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In Jacksonville's Integrated Schools, The Quest For Excellence Paid Off

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Four years ago the Duval County public-school system in northern Florida displayed practically every imaginable symptom of an urban school district in distress.

Its students ranked 62nd out of the 67 student populations in school systems around the state on Florida's Student Assessment Test. Its schools, which had operated without accreditation for more than a decade, were coping with a 1969 court order to desegregate.

"Drug use was rampant, discipline was poor, and disruptions were frequent," recalled the principal of a predominantly black inner-city high school.

Last week, however, U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell had some very kind words for Jacksonville's schools while speaking at dedication ceremonies for the district's new administration building.

"There are 16,000 school districts in the United States, and I can't stand up here publicly and say that this is the outstanding school district in the nation," Mr. Bell told the audience. "But if it isn't, I have to do some more looking."

Mr. Bell and the National Commission on Excellence in Education recently established by President Reagan have been urged to look closely at Duval County's schools in their Presidential charge to seek out methods of improving the achievement of American students.

Why they are being asked to look closely at the Duval County system is clear: In four years, a district-wide improvement program based on strict academic and disciplinary standards has moved Jacksonville students from the bottom of the heap to the head of the class in Florida.

"It just goes to show you what can be done when you challenge students to rise to higher levels of achievement," explained Herb A. Sang, superintendent of the Duval County school system."If teachers don't believe that a group of children can learn, the children won't learn. It becomes a self-fullfilling prophesy."

Students in Jacksonville apparently have accepted the school district's challenge and attacked it head-on. Last year they placed first on the communications section and fourth on the mathematics section of the state's student assessment test. They also took top honors in an annual "Math Field Day" for more than 50 schools in northeast Florida.

And a Jacksonville high-school football stadium was the site of the nation's first annual Academic Super Bowl, which pitted a local group against a team from Henrico County, Va. in competition based on the old General Electric College Bowl television series.

The increase in academic achievement has been matched by a corresponding decrease in school-related vandalism and other discipline problems, said Mr. Sang.

He and other school officials, however, are not fully satisfied with the improvement. This year they have introduced a district-wide campaign labeled "Courtesy is Contagious," which stresses respectful student behavior toward teachers and fellow students.

Perhaps the most dramatic change registered in the Duval County system, officials say, has taken place at Ribald High School, a predominantly black school with an enrollment of 1,500 students.

Improved Student Achievement

Walter G. Harris, who was principal of Ribald from 1977 through the end of the last school year, said that in 1976 only 20 percent of the students taking the state's student-assessment test passed its math section, while 57 percent passed its communications section. Last year, he boasted, students at Ribald increased those percentages to 84 percent and 99 percent, respectively.

The former principal, who is currently an assistant superintendent of the school system, said the adoption of a program giving teachers the option of transferring out of the high school was instrumental in improving student achievement levels.

"We lost just over half of our teachers," Mr. Harris said, "but the ones who stayed were extremely dedicated to the school and their students.

"The students say they now feel that their teachers really care about them, and that's the most important variable," he added.

The school also provided students with peer tutoring and offered special help-sessions during lunch breaks, both before and after class, and for two hours on Saturday mornings. The weekend sessions, he added, have regularly been drawing more than 100 students, some from neighboring high schools.

Mr. Sang said his office and the county's school board first began examining the problem of poor student performance as early as 1975.

Ended 'Social Promotions'

"One of the things we found was that we had accepted double standards for black and white children in the district," he said. Black students, he explained, were scoring lower on the tests than white students but were still being promoted to higher grade levels at comparable rates.

"One of the first things we did was eliminate 'social promotions,"' Mr. Sang continued. "Then in 1977 and 1978 we instituted a county-wide system of minimum-level skills tests at the secondary level and essential-skills tests at the elementary level."

The tests at the secondary level measure student competency in all courses required for graduation.

Students who cannot pass the exams are denied credit for these courses, preventing their graduation.

At the elementary level, the tests measure whether children can successfully participate in the next grade level. If they cannot pass the exam, Mr. Sang said, they are not promoted.

The improvement program's positive effect on the school system is undeniable, Mr. Sang said. Duval County now operates the largest fully-accredited school system in the nation. Its students, he added, score higher on the Stanford Achievement Test than do students in comparable urban school districts. And education officials across the country cite Jacksonville's peaceful and effective implementation of busing to comply with a court desegregation order as a model of excellence.

Mr. Sang and Duval County school-board members say they appreciate the recognition they are getting from Secretary Bell and the national media.

"But the biggest lift I thought we received," Mr. Sang said, "was the fact that the Tuscaloosa, Ala., school board, after making two visits here, decided to adopt several aspects of our improvement program.

"They say imitation is the highest form of flattery," he added. "Well, we're flattered."

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