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Duval County likely to close underperforming middle school next year

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Northwestern Middle School will close after the 2019-20 school year, Duval County School Superintendent Diana Greene announced to state education leaders earlier this week.

Greenemade the announcement in Tallahassee as Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran strongly criticized the way the Duval County School Board is handling its academically underperforming schools.

One member of the Florida Department of Education said they were irritated that Duval County had not made time to meet with state officials in the last school year to discuss the progress these schools. 

Another member called Dr. Greene’s plan to close Northwestern "criminal."

“In my mind, Duval County sat on their hands for 10 months,” Florida Board of Education board member Michael Olenick said. “Statistics are dismal.”

Northwestern Middle School serves about 700 students and state board members are calling for drastic change. They said in 2016, Duval County had six D-rated schools and that number went up to 11 last year.

Board members said there’s only been one year since 2005 that Northwestern Middle hasn’t been graded a D or F, calling it a historically underperforming school. 

Northwestern and with Lake Forest Elementary School were taken over by an external operator this school year. The schools must improve to a grade C or better this year in order to remain under the district’s control.

Lake Forest is predicted to receive a C, but Greene said Northwestern will likely remain a D school, which, under state rules, means the district is required to either close the school or turn it over to a charter.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said he can’t believe the district isn’t considering the charter option, specifically talking about the success of IDEA Academy, a charter organization that operates under the Schools of Hope designation outlined in a bill he shepherded through the state Legislature when the was Speaker of the House.

When Corcoran asked Greene if she was afraid of the competition from charter schools, Greene responded, “No, I have 40 charter schools (in Duval County). Not afraid of competition but believe what I see in those schools, they can overcome.” 

Dozens of eighth graders who graduated from Northwestern on Friday are excited to be heading to high school next school year. Graduates Ya’kyjah Maddox and Tatiayan Davis said they loved their time at Northwestern and that they would hate to see it close. 

“This is our neighborhood school and most students who come from elementary school will need this neighborhood school to help them and, like me, graduate,” Maddox said. “That would be horrible because you’re taking education away from the little ones.”

“I would describe it as the best year of my life,” Davis said of her one year at Northwestern as an eighth grader. “I finally graduated, am going on to ninth grade. I don’t want to see the school shut down.”

What's next for the students?

The district told News4Jax it began informing rising sixth graders Friday of the changes coming and Greene said letters will go out next week informing parents of what's next for their child.

Rising sixth graders will be rezoned to higher-performing middle schools and transportation will be provided. 

Current Northwestern students, rising seventh and eighth graders, are eligible to remain at the school for one more year, or they can choose to be reassigned to a higher-performing middle school, in which case the district will provide free transportation. 

In a statement Green released to News4Jax late Friday, Green wrote:

“We have brought in leadership from the Florida Department of Education whose expertise is improving schools just like this. But with Northwestern, we were too far behind to catch up in the last lap of the race. The best option for our students is to move them to higher performing schools.” 

If closed, the district said the Northwestern building will likely reopen as an elementary school, consolidating other elementary schools in the area to improve academic opportunities for children, cut administrative overhead and direct more resources into classrooms. Those changes will be announced when the district finalizes its master facilities plan in July.