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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Is Duval over-suspending black students? The district doesn't know, and finding out will take five weeks and cost $3,000



On his way to becoming superintendent of Florida's sixth largest school system, Nikolai Vitti specialized in turning around some of the worst-performing schools in the state.

A job like that requires attention to detail and a good grasp of how things like race and poverty can affect how students get an education. And it would have taught Vitti that inequities in how discipline is handed out can be one major barrier to learning in low-performing schools.

School discipline often has been a hot topic, with stories like this one in the Washington Post periodically focusing attention on the issue.

The Times is interested in how schools handle discipline, too. As part of a still-ongoing, statewide study of how districts are faring on this front, the newspaper in March asked for basic data from the state's largest districts, including a breakdown of how many students were suspended in the past 15 years and whether they were black, white, Hispanic or some other race.

Most of Florida's largest districts keep this information at the ready, and they're able to consult it to make decisions and gauge how effective their policies are. Not Duval County.

There, neither Vitti nor any other administrator nor any member of the school board ever has requested a look at these numbers in the past decade, according to Assistant Superintendent Andrew Post. What's more, he said, an "antiquated" records system makes it impossible to pull this and other basic information without expending a monumental amount of time and energy.

How monumental?

It would take a top-paid district employee more than 80 hours over five weeks to fulfill the Times' public records request, and it would cost about $3,000, he said.

In a conference call, a Times reporter noted that other districts had quickly provided the same information at no charge.

Though Duval officials declined to discuss their student information system, Genesis, other than to call it antiquated and to say that it's being replaced, most systems of its type are designed to allow information to be extracted easily. The Times asked the district to consult one of its computer experts, who could determine whether the IT department could pull out the information more easily. The district refused.

"We have provided you with an estimate of the time and cost related to producing the information you have requested," spokeswoman Tia Ford wrote in an email on Friday afternoon. "Thus, we are not inclined to provide any additional information beyond the fact that queries will be made in order to retrieve the information requested."

Duval County might not gather and scrutinize discipline data on a regular basis, but the Florida Department of Education does. Examining these records last week, the Times found that Duval’s rate of giving black students in-school suspensions was the highest of the state's large urban districts in the 2011-12 school year. In fact, Duval County schools handed in-school suspensions to about 19 percent of its black students that year -- almost double the average rate of suspensions among the state's other big districts.

Regularly gathering and analyzing the district's own data can be fuel for good decision-making, said Mike Casserly, head of the Council of Great City Schools, a nationwide coalition of large urban public school systems. If a school system isn’t analyzing its own data, Casserly said, then it's missing out on opportunities to get better.

In a voicemail left for a Times reporter, Vitti described his district as “very data-driven” but held back by its record-keeping software.  “I’m always talking about data and the achievement gap, and using data to talk about where we are in Duval and what we need to do differently,” Vitti said. “Our dilemma is that our data systems are archaic.”

The system might be old, but it’s still a database -- and a user with the right skills should be able to pull the data in question with relative ease. The Times tried to reach Vitti again to make this point but was unsuccessful. If we get in touch, we’ll post an update then.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2014 1:03pm]


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