'Schools of Hope' bill puts 3 Duval County schools at risk of shutting down

School district leaders urge parents to contact lawmakers about proposal

By Chris Parenteau - Reporter , Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A bill making its way through the Florida Legislature puts the future of three Duval County schools on the line.

It’s nicknamed the “Schools of Hope” bill and it would allow any public school in Florida to convert to a charter school if they receive a D or F grade two years in a row.

Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti and the entire Duval County School Board are opposed to the bill, saying it would decimate communities and hurt the student in greatest need.

At a community meeting held Tuesday evening at Florida State College at Jacksonville's Downtown Campus, the Duval school district leadership urged parents not to procrastinate in contacting lawmakers about the stopping bill. 

"We disagree with the 'Schools of Hope,'" said School Board Member Becki Couch. "It eliminates some of the choices for turnaround that districts have and requires us to hand over some of our schools that are in the turnaround process to charter schools."

Vitti joined Couch on stage in front of about 100 people, saying he agrees that it looks like a bad bill to him. 

"It ignores the accountability of the system that has been changed at least 40 times in the last 50 years," Vitti said. "Because there is no proven track record to indicate that charter schools outperform traditional public schools, and if we don't activate the community and speak out against this it could have detrimental short-term and long-term effects on our children and our communities and our families."

School Board Chair Paula Wright said don't be fooled, there's not much hope in the "Schools of Hope" program.

“Citywide, if something happens at those three schools all in African-American communities that means those students have to go (to) other middle schools and our middle schools are already overcrowded,” Wright said. 

Wright said that the bill, already passed by the House, is not going to make anything better for Duval students.

“We love our community. We have to stand up for Jacksonville. We have to stand up for Duval County and the House solution has no background and no data for what they're offering for charter schools to be successful,” Wright said.

The bill is now in the Senate and means Ribault, Matthew Gilbert and Northwestern Middle schools are in danger of closing if they don’t get a grade of C or higher this year.

The new rule could also force over 100 other schools in Florida to close.

Looking to the future, it could potentially cause eight other Duval County schools to close if they don’t bring up their grade by the next school year.

The "Schools of Hope" program would funnel $200 million toward charter schools. Wright argues a bill in the Senate called 15.52 would help.

“Senate Bill 15.52, what it does is right now in the early system is focus on middle school which means they begin to look at social and emotional and help with concerns going on in the homes etc. The Senate bill pushes it down to first grade backwards. We have been waiting until middle school. It's already had problems hard to fix,” said Wright.

Senate Bill 15.52 includes three aspects:

  • It would add an extra hour to every day of school.
  • The school would look into social, emotional and health needs of the students and meet those needs
  • The school would be site based managed, meaning principals would have more power and call the shots because they know their school better than anyone on the board.

Wright said the House bill just masks the problems by opening up new schools and not fixing the real issues.

“Children are not doing well in schools who a live in a poor socioeconomic areas for a number of reasons. So a lot of times it's like if a child is going to school hungry, if we don't meet that need, I don't care which school the child goes to, the child is still going to school hungry and therefore not concentrating or focusing,” Wright said. 

Asking community members to activate and advocated seemed to work, with several leaving the meeting and sending emails to lawmakers at kiosks set up by the district. 

"I'm always concerned that we are actually giving away capital outlay dollars to a private company," said Ken Manuel, a former administrator in Duval County. "If you look at all the data, it really depends on, it boils down to poverty to a significant degree and that's not being addressed."

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