Monthly Archives: January 2015

Is Superintendent Vitti’s cronyism harming Duval County students?

I am respectfully and publicly calling for the Duval County School Board to investigate why Duval County has lost the services of Crystal Force.

I believe Ms. Force’s departure is the result of cronyism. I believe Dr. Vitti’s cronyism directly harms our students. I believe this cronyism is how Dr. Vitti does business and that the School Board should determine if my opinion is correct: that Vitti’s pattern of behavior leads to sufficient cause to part ways with him.

One of our main concerns as teachers has been the appearance that Vitti ousted or demoted experienced District personnel without regard to their competence, usually in favor of his own friends, who often have demonstrably less experience and expertise.

Foremost in my mind as a Career/Technical Education (“CTE”) teacher was Vitti’s treatment of longtime CTE Director Chris Force. Dr. Vitti (from Miami-Dade) installed Arlinda Smith (from Miami-Dade) to become Executive Director of CTE; Force was demoted to the classroom in short order despite her high qualifications and glowing opinions of her colleagues (see below). Arlinda Smith had no experience directing a CTE department of any size (according to her LinkedIn profile), and is not qualified to teach a CTE course in the state of Florida.

Speaking for myself, Ms. Force always supported our endeavors when possible, gave reasonable concerns when she couldn’t, and continually sought to gain knowledge. She realizes that Vocational Education is incredibly broad (the department covers Information Technology, Cosmetology, Automobile Repair, Masonry, and many other disciplines). She realizes that means most instructional details should be yielded to the teachers certified to be experts in these areas. In short, Chris was the rare District official who realized her role was not to control teachers, but to guide and facilitate our efforts to educate students.

My high opinion of her was confirmed when I observed — despite the humiliating treatment she received from DCPS — that Chris continued to work as a leader in the Duval County Public Schools CTE community, mentoring and supporting her colleagues just as she always has. Not because it was in her job description, but because it was in her nature. This is in stark contrast to my experience with Dr. Vitti’s appointed replacement, Arlinda Smith.

Vitti and Smith had their own misguided ideas for Information Technology Education, and tried to replace our rigorous, relevant program at Sandalwood with what I and many others considered to be fluff. I showed the plans of Dr. Vitti and Ms. Smith to IT directors and prominent members of the Jacksonville business community. When I showed them the curriculum  — four years of rudimentary, nearly unemployable Web Design — and that they wanted to replace our program with theirs — reactions ranged from strange looks to expressions of disgust. It leads to an expensive yet, in my opinion, completely useless certification called “CIW”.

In an informal survey of about a dozen IT managers, including from Fortune 500 companies, exactly zero of them had ever heard of the “CIW” certifications being pushed by Vitti and Smith. My colleagues and I had to fight, and fight hard, alongside two different principals, to preserve our program which offered well-known, rigorous and relevant certifications from Microsoft, Adobe and CompTIA (CompTIA = “A+”, “Network+” and “Security+”).

I refused to allow our kids — some of whom turned down Stanton (the #12 high school in the nation) or Paxon (#86 in the nation) to attend Sandalwood because of their interest in an IT career — to waste their time sitting in four years of Web Design classes. We won that battle, but Arlinda Smith retaliated by inexplicably refusing to pay $7,000 — much less than she likely was spending at any other high school — for a pack of 1,000 tests plus practice exams and curriculum for the industry certification tests we administered. Ms. Smith stated she would only would pay for the CIW exams, which we didn’t want to teach because it was not what our students, parents and business partners wanted.

Nevertheless, Ms. Smith put stumbling blocks in front of us whenever possible for most of the year. My colleague and I (both of us mere teachers) were publicly rebuked (directors, executive directors, my assistant principal and principal, etc. were all copied) for securing the donation of a 64-station virtual computer lab from Florida State College, requesting CTE’s help, receiving no response, and opening a simple help desk ticket with IT to open a port in the firewall (which any teacher is allowed to do). No congratulations or genuine offers of help to any of us for securing a donation, just roadblocks and rebuke.

But one of the kickers for me was this: late in the year, right when we were beginning to give exams to our students, we were told we had to set appointments for district personnel to administer them. I felt this was against the real-world way of earning industry certifications — people take industry certification exams when they are ready.

I wanted to set a deadline and allow students who felt they were ready early and who met my qualifications to take the exam at their peak of readiness (this is what we had done in the past, and it had worked well). When Ms. Smith and Dr. Vitti wouldn’t budge, I asked if resources could come for multiple dates when they had time. A District resource agreed she had time and would contact Ms. Smith to schedule. Here was the result — and make a note, this individual who volunteered to proctor our students — and who worked for Arlinda Smith — forwarded me this email including Ms. Smith’s reply:

From: [REDACTED]
Sent: Thursday, February 20
To: Smith, Arlinda A.
Subject: Sandalwood

[Mike] has asked if I could come  proctor tomorrow. Timing would be after I’m finished at Paxon.

Okay to schedule?

Sent from my iPhone


From: “Smith, Arlinda A.”
Date: February 20, 2014
To: [REDACTED]
Subject: RE: Sandalwood

No. His principal sent me testing dates. He needs to abide by the rules.

Arlinda Smith
Executive Director
Duval County Public Schools
Career and Technical Education


From: [Mike]
To: “Smith, Arlinda A.”
Date: February 20, 2014
Subject: RE: Sandalwood

Ms. Smith,

I am curious: what rule am I breaking by asking you to send a proctor “any day someone can be spared” (my exact words to you)? [REDACTED] responded to the request, sought to help my students and asked to clear it with you.

You blocked [these] efforts. Your rationale was not that [this person] was too busy, or anything that could be construed as you thinking about students, but rather you were thinking how you could personally teach me a lesson “to abide by the rules” (again, see your own words below).

In short: I am asking you, Ms. Smith, to do your job as instructional support personnel to remove stumbling blocks rather than placing them in our path as has happened much too often in the past year.

We dealt with lack of support like this the entire year from Ms. Smith, some of which bordered on intentional sabotage. We were very fortunate that our principal took money out of her budget (diverting that money away from other things, like paper) to pay for the exams that CTE has always paid for. Our principal understood that what we were teaching was more useful than what Vitti and Smith brought with them, and that the school would receive that $7000 many times over in grant money from the certifications. To my knowledge, Sandalwood was the only school in Jacksonville that had to use its own school funds to pay for industry certification exams.

I believe Ms. Smith had a personal vendetta against me for pushing back against the CIW program. We were fortunate school leadership (NOT district leadership) felt our program was a win-win; it allowed us to (a.) give kids an opportunity to learn real skills, while (b.) working towards the mindless stats we’re forced to care about.

And I think we did a good job on both counts. Our CTE Academy, the Sandalwood Academy of Information Technology, received multiple accolades. Our students genuinely grew in knowledge and abilities before our eyes during the 2013-14 school year; I will treasure the personal accolades and achievements by my colleagues and students for the rest of my life.

  • Eight State Champions in IT competitions (to my knowledge, the most of any school in the nation)
  • Over 200 Industry Certifications at Sandalwood
    • The highest number of certifications in Duval County (higher even than the dedicated vocational/trade schools)
    • From last in the State (2011-12) to top quartile in the State (2013-14)
    • Piloted MTA certification program in Duval, which led to:
    • Over 50 Sandalwood High School students newly minted as Microsoft Certified Professionals (#6 in the State)
  • Teacher of the Year/Duval County Teacher of the Year Semifinalist (Final 15)
  • Jacksonville Area Scholar-Athletes
  • Multiple Scholarships specifically for skills/accomplishments in IT Academy
  • National Council for Women in IT honor recipients
  • Providing a place for students to transfer from other schools to flee the CIW program
  • Multiple paid internships
    • CSX
    • Vistakon
    • Blue Cross
    • Eventually, even Duval County Public Schools

The Academy continues to enjoy success this year in my colleagues’ highly competent hands. We received acknowledgment and honors from both within Jacksonville and across the nation, including:

  • Governor Scott
  • Mayor Delaney (President of the University of North Florida)
  • Sheriff Rutherford
  • The Florida Times-Union
  • Deemable Tech on NPR
  • The Jacksonville Public Education Fund
  • Business Professionals of America
  • The National Academy Foundation
  • The National STEM Consortium
  • Florida State College
  • Florida State University
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

This success was in spite of the efforts of our leadership to disavow and even interfere with our efforts to keep the program rigorous and relevant for our students. Now that Vitti and Smith cannot ignore our success, they want in. Forgive me, but I don’t want my colleagues’ efforts to result in the wrong people cementing their positions in Duval County, or adding to their credibility so they can inflict more harm on a bigger scale.

So now, I want to return to Duval’s former CTE Director, Chris Force — who Vitti pushed out and Smith replaced. She just started hew new job yesterday as the Director of CTE for St. John’s County:

Chris Force is the new CTE director for SJCPS

Chris Force is the new CTE director for SJCPS

Even if you hate measuring things with Facebook likes as much as I do, 500 “likes” and 180 comments means something. People love and respect Chris Force. So much so, that the very next school year after Dr. Vitti demoted Force, presumably because she was “not good enough” to direct the CTE department of the #58 (of 68) school district in Florida, was just scooped up by the state’s #1 traditional school district to serve as their new CTE Director.

I’m extremely happy for Ms. Force; she deserves better than what she got in Duval, and she is too intelligent, talented and inspiring to limit her impact to only 150-200 students per year. I feel deeply for the countless wonderful Duval County teachers and students who continue to work under leadership who continually makes such poor decisions. It simply does not seem they have the students’ and educators’ best interests at heart. Those individuals, especially our students, deserve better than what Nikolai Vitti is giving us.

As for myself, leaving DCPS was the result of many factors. I feel fairly confident many of those factors would not have snowballed towards my resignation had Ms. Force been our CTE Director. My loss may not be that great to DCPS, but Ms. Force’s loss is. I ask the School Board to perform their responsibility to oversee the Superintendent, determine whether there is substance behind the thoughts expressed here, and if further action is necessary to stop the bleeding.

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Nikolai Vitti tried to kill the IT program at Jacksonville’s largest high school. Now he wants credit.

This is the program Superintendent Vitti and Executive Director Arlinda Smith fought to kill at Sandalwood:

Course Name Industry Certification
Computer Fundamentals Microsoft Technology Associate (“MTA”): Windows OS
Web Technologies Adobe Certified Associate (“ACA”): Web Communications
IT Systems & Applications MTA: Networking/
CompTIA A+
PLUS ONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING:
Database Essentials MTA: Database
Programming Essentials MTA: Software Development
Web Development Technologies MTA: Web Development
Computer Networking Fundamentals MTA: Networking/
CompTIA Network+
Cybersecurity Fundamentals MTA: Security Fundamentals/
CompTIA: Security+

This program led to eight state champions in IT competitions, 55 Microsoft Certified Professionals (#6 among all schools in the State of Florida) and a dozen paid internships. I believe it’s easy to see why; if you have competent instruction plus interested students for a program like this, students will learn very good entry-level skills. Our success was largely due to its appeal to students interested in an IT career. Taking away that relevance would kill the program; there would be no reason for students or parents to go out of their way to enroll.

To that end, Vitti and Smith wanted Sandalwood IT to switch to the following program, which was implemented at eight high schools in Duval County:

Course Name Industry Certification
Intro to Information Technology CIW Internet Business Associate
Foundations of Web Design CIW Site Development Associate
User Interface Design CIW Web Design Specialist
Web Scripting Fundamentals CIW JavaScript Specialist

Here’s my opinion on the issues with Nikolai Vitti & Arlinda Smith’s program:

  • Zero of the dozen or so IT managers I spoke to about this program had ever heard of CIW certifications.
  • I do believe Web Design is useful for teaching design and usability principles in a relatively simple way, however:
  • Web Design in my opinion is most often a supplemental skill — a line in a resume and a tool in one’s belt — rather than an in-demand, standalone career path.
  • Neither our business partners, parents, nor our students had much excitement about the skills or certifications that came from this program.
  • Based on the state standards for these courses we felt we taught, in one year, literally 90% of the useful skills they’d learn in four years.
  • This means in our program, students could use the other three years to learn other skills like programming, networking, hardware installation/troubleshooting, server management, etc.

Keep in mind: I acknowledged this program might be OK for low-level students or non-techie teachers thrust into teaching tech classes. When I first gave my objection to implementing this at Sandalwood, I began speaking with them by acknowledging this. I told them I didn’t think this applied to Sandalwood’s students or teachers: we had four teachers with IT-related degrees (two of them graduate-level), and a fifth backup teacher (who took my position after I resigned) who also has an IT degree, so our expertise wasn’t dependent on a single teacher. We had the competence to start something great.

Additionally, and just as importantly, we had recruited students who had a high interest level in an IT career. They signed up for a rigorous program and they expected to learn something useful. Their extraordinary resistance to this baffled me at first. After pondering further, I understood they almost certainly wanted to offer easy courses with easy Certification exams, at the expense of teaching our students something useful.

I even understand on some level why they would retaliate against me as a teacher; that’s politics, when we push back against powerful people, we should expect backlash. What I don’t understand is their need to extract a pound of flesh from my students, which they most certainly did. To me, they lost complete sight of why we’re here: to educate students.

This program was eventually implemented at Sandalwood, replacing our Geospatial Information Systems program (but we were able to fight keep our main program intact). This now-defunct program died in 2014 after being denied financial support from the District to provide needed server and software licenses (this in itself was understandable). With the lack of District support, we could not in good conscience spend our limited time recruiting students to the GIS program, when we had stronger program to offer. CSX attempted to step in and provide the GIS program with software licensing we needed; the District wouldn’t contribute a penny towards costs behind the scenes, so logic compelled us to dissolve the only GIS program in the state of Florida, I’m sure to the chagrin of CSX (Aside: I’m sure CSX’s CEO was unaware of all this when he wrote his Op-Ed supporting our current Superintendent). I spent a good deal of time brainstorming way to inject GIS into the IT program, since CSX was so supportive of our Academy and was providing our students with paid GIS internships.

I still feel badly for what happened to the GIS program and the decisions we had to make considering all the support CSX gave us; I certainly hope my former business partners at CSX understand.

All politics aside: you’ve now read my opinion on the relative merits of the programs. Feel free to judge for yourself.

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