Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Perspective on the Superintendent--Part One

News broke in Jacksonville this morning that our superintendent of schools is one of three finalists for the superintendency of Detroit schools.

Detroit? Really? That begs the question why.

This is a developing story, therefore, whatever I post now will be outdated by tomorrow.

The superintendent issued a statement to the media in which he explained that he has been contacted numerous times in his four plus years at the Duval County helm, but he has turned them down. This time, the chance to help his hometown, his place of birth, was irresistible.

Bonkers. If there is one feature about the man that overwhelms all in his path, it is his self-absorption. He's not doing anything out of a noble impulse to help the people left in a crumbling, bankrupt, failing school system.

After all, he initially criticized the Devos appointment before falling silent on the subject. He's not walking into Devos-land blind, a land that produced the Detroit situation by design.

We need perspective.

Nikolai Vitti's superintendency has been following the usual trajectory: hiring, honeymoon period in which everyone gushes about his superb talent, a quiet rumbling of discontent about how our low-performing schools (as measured solely by school grade and that means test results) are not improving fast enough, failure to meet unrealistic improvement targets, more discontent among board members, alienated school staff, more unhappy board members, a split board engaging in personal animosity, a move for dismissal, and then a resignation or non-renewal of contract.

Let's be honest, Jacksonville, it happens every time unless the superintendent is as talented as Joseph Wise, who managed to compress the normal five to six year timeline into 23 months.

However you feel about the man, Vitti's time is nearly up.

But he is a fascinating figure in his own right. Let us examine the history.

He arrived in November 2012. Among his first moves was the reduction of testing--at least on paper. Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) had an abundance of tests scheduled throughout the year because every district department had its own test that it pushed into the schools. But the irony is that the test schedule was not representative of what really took place. Most of the tests were marked optional, and trust me, this teacher never forced students to take an optional test.

The first efforts at test reduction were window dressing. However, later on, the superintendent did reduce testing in a real way and we should give him credit for that. However much his departments might write tests and get snippy when teachers said no, he did not force us to give them. He eliminated baseline and quarter tests to one December test that was necessary for the school district to meet data reporting requirements for the state.

(In fairness to critics, yes, lately, more testing has crept back into the schedule.)

Then he sent fear through the district as he questioned why administrators were pulled from buildings for meetings and teachers were pulled to develop curriculum and tests. Many applauded his expressed belief that admins and teachers needed to remain on property to run schools and teach in classrooms.

But as time went on, administrators were absent from their schools as often as they were before. It became apparent that he didn't object to people being absent for meetings as long as they were his meetings. His objection was to other people's meetings.

Then came the May Day massacre, when longtime Duval district staff were told they were no longer needed. Weeks before their contracts ended, they were called to a conference room on Prudential Drive to surrender their badges and equipment. They would now have to walk in the front door and be screened by security personnel before they could go to their workplaces and carry on.

The rumor was that Vitti had said that anyone with more than 15 years in the building should clear out. Many asked if that qualified as age discrimination.

At that time, with all the new people he had brought in, many thought that the existing imperial attitude among DCPS district staff was overthrown--the attitude that the schools and their personnel existed to serve their needs, that they were better, and if you weren't high enough, they wouldn't condescend to acknowledge or talk to you.

Vitti was hired by the board (under heavy lobbying by the wealthy and business class in the city) to disrupt the existing culture and he did that.

Until he didn't.