10/16/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Community as Coauthor: Writing a New Narrative for Education in Jacksonville

By Willa Seldon, Andrew Belton, and Betsy Haley Doyle

What will it take to turn around a city's underperforming public schools in just five years? It's a bold question a group of Jacksonville philanthropic funders set out to tackle in 2012.

With a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, at the helm, the funders sensed the time was right to transform teaching and learning in their city's struggling schools and set all students on a path toward college and career. They also knew that success would depend on forging a strong partnership--built on shared purpose and trust--with the school district, the community, and one another. "Starting out, we knew that big ideas required big ears," explains Nina Waters, president of The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, the organization that spearheaded the fund and recruited more than 30 donors to it.

The three dozen schools at the heart of the work are located in primarily African American neighborhoods, and as in many cities they are important to residents' sense of history and identity. After decades of failed reform attempts, parents and community leaders alike were skeptical that change was possible. "We had to answer questions like, 'Why will this time be any different? Why waste time and energy if nothing is going to happen?'" recalls Trey Csar, president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund. "Our intent was to make sure the community was not just a voice, but a preeminent voice."

Over the course of 2012, some 1,600 Jacksonville residents participated in more than 160 small-group conversations to identify what education issues mattered most. Meetings took place across Jacksonville, from individual homes to community theaters to houses of worship. Delegates from every part of the city were then nominated to refine and eventually endorse the top priorities that emerged.

The need for many more "high-quality teachers and school leaders" rose to the top of the list, a priority shared by Superintendent Vitti and the funders. This shared goal became the cornerstone of a five-year plan for Jacksonville's public schools: the Quality Education for All Fund. The QEA Fund recognized that while the school district had resources for professional development of veteran teachers and leaders, it had limited funds for attracting, nurturing, and keeping talented new ones. To close this gap, funders committed to raise $50 million for the QEA Fund. To date, nearly $40 million has been raised.

"Even if you have the best idea ever, and you have the biggest wallet in town," explains Vitti, "if you don't have a district that wants to invest in real change, you don't have anything." The Jacksonville plan's change agenda includes a residency program to train new teachers, a Principal Leadership Institute, a performance pay incentive program, and a stronger data system to improve decisions about teacher and leader talent within individual schools and across the district. And it includes a breakthrough agreement with the teachers' union to replace underperforming teachers in the priority schools.

The community is beginning to see promising signs of progress. This past fall, 80 high performing Jacksonville teachers sought transfers to the 37 target schools. More than 70 teachers and 15 schools leaders received retention bonuses.

Kim Kirton, a 17-year veteran teacher, began her career in one of the target schools and recently decided to return. She now teaches third-grade English language arts at Carter G. Woodson Elementary School. "I've never felt such urgency in regards to education," she explains in an email. "I've taught at some of the best schools in Jacksonville... I'm thankful I'm here because I already see change... Education is about empowering."

Bradley Fisher, an English teacher at Andrew Jackson High School, says of the initiative, "It allowed me to teach in the neighborhood that I live in and care very deeply about, and gave me the chance to make investments in the future leaders of this community."

As for the funders, maintaining a strong partnership with the community remains a top priority. "Another key lesson," relates Csar, "is that community engagement is never finished." Presentations and town hall meetings continue, and funders are also investing in communication materials designed to share progress and encourage continued participation among diverse parent and community audiences.

Of course, the Jacksonville initiative is a work in progress. Realizing its potential and sustaining its impact will require continued support from all corners of the city. But what's happening in Jacksonville offers a promising glimpse of what's possible when local funders and the community invest together in the future of students and neighborhoods. It's a story we plan to follow closely.

Belton and Doyle are coauthors of the recently released paper "Local Philanthropists Work Together to Transform Public Education," which looks at effective education philanthropy in Jacksonville, as well as work in Memphis, Tennessee, and Charlotte, North Carolina.