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Guest Blog: What does the Superintendent do?

Hello! My name is Christian and I will be working with JPEF this summer as a Policy Intern. I am a Political Science and Sociology Double Major at Howard University in Washington D.C. I am a graduate of Stanton College Preparatory School here in Jacksonville!  

- Christian Hall, Policy Intern 

Strengthening the systems that provide education is a matter of taking care of our region's greatest assets: our children. Strong district leadership plays a critical role in ensuring that children are equipped with the talents and skills they need to contribute to our region. As the CEO of the school district, the Superintendent sets the tone of the school district. He or she is responsible for hiring and supervising the other administrators throughout the district such as school principals and the Chief Financial Officer. The job of the superintendent is very important for a community, especially here in Duval County. Duval County Public Schools is the twentieth largest district in the nation, and sixth largest in the state of Florida. With over 128,000 students, Duval County has many teachers, students, parents and school employees all with very diverse needs.

During Dr. Vitti’s tenure, he realized that it was essential to focus on Jacksonville’s diverse communities and ensuring that all of our schools perform at the same high level. He also encouraged collaboration between the district and the community at large. Dr.Vitti garnered $40 million in funds from private donors to train and place high performing teachers and principals in 36 “transformation schools.” Because of this collaboration, academic progress has occurred in those schools. The superintendent sets the tone, lays out the course of the district and works closely with the school board to improve our public schools.

How do the School Board and the Superintendent work together?

Working with the board can be a difficult part of the superintendent’s job. The representatives that make up the school board are the superintendent's boss, and they oversee the hiring process for the superintendent as well as administer his or her performance evaluations.The Duval County School Board consists of seven members who are elected by their constituents every four years. These members make decisions that impact the organization and control of the district school system. School board members are responsible for everything from creating a policy handbook to developing standards to monitoring student performance (see page 13).

With the input and recommendations from the superintendent, the school board constructs policies that are necessary for the operation of the district. Establishing a structure that is conducive to student achievement is the board’s core function. In this policy role, they:

  • Adopt new curriculums and approve textbooks

  • Establish assessment requirements that provide performance data for monitoring student achievement.

  • Build human resource structures.

The School Board is the architect and driver of school district policies that impact student success. The school board also is a key player in establishing goals for the district. Boards are in the unique position as elected officials to work with the community and district staff to continuously improve student achievement. It is the board’s responsibility to define what improving achievement means to their individual districts and communities. The board’s role is to establish strategic goals and success indicators for improvement. This role of goal setting lays the foundation for all other board actions. 

Under Dr. Vitti’s leadership, the district has made great progress in achieving the goals they laid out in the previous strategic planning process.

  • Graduation rate, perhaps the most important measurement of success, has grown to 78.8 percent. Duval County is no longer the lowest of Florida’s largest seven urban school districts (often known as the Big 7).

  • Success with African American Students is impressive. Graduation rates among African American Students are now the highest of Florida’s largest seven urban school districts. And when compared, Duval County has the lowest achievement gap between white and African American students.

  • Students are on the road to college. College readiness scores in reading and math have significantly improved over the last five years, especially among minority students and students attending Title I schools.

  • Vitti has ushered in support from within the business community, philanthropists, and the school board to prioritize the highest need schools and students.  Millions have been produced for the most challenged schools in the district.

What makes an effective superintendent?

Although there is no research on the exact characteristics of what makes an effective superintendent, there is available evidence of the set of factors that can make a superintendent effective, such as: 

  • Shared understanding and agreement of board’s preferred working and leadership styles, both internally between board and superintendent and externally facing to the public.

  • Clear demarcation of and agreement upon roles, responsibilities and authority between the board and superintendent, preferably written-down and public.

  • Clear understanding and agreement on the objective, measurable performance goals on which the superintendent will be evaluated.

Superintendents must also respond to the demands of the teachers, students, parents, staff and the rest of the community. He or she also has to determine how to allocate funds and human resources to be successful. They must do all of this with the students in mind.

We hope Interim Superintendent Dr. Willis will provide continuity in achieving the district's goals. Dr. Willis is no stranger to the Duval County Public School System. She has 35 years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal, vice principal and principal.  In 2004 she was promoted to serve as the General Director of Professional Development for the District. She retired from the District as Deputy Superintendent in 2012. As Duval welcomes interim superintendent Dr. Willis to provide this essential leadership and continuity while the school board searches for a new, permanent superintendent, it is important that he or she is a strong leader who can build on the work that has been done over the last five year and keep the district moving forward.