlands Middle School now has an aviation and military science focus.
The district's middle schools are also extending sports and extra-curricular activities to sixth-graders to get them involved in the middle-school experience sooner.
"We're hoping to continue to build those niche identifying programs that all of our middle schools will have moving forward so parents can say, 'This is the school my child wants to go to and can get excited about,'" Vitti said.
In addition to staffing and curriculum changes, Vitti is also promising more cutting-edge technology for middle schools in the next school year. The classrooms will also begin to group children by ability and skills so it will be easier to tailor their educational needs.