Category Archives: DCPS Issues

Open letter to Duval County School Board regarding extension of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s contract

Mr. Shine and Honorable Board Members:

I am one of Mr. Shine’s constituents.

I am disheartened by your unanimous vote tonight to extend the Superintendent’s contract to the point I’m having trouble sleeping, so I am writing this letter to you.

I am not only disheartened that Dr. Vitti’s contract was renewed, but in the quiet, rushed, disorganized fashion he was renewed. I plan to do my best to find out why this vote was so blatantly rushed. I keep reasonable track of DCPS issues, yet I was unaware of this vote until the morning of. Most of my teacher friends had no idea this vote was happening. I suspect this is how many of you wanted this.

Yesterday was an extremely busy day at work, so I was unable to prepare a statement for last night’s meeting. I was unable to speak my piece as a citizen because of the Board’s quiet, unnecessary rush to vote on this issue. I will have a hard time forgiving the Board, and will have a hard time forgiving myself for not pushing my work obligations aside to write a statement, leave work early, and speak last night.

I resigned from DCPS last summer as Sandalwood’s reigning Teacher of the Year, and Duval County Teacher of the Year semifinalist, largely due to Vitti’s misguided leadership (I will not get into details about Dr. Vitti’s many missteps here; this letter is about you, not him).

I subsequently campaigned against you specifically, Mr. Shine (mainly because of your rating Vitti “an eight out of ten”) and on behalf of Shannon Russell. Mr. Shine, when you won the seat convincingly, I made the decision that I’d reconsider and reserve judgment until I saw your actions. I think I am a reasonable person and can be persuaded by reasonable, logical argument so I’m asking for you to please persuade me.

I would respectfully like an explanation from the Board as to why Vitti was renewed:

  • Nine months before the deadline to renew,
  • In such a rushed fashion,
  • When it was clear sufficient discussion had not occurred among the Board members (Any rebuttal that discussion was sufficient with 9 months to spare would be an insult to your constituents’ intelligence given what was shown on camera last night),
  • Before test results came out this year, and especially
  • When not a single teacher spoke in his favor.

You would be hard pressed to find any teachers who want to work for Dr. Vitti, and if you do find them, they are a tiny minority. DCPS — meaning you — you say you are interested in doing a better job retaining teachers. So considering most teachers want Vitti dismissed (any statement to the contrary confirms that you’re not paying close enough attention), this decision puzzles me and makes me wonder: do teachers actually matter to the School Board? I think last night’s vote proves your answer is a clear “No”.

I do not see the Board’s decision being easily changed, but neither do I plan to let this issue rest quietly. Especially without hearing a satisfactory answer befitting your crucially important positions and responsibilities within the City of Jacksonville — responsibilities that I want to ensure you are not abdicating.

Your actions last night, and your inaction regarding the absolute necessity of parting ways with Dr. Vitti may not get the attention it deserves. And my efforts may be too little, too late for the students and educators of Duval County you are sworn to represent. But it will not be for lack of effort on my part.

I don’t believe it’s likely, but it is possible I’m seeing this the wrong way. If you are interested in talking to me to give your full story and show where I’m mistaken, I’m willing to listen.

Sincerely,

Mike Khalil

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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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Education’s run by too many businesspeople and too few teachers. Elect Shannon Russell, 20-year teacher, to our School Board!

I’m writing this blog post because some in Jacksonville are considering placing a real estate tycoon with no Education experience on the Board of Directors of the 20th-largest school district in the nation.

Please understand I have no personal beef with Mr. Shine, but this is roughly equivalent to a successful high school principal with no business experience being placed on the Board of Directors of Verizon or CostCo. It’s preposterous in either direction. I’m writing this post to ask those of you living in the Jacksonville Beaches, or Intracoastal Areas, to vote for Shannon Russell, a 20-year teacher, for our School Board.

Allow me to give my resume before I brag on Shannon, just to add myself as a data point.

I’m the 2014 Teacher of the Year at Sandalwood High School. I was subsequently named a Duval County Teacher of the Year semifinalist (Final 15 in the 20th-largest school District in the nation). My classroom has been highlighted by the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, the Florida Times-Union, and WJCT Radio.

I ultimately left the teaching profession as reigning Teacher of the Year last month because of money and politics; because although Education would do well to selectively use some business practices, the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. Education is run by too many businesspeople, and not enough educators.

Many of us remember when we went to school. Many of us have kids who goes to school. And unfortunately, many of us think our limited observations and frustrations make us experts in how to “fix” schools. Shannon is an expert in Education; I believe Scott Shine is not.

To top it all off (please bear with me here), ask almost any teacher or administrator Vitti didn’t bring with him, and they will likely tell you: nearly everything Vitti has touched has been a disaster. Change is often necessary, but Vitti has repeatedly implemented change recklessly and without apparent regard of ramifications. Yet Mr. Shine looks at these literally stupid things Vitti has done, and when asked how he would rate his superintendency, says he “would give Superintendent Nikolai Vitti an eight.”

Shannon Russell, meanwhile, is a 20-year teacher at Sandalwood High School. She is an extremely intelligent, driven woman who is passionate about improving Education. She has been a leader at Sandalwood High School, in Duval County Public Schools, and a Director of Duval Teachers United. She helped make the IT Academy at Sandalwood great with her input, assistance and relevant teaching practices. But she doesn’t have the funds Scott Shine has, and has not rubbed elbows with all the powerful people Shine has, precisely because she is a teacher and gave up the opportunity for wealth and power so that she could educate your kids.

Do you see the problem? Thoughtful, intelligent dynamic teachers are often the ones who know best how to educate our kids. But it is an uphill battle, because a Step 19 teacher in Shannon’s position makes $48,000/year, and this is the most she has ever made. Not conducive to running a modern campaign, buying ads, etc. This shuts teachers out from actually helping make Education policy.

I’m hoping we can change that on Tuesday.

Shannon recently gave a speech that I thought was wonderful. I would like you to read it, and if you live off Hodges/San Pablo or live in the Jacksonville Beaches area, go out and vote for Shannon Russell on August 26.

I was respectfully and appreciatively referred to as “the underdog” earlier today while delivering signs out in our community. They don’t expect me to lose, they expect for me to win, but they also know I am going up against some big money and big connections. I’m a teacher. My connections are everyday people. I don’t have connections with many politicians or corporations. I connect with my students, their parents, our teachers, and members of our community in general. I couldn’t afford to spend $33,000 of my own money on this campaign because that is roughly what I make in a year after taxes. I spend my own money on things my students need, for my classroom, recertification, and professional organization memberships. I don’t have fancy double-sided, glossy, full-color post cards and 8 x 10 mailings or giant road signs on wooden stakes. I am relying on my $250 candidate ballot statement with the Duval Elections Office, the election endorsements post card from the North Florida Central Labor Council (thank you!), lots of door to door and small venue one on one talks, forums, screenings, meetings, and constant use of social media. And I have never run for office before, so this has been quite the learning curve for me.

But what I DO know is that people do not want more of the same. They want someone who represents THEM, not another politician, not another person with big money, not someone who is using the backs of our kids as a stepping stone to get to the next level of his or her career, not another person who wants to tell us how education should be run in our county that has never stepped a single day into a classroom to work with kids, parents, teachers, and administrators, or someone whose children are enrolled in private school but wants to be on a public school board.

Vote for the person who represents US, a veteran teacher of nineteen years who you know has always had our kids’ best interests at heart and has always stood up for them, for teachers, and for public education. My track record and experience speaks volumes. So do the donations and endorsements of my opponents. Follow the money. Question the endorsements. My promise is to You and no one else.

I promise to listen to you, and to make our schools the best learning environment for All of our students. I will ensure that their learning time in the classroom is protected from road blocks like excessive testing, discipline issues, safety concerns, and truancy. I will make sure that resources are equally shared across the district because children are children no matter where they live or what their school grade is this year, and all teachers should have equal access to training and tools to develop professionally and to help their students. And we must continue to reach out and invite our experienced community leaders into our schools to volunteer, mentor, and help us guide our students to explore their options, meet their goals, and achieve their dreams.

I know this speech has been long, but I promise you, it is not merely noise. This is the sound of Passion, for all that I have dedicated my college degree and the past nineteen years of my life to. Can I count on your vote for Duval County School Board, District 2 on August 26? We can win this together. Please spread the word: Get a TEACHER on the school board! See you at the polls!

If you want more information about Shannon Russell or her stances on substantive issues, visit her campaign’s pages on Facebook and BallotPedia.

NOTE: Shannon Russell had no input on this blog post. I wrote it completely of my own accord because I believe we need Shannon on our School Board.

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Always remember: “Customer Service” starts with “Employee Satisfaction”

Dr. Nikolai Vitti would like Duval County teachers to offer good “customer service” to parents and students. So I will be so bold as to give the best piece of unsolicited advice I can give him: The #1 rule of Customer Service, so well-researched and ubiquitous in Business that it’s a cliché: The best indicator of Customer Satisfaction is Employee Satisfaction.

Unfortunately, the School Board has given Dr. Vitti “lower evaluation marks” due to “employee morale.” A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Vitti announced he was giving us a climate survey. I very respectfully wrote him to applaud taking steps to get to the bottom of the issue. I gently stated that I thought his goals in the survey may have inadvertently missed the mark.  The goals were stated in a way where any “negative” response from teachers would implicate only ourselves or our schools, which may prevent many teachers from answering honestly. I received no response.

I don’t believe it presumptuous to think he distributed this survey to address the School Board’s concerns regarding morale. After his lack of response, I had to wonder: is this a genuine attempt to gather data? Or is it an attempt to deflect blame away from himself and his cohort of newcomers in DCPS leadership, towards schools and teachers?

I took the survey. I love what I do, but unless things change, I don’t see myself staying in my current position — this is no secret. As a result, I was asked the following question:

21. Please select the most important factor contributing to your plans to stop teaching at your school.

Dr. Vitti, if you happen to read this: I would like an explanation why this was an option in the survey (emphasis added):

Dissatisfaction with my school leadership/immediate supervisor.

But this was not an option in your survey:

Dissatisfaction with my District leadership.

Why was this a question (emphasis added):

33. Please offer any suggestions for how your school can improve your professional experience or increase your impact as a teacher (Your response will be shared anonymously with your school leaders).

But this was not a question:

Please offer any suggestions for how your District can improve your professional experience or increase your impact as a teacher (Your response will be shared anonymously with your District leaders).

These both seem obvious, both seem to have been left out intentionally (I hope this is not the case), and for the record, the latter would be my answer. Make no mistake, this was a running issue throughout the survey — out of dozens of issues and people to blame, almost none in any way pointed to District leadership.

This seems to be a tailor-made and hand-picked survey for embattled District leadership who want to deflect blame with “data” from a “third party research organization.” I could be wrong. I hope I am. I hope for the best-case scenario (that this was simply a very poorly-designed survey).

So let me be clear since the survey did not allow me to say so: I am considering leaving Duval County Public Schools because of the direction the County leadership has taken under Dr. Vitti’s Superintendency the past year and a half. And from his and other higher-ups’ lack of response to my communication, and from this survey, one thing seems clear: it doesn’t appear anyone in the District would like to actually know why teacher morale is so low this year, but rather is looking to point fingers elsewhere: to individual schools, individual principals, and to teachers themselves.

(Note: I notified the School Board of my concerns Wednesday evening. Three of the seven School Board members have already replied to my concerns. All three replies were positive. My issue is not with the School Board. Although I believe they have the duty to hear what’s going on, and do something about it, quickly, the wording of their e-mails make me confident they are replying in good faith. I have given other District leadership plenty of opportunity to respond to legitimate concerns I have raised in a respectful manner and they, on the other hand, have ignored my concerns.)

Last year (2012-13) was perhaps the most special, wonderful year of my working life due to the impact we’ve made on Sandalwood IT students’ education. This was before most of the new initiatives were implemented.

This year (2013-14), my former mentor, as close to a superstar as a teacher can be, recently asked me the simple question: “How is your year going?” When I hesitated, the teacher said, “Don’t worry; if you say, ‘Good,’ I think you’d be the only one in the county.” I chuckled and answered, “This should be the most amazing year of my life as a teacher; the awards, all the nice things people have said, all the positive changes for my students in IT, the principal has been so supportive… yet this year has simply felt like a train wreck. We have to fight to the death against the District for everything, big and small. I feel deflated working in this county, this year.” My mentor agreed, and made it clear this was the consensus:

We’ve had some bad years in Duval County. But this is by far the worst we’ve seen in decades.

Whether true or not, fair or unfair, even if they’re just growing pains, this indicates a high level of employee dissatisfaction. Why? I am only one data point, but I will informally try to put it together:

  • More testing than ever. Data is unavailable in a timely manner. Timing of the exams makes little sense. Much of the testing is perceived as being redundant.
  • Speaking of testing, here’s a quote from District personnel: “An incorrect answer key was used to score the CGA, but you can still use the results to group students.” This statement makes my head hurt.
  • Dr. Vitti’s leadership style seems very hierarchical — most of the leaders brought from Miami-Dade and elsewhere  seem to strictly follow chain-of-command, rebuking teachers who speak directly to District personnel, which leads to:
  • Teachers perceiving we are disrespected. When an experienced teacher with a Ph.D. and 20 years’ teaching experience sees an issue or mistake in a new procedure or curriculum being implemented, and writes someone at DCPS to seek quick resolution to a pressing situation affecting their students, this person will be rebuked for not going through the principal (this actually happened more than once).
  • I must ask, Dr. Vitti: why is this the new culture at DCPS? That teacher with a Ph.D.? It’s her classroom. Her salary and retention are based on her student performance. She is probably more of an expert in that specific class than either the principal or the District personnel. So how does she not have the right to speak on her own behalf?
  • Lack of autonomy (which is another cliché — most employees, especially educated employees like teachers, will have low morale if they are not autonomous). I will speak for my own situation; whether it is isolated or representative, I don’t know:
    • The Executive Director over Career and Technical Education in Duval County has repeatedly presumed to tell me how to run an Information Technology program and more puzzling, my own IT classroom.
    • Why would this be puzzling? Below is a screen shot of the teaching credentials of the person appointed by Dr. Vitti as Executive Director over the entire Career and Technical Education Deparment in Duval County (name and DOE number redacted):

ESE, Reading & ESOL teaching credentials

    • I know a little bit about ESE and how important and difficult it is, and how special a person you have to be to teach it. My mom’s a 20-year ESE job coach. My brother graduated from Palm Avenue Exceptional Student Center and his teachers made a big impact on his life.
    • So I know for a fact that as a non-ESE teacher, I cannot speak intelligently towards instruction in an ESE classroom. I likewise have seen little evidence this particular person with these particular credentials can speak intelligently towards instruction in an Information Technology classroom. Yet she has pushed back on many an issue, big and small, where we’re left asking ourselves, “Why does she care, how would she know better than us on this particular issue, how is she the only one not seeing the value in what we’re saying, and why is she making our lives unnecessarily difficult?”
    • My question remains: How is an ESE Teacher with no apparent experience leading a CTE department (according to her LinkedIn resume) the Executive Director of Career and Technology Education for the 20th-largest school district in the U.S.?
    • This is especially puzzling considering she replaced Chris Force, an amazing leader who is highly credentialed, respected and experienced. Chris was humiliated and relegated to the classroom by Dr. Vitti in favor of, again, someone with no experience running a CTE department of any size (according to her publicly available resume).
    • I will say that a lot of the more odious CTE policies seem to have come from above CTE (either the Chief Assessment Officer, or the Superintendent), and the new Executive Director seems to be fighting for these head-scratching policies wholeheartedly without trying to communicate their value to teachers. I can’t speak for Ms. Force, but I feel somewhat confident Chris would have pushed back on some of these to benefit our students (or at least communicated the initiatives downstream to us).
    • It is my hope that this is an isolated incident, and not indicative of the credentials of the leaders Dr. Vitti has brought in with him.
    • On a different note: Dr. Vitti personally implemented a policy that removes my school’s autonomy (and my ability as Coordinator) to purchase the goods I need for my classroom and program without DCPS Chief Officer approval. These are funds I and fellow teachers raised through preparing students for Industry Certifications. He’s basically stated that if I want to buy, say, a set of non-magnetic screwdrivers for my classroom with our own funds, the need has to be foreseen a year in advance, and has to be approved by a Chief Officer of Duval County Public Schools.
    • With all due respect, that particular Chief Officer is not in my “line of command” (meaning he is not accountable for either my performance or my school’s performance), and is far removed from the classroom. Why must he sign off on what we at the school deem necessary to purchase for our students?
    • This system encourages us to buy items without being sure we need them, and not being able to buy items the moment we find we need them, wasting funds that could have been used more efficiently. Why can we not create accounts “controlled” by Program Coordinators and Directors, and go through the normal requisition process (with its existing checks and balances) when we find out we need to buy something for classrooms in the program?
  • At the high school level, I firmly place much of the blame for morale on adding an 8th class to the high school schedule:
    • This means Dr. Vitti added almost 15% more classes without adding 15% more teachers.
    • I’d like to be more respectful in how I phrase this, except I don’t know how: How was that supposed to work?
    • I will answer my own question: math classes had 60-90 students, and high school elective classes in Duval County had 50-150 students. More teachers were hired after the local news got involved.
    • Coaches, academic and vocational program coordinators (like me), athletic directors, librarians, and nearly everyone else paid as a teacher who had leadership responsibilities were now mandated to teach a full load of classes in addition to their leadership responsibilities, for no additional pay, to make up for the deficit. Something has to give, and every corner we have to cut as a result of this policy harms students.
    • The library was largely inaccessible to Sandalwood students for several months because the librarian was forced to teach classes by Dr. Vitti’s policy. Only an uproar from parents reopened our library part-time.
    • The May 2013 school board minutes show Sandalwood was far from the only school in that situation.
  • And last, but certainly not least, the CAST system is worse than a bad joke.

DCPS has many other issues — most of them have to do with the appearance that much of we’re currently doing seems to be half-baked. Teachers are left to deal with the chaos DCPS policies have caused (what happened to implementing change methodically and carefully?), and to try to shield our students from the effects as well as we can. Because the ones who suffer the most are indeed our students.

So teacher morale is low, curriculum is incomplete, we’re being told to do completely nonsensical things by people seemingly unqualified for their jobs, and student instruction is being affected. Helping students is why most of us are in this business anyway. When we see people in the District who take affirmative steps to stop us from helping our students, our morale will be low.

And here we are, talking about customer service. Dr. Vitti, I think we’re putting the cart before the horse here. We need to get our house in order first. Good “customer service” flows naturally from people who believe in their organization. Your actions (not your words) make some of us feel you don’t believe in us, so it’s reasonable to think the feeling (from a non-trivial number of teachers), is mutual. I hope you can and will take actions that prove otherwise — by involving, listening to, and empowering teachers in meaningful ways — so we can once again believe we’re all in this together, working towards the same goal: giving our students the best opportunity possible to earn an education.

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