October 11, 2016

Vote for Lori Hershey; vote for our kids! #recessmatters

Four weeks from today voters will head to the polls. And while this election year is a big one nationally, there is a race much closer to home that will really matter to Jacksonville families. It is the election to fill the one open seat on the Duval County School Board. And it comes at a critical time for our school system.

When I first met candidate for Duval County School Board District 7 Lori Hershey in person, I immediately liked her no nonsense style. She had just received the most votes in the August primary, and was looking ahead to November.

Lori impressed me with her strong knowledge of our school system. It should come as no surprise as she is a Jacksonville native and the mother of four. Three of her children have graduated from the DCPS system; one is still enrolled.

One of the first things Lori decided was that she would run on her own merits and not partner with special interest groups. She had the opportunity - they approached her almost immediately following her strong performance in the primary - but she wanted to stay true to her own principles. She believes our School Board needs leadership not tied to special interests, and is committed to our schools and our children.

Lori with her husband Scott and their four children.

The District 7 seat is critical at this time. I cannot emphasize that enough. This Board member will have the power to shape the direction our School Board takes moving forward. Cater to special interest groups or focus on what matters most - our children?

To help other voters get to know Lori Hershey better, I emailed her some questions about her goals for our school district should she be elected:

Tell me why you chose to run for the Duval County School Board...

I’m running for school board because I care about public education and I want our city to have a school system we can be proud of and more importantly one we can believe in. I have been committed, focused and engaged with our public schools for over two decades. I’ve always been a champion for public education and students.

What do you see as the key issues our schools face today?

1. School safety and security are important. This school year alone has already had bomb threats at Mandarin High, LaVilla School of the Arts and others. We must ensure our campuses are safe and our classrooms are conducive to learning. Disruptive behavior interferes with learning for all. The best way to make sure our classrooms are conducive to learning is by empowering our teachers.

2. The School Board manages a budget that is 1.7 billion dollars. We must balance the budget and work efficiently within our means to produce excellence in education. We need to cut bureaucratic waste and direct dollars to the classroom.

3. So many of the challenges that face our schools are mandates that have been passed down from D.C. and Tallahassee. We must demand more local control of our schools.

4. Every student needs to graduate prepared and ready for success whether students enter the work force or pursue college.

5. Recruit and retain the best teachers.

If elected, what would your top goals be as a member of the Board?

  • Working to restore effectiveness to the board. Currently our board is fractured and it is important for board members to lay aside differences and work together for the common good of all students and address both the short and long term goals of education in our city. This election provides the opportunity to adjust the differences that currently exist. I have experience working on boards and with teams. This experience has provided the skills to work effectively as a board member. 

  • We need to address over crowding in our schools as well as those schools that are under utilized. This process will not be easy but it is vital. District 7 continues to see growth and our schools are at or nearing capacity. I wish there was an easy answer for this problem but there is not. Continuing to use portables to deal with over crowding is not the best long term solution. Building new schools is not something that happens quickly. This solution would be best solved by developing a strategic plan that is prepared for future growth.

  • Establishing policies that empower our teachers. If we are going to recruit and retain great teachers, then we have to give educators the freedom to educate without being restricted to script. Establishing policies and practices that empower educators in the classroom are essential.
Can you tell me a little about your background? How are you uniquely qualified to sit on the School Board?

I have been committed, focused and engaged in Duval County Public Schools for over two decades. Three of my children are graduates of DCPS and one is still enrolled. I have also worked in the classroom, served as a parent volunteer and mentored through United Way’s Achievers for Life Program. My experience with our schools also extends to my work experience. I have worked for educational non profits like Communities in Schools and am currently employed at the Jacksonville Children’s Commission. My experience and perspective is multi-faceted. My depth of experience with our school system provides me with a deep understanding of the issues and challenges that face our schools. I hold a Master’s in Public Administration and my work experiences have allowed me to: manage and balance budgets, negotiate contracts, and manage teams. I have the practical experience; as well insight into challenges that face our schools

I will be voting for Lori on November 8 and I hope you'll join me!

September 23, 2016

Dr. Vitti: Stop using scare tactics and spreading a false narrative in the media! #recessmatters

Dr. Vitti,

I grow weary of your scare tactics in the media. The simple truth is: our students have everything to gain and nothing to lose if daily recess is added to the schedule.

There is time in the school day, and nothing needs to be, "lost." Your own staff has been able to demonstrate this. Over the summer a workshop was held after the Action for Healthy Kids Urban School Wellness Coalition rated DCPS's Wellness Plan merely, "Average" and specifically recommended Duval add recess to its school day.

DCPS staff members from various disciplines and levels worked together to develop an elementary school schedule that included recess. I myself put together multiple revised versions of our Master Schedule at your request, and was able to find time without the loss of art, music, science or any other offering.

Yet you continue to drive the false narrative through the press there is no time and if we add recess, something must go.

It's not rocket science. Other counties across the state of Florida have made time for recess and lost nothing. They offer art, music, science and even resources Duval does not have in its schedule. Some of these districts have a shorter school day than DCPS.

Duval has more instructional time than nearly any district in the state. But more is not necessarily better. Research has proven recess helps students absorb information and perform better academically.

In a recent Florida Times Union feature you stated you, "don't feel comfortable putting constraints on our teachers." I found it ironic, since you place enormous constraints on our teachers every day, micromanaging them to levels some consider obscene.

A formal recess policy would empower our teachers to follow their training and instincts about what is best for their students, rather than an arbitrary, egregious curriculum pacing guide. Teachers are desperate for a recess policy. They want it as much as parents do. I know because they tell me so every day. They stop me in the hallway of my child's school. They call me. Email me. Facebook message me. 

They all say the same thing, "Please keep fighting." And we will. 

Our own Board understands the importance of recess and wants to see it made mandatory. It has demonstrated it is prepared to do what is right. While all you have done is send emails giving, "permission" and "encouraging" recess, Board members recognize that is not enough.

Ms. Wright said, "I find the word, 'encouraged' problematic. Not everyone will do it."

Ms. Couch said, "It needs to be every day."

And Mr. Shine said he is not comfortable with the appearance recess is optional. He wants to see it required, stating, "We need a definitive, uniform policy."

Our Board wants recess. Our teachers wants recess. Parents want recess. Students want recess.

What is your real agenda in refusing to do what is right? Because I will admit I am baffled.

When it comes to mandated recess, the train has already left the station. DCPS has two choices: get on board, or race to catch up. I hope you make the choice that is best for our children.

Recess. In every school. In every classroom. For every elementary student. Every day.

Sign the petition to bring recess back to DCPS elementary schools!

August 22, 2016

Dr. Vitti Sends Rhetoric and Threats to Parents Seeking Change #recessmatters

Note: While I have contacted Dr. Nikolai Vitti by email and Open Letter, I have as of yet not received a reply. I have had multiple email conversations with DCPS School Board Chairman Ashley Smith Juarez. When I requested an in person meeting, communication stopped.

Dr. Vitti has responded to other DCPS parents who have raised their concerns about the lack of recess and DCPS' failing to meet the state mandated P.E. time. Below in regular text are his comments. I have also placed his comments inside quotation marks.

Any email communications to/from the school district are public record. I have redacted the name of the parent it was sent to. Although I know several who received this exact communication. 

In bold text, I break down Dr. Vitti's claims and highlight his countless contradictions and misinformation. Even a veiled threat.

"Dear (parent name redacted),

Thank you for contacting me with your concern. I want to assure you that the district did not eliminate recess in our elementary schools. Per Florida Statute 1012.01(2), all elementary students receive 150 minutes of physical education each week."

OK, here is Issue #1. Recess and Physical Education (P.E.) are NOT one in the same. They are completely separate and not interchangeable. Each has been proven essential to elementary education and each offers unique benefits.

Issue #2, the current state statute says nothing about recess. We’re working on that, but as it stands recess is not part of the required 150 minutes per week. That time is to be spent as PHYSICAL EDUCATION. Which, as I just stated, is not the same as recess. Physical Education is a class. There are benchmarks attached and children are expected to demonstrate learning gains. They receive P.E. grades on their report cards.

Recess is free, self-directed play time. It is a complement to P.E., not a substitute for it. When the state legislature considered changes to the current statute earlier this year, it considered recess to be, “separate and apart from the physical education requirement.” They also called for a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes of this time. (Keep that in mind for later.)

Issue #3 – Dr. Vitti is citing a statute that is the basis for how DCPS works to skirt the law. It is a sham, although the loophole exists in the actual Physical Education statute (Florida Statute 1003.455)
, and DCPS has run a truck through it.

The vast majority of classroom teachers are not trained in nor certified to teach Physical Education. Many of them do not feel qualified to fulfill this role. They are uncomfortable with it.  Which is why they simply take their students out to play, with no direction or instruction, as the statute does require. 

The Physical Education professionals like it even less. Their overall performance for their jobs is evaluated based on the results of Teacher Directed P.E., which is not true P.E. I would like to see the training materials the district has provided to classroom teachers to enable them to be P.E. instructors. This, "system" DCPS is using puts everyone in a bad position, least of all our children.

"As a district, we have established scheduling guidelines that are provided to each school, to ensure the state required instruction is provided. The chart for elementary schools is provided below, for your review:"

I want to pull out one crucial piece of information here:

** Teacher Directed PE does not qualify as recess. Activities should be structured to ensure safety and alignment to physical education standards specific to grade levels.

So right here Dr. Vitti has contradicted his earlier statement. Issue #4 – he said the district had not eliminated recess; that it was included in the P.E. time. But his own chart states P.E. time is NOT recess. Issue #5 – The time set aside for Teacher Directed P.E. is not structured in any way. The kids go outside and play. Which is GREAT! But it is not Physical Education by any stretch of the imagination. No one believes it to be even, I am quite sure, DCPS.

"Physical Education lessons can be delivered outside, in the gym or multipurpose room, or even in the classroom, depending on the weather and the appropriateness of the space for the physical education lesson."

The only true Physical Education lessons our students receive are the ones directed by the schools’ Physical Education staff member, often referred to as a, “Coach.” This person is a P.E. professional, educated and certified to teach Physical Education. My daughter sees her school’s Coach once every six school days for 45 minutes.

"In addition to the 150 physical education minutes, the district provides flexibility at the discretion of the teacher to include time for additional physical activity during the school day/week for minutes not used by core instructional requirements."

Flexibility. It sounds great, doesn’t it? If only it were true. The teachers have the, “flexibility” to take their students outside ONLY IF they have been able to remain on track with the district’s ridiculously aggressive academic schedule and goals. The pressure on teachers and students is enormous. And it is daily. They are constantly being pushed by administrators to stay on task and ensure they are meeting the unreasonable expectations that have been set. Time to play? Not likely. 

"To provide an example of how schools implement flexibility for additional recess time, Greenland Pines’ second grade teachers provide 15 additional recess minutes per day."

How is this, “additional” recess time? We’ve already been told Teacher Directed P.E. is NOT recess. So up to this point of Vitti's argument, our children have not actually received any recess time. Now they are being given a whopping 15 minutes per day.

In my upcoming video, I will break down what this would actually look like. For example, how much of that time does it take to line students up to leave the classroom? To walk outside to the play area, then line up and return to the classroom? To say the students actually have 15 full minutes of playtime each day is as much of a joke as claiming teachers have flexibility and that Teacher Directed P.E. is true P.E.

Moreover, NOT ALL TEACHERS DO THIS. How do I know? My child has friends in other classes. Their parents tell me when and if their students are given this time. Last year in First Grade there was ZERO consistency in how this was managed by teachers.  Some teachers took their students out; some did not. There were students who NEVER receive this, “free” time. 
And I know from their parents those students were miserable.

Imagine my child is in Ms. Jones' class, and she takes her students out for free play every day. Your child is is Ms. Smith's class. She never takes her students out for free play. How is that in any way fair and equitable? What kind of an impact do you think that has on your child in Ms. Smith's class?

How many issues is that? I’ve lost count. Let’s move on…

"This provides an additional 75 minutes per week of unstructured play for students, bringing their total physical activity minutes to 225 per week, which is well over the 150 required minutes."

This claim is flat out ludicrous. Parents know our students are not getting all this time. My child does not receive anywhere CLOSE to 150 of physical activity/education per week. And I WILL be substantiating that, using the district’s Master Schedule. 

Second, unstructured playtime DOES NOT COUNT TOWARD THE STATE MANDATE BECAUSE IT IS NOT PHYSICAL EDUCATION! I’m sorry if I’m yelling in writing. I’ve been dealing with emails like this from administrators and politicians for months now. I’m a little fed up. OK, a lot. I am DONE with lip service and excuses and misinformation. Free-play recess is not physical education. Period.

Dr. Vitti sounds like he is trying to pat himself on the back with the above statement, when the reality is he is failing our children.

"In addition to flexibility at the teacher level, every school has the ability to adjust their schedules to include additional time for physical education and/or recess. This is done through the Shared Decision Making Team and the School Advisory Committee (SAC)."

So after assuring us ALL DCPS elementary students are receiving the SAME amount of P.E. and free playtime, which we can see is not the truth, Dr. Vitti admits there is no consistency among schools, just as there is no consistency within schools. So a student at one elementary school COULD be receiving much less or much more time than a student at a different school. And I know for a fact this is exactly what is happening.

And while the state statute makes it clear it is the responsibility of school boards to ensure the physical education mandate is followed, and Dr. Vitti has told us he’s on top of it, he is now telling us the obligation lies with the individual schools. Are you confused yet?

"If you would like your school to consider an initiative to encourage greater physical activity, I would recommend that you introduce the idea through your school’s SAC. As you make your request, please be mindful that the legislature has established similar instructional time requirements for other core academic areas that the school will also need to maintain."

Yes, parents SHOULD get involved and be informed! I could not agree more with Dr. Vitti on this point. But working at the school level is not the answer when we have a district-wide problem. And watch out for what he is laying out here…

"In addition, we have made a commitment as a district that all students will receive instruction in art and music, so that time must be protected, as well."

Of course it must. These are also critical parts of our children’s education. And it is very easy for DCPS to provide them alongside P.E. and recess. There is plenty of time within the school schedule for ALL of these important components of early education. It costs nothing extra. It does not require any current resources to be eliminated. Or additional time in the school day. DCPS CAN and SHOULD provide ALL these resources for our students.

This is a veiled threat. Dr. Vitti is indicating he intends to play hardball. It is a popular tactic for administrators. Parents across the state have been dealing with it. Push for recess, Superintendents and School Boards threaten to drop things they know also matter to parents. It's as if they are all following the same script. 

"I recognize the importance of developing the whole child and incorporating physical activities in the elementary school day. Even with the challenge of the teaching the new, more demanding Florida Standards, staff will continue to problem solve in order to provide as much recess time as possible into elementary school schedules."

I spent nearly 20 years as a corporate communications professional. I used to write this kind of language for executives. You know what it is? Rhetoric. A dog and pony show. Vitti's entire email is. And we should not stand for it.

Also, by bringing up the Florida Standards, Vitti is doing what I have seen every level of administrator at DCPS do – pass the buck.
It’s not us; it’s the district. It’s not us; it’s the state. It's not us... Parents across Florida working to ensure recess for our students have seen this over and over. Yet when they talk to state leaders, those individuals are shocked – and not the least bit amused – to hear the districts are trying to pass off their own failings on the state.

There are issues at the state level, but they aren’t the ones we are talking about when trying to secure recess for our children.

So Dr. Vitti has put this on teachers, schools and the state. But taken ZERO accountability himself. And demonstrated no leadership.

Superintendent, your assurances are empty and meaningless. The simple fact is DCPS is failing to provide what is required; what our children deserve.

We expect you to provide a full 150 minutes for our children of Physical Education. In addition, DCPS needs to develop a written, publicly available Recess Policy that guarantees EVERY elementary student no less than 20 minutes of consecutive free, unstructured playtime every school day.

“In every school. In every classroom. For every elementary student. Every day.” (DCPS Mission Statement)

Who do you think you are fooling?

"Again, thank you for contacting me with your concern.


Nikolai P. Vitti, Ed.D.

Superintendent of Schools"

Still to come on the blog: a video demonstrating what a typical day looks like for an elementary school student versus what the administration claims it does. And a breakdown of the Florida State Statute on Physical Education, with commentary on how DCPS is choosing not to follow it.

Stay tuned and be sure to join our Facebook group to help us fight for proper Recess for DCPS!

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