Parents in Florida’s Duval County Exercising School Choice


Within Duval County, Florida district schools, almost a third of students picked the school they would attend rather than attending their assigned neighborhood schools.

That means 42,142 Duval County students remained in their school district but were able to exercise their right to choose, writes Denise Smith Amos of The Florida Times-Union. The state’s Opportunity Scholarships played a small role by allowing students to move to higher-performing schools, and this year the number who did so doubled as compared to prior years’ numbers. 1,012 students received Opportunity Scholarships – 575 for whom it was the first time, while last year there were 319 first-timers.

Any students who attend a school rated “F”, or a school rated “D” three times in a row, may transfer to another school if that school has attained at least a “C” rating.  Along with these transfers, there were 8,259 special transfer students — four times as many as last year — who were moved, for the most part, because of lack of space in the students’ home schools.

This is good news for Duval schools because it means that students remain in the district and are not lost to charter or private schools. But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti explained that there is a negative side to the trend because it also causes marketing and enrollment challenges for the district’s schools that struggle most.

“Anytime we can provide our parents with more options that allow them to feel more confident about where their child is educated, I think that’s a benefit for the system as whole,” he said. “The challenge for us is when parents are leaving particular schools that have had a history of declining enrollment. The challenge becomes … how do we continue to support and increase enrollment in the long term in the … schools students are opting out of?”

Not only that, but the schools to which the students are transferring have to make quick and important adjustments such as hiring more teachers. At first, Vitti recommended that Duval’s schools all become open enrollment schools like magnet schools. Instead, the current plans are to convert the 36 lowest-performing schools into “transformation schools” which will include paying thousands of dollars more to recruit and retain high-performing teachers and principals and adding more technology, math and reading coaches, student mentors, and several other supports and improvements.

“The long-term solution has to be offering new, innovative programs that parents are excited about,” he said, “plus a focus on getting the right human capital, which are the best leaders and teachers, in those schools.”

According to Heather Leigh of WJXT-TV, last school year Duval County Public Schools experienced a loss of $51 million due to transfers to charter schools. The Jacksonville Public Education Fund ‘s president, Trey Csar, says that parents have more choices now and they want to understand the options. A study by the JPEF discovered that the two most important concerns for parents when choosing a school for their children are the quality of the teachers and staff and the safety of their children.

“We hear from parents; there’s a desire for a more personalized education options. If my young person is interested in the arts, I want a school that can cater to that. If they’re interested in science and tech. I want a school that can cater to that. I think it’s really this desire across society for more customization in what we participate in.”

Meanwhile, amid a flurry of transfers to the best of schools, Duval County Public Schools, says Vitti, have lost their Empowerment Zone funding. Empowerment Zones are areas which are federally designated communities that are economically distressed and are eligible for grants, tax credits for businesses, special bond authority, and other benefits to help unemployment and to generate economic growth, writes Denise Smith Amos of The Florida Times-Union.  However, the program expired in 2013 — and the district was unaware of that fact.

This loss also had a negative impact on the district’s federal GEAR UP grant application, which attempted to increase college attendance and completion for low-income and other at-risk students. It encourages students to take academically challenging high school courses, supports them through the admission process, and helps with the financial aid process. The program was also to include college scholarships.

12 2, 2014