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Private funds, public schools

The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida launched a fundraising campaign in April called “Quality Education for All.” The premise was simple: Raise $50 million to pay for more high-quality public school teachers in high-demand areas like math and science. It was the culmination of a 10-year foundation initiative to find ways to channel donor dollars to improve public schools.

Duval County Public Schools

49.14% Percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch vs. 58.57% statewide

67.7% Graduation rate vs. 74.5% statewide

75% Retention of first-year teachers vs. 85% statewide

The campaign stemmed from the business community’s frustration about the quality of public education in Jacksonville — especially compared to neighboring St. Johns County, which has one of the best school districts in the state. Only 67.7% of public school students in Duval County graduate from high school, and the district was ranked 50th out of 67 school districts for overall student achievement in 2011, according to the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.

The $50 million will be used to launch a teacher residency program modeled after medical school residencies. Teachers will be placed in Duval County’s lower-performing urban schools. The Jacksonville Public Education Fund will also pay for training programs that groom principals and assistant principals.

“In order to remain competitive, you need a strong public education system,” says Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools.

But what the community foundation is attempting is more ambitious and wider in scope than any of the other 58 public school foundations in the state. The foundation’s $50-million goal is equal to the total amount of money the rest of the public school foundations in the entire state raised last year. By early October, foundation President Nina Waters says it raised $33.5 million. The foundation expects to meet its goal by the end of the year.

The money will be disbursed through the 4-year-old, non-profit Jacksonville Public Education Fund. The community foundation is responsible for “mobilizing the donors and raising the money,” Waters says. The public education fund has close ties to the foundation and was started with $2.8 million in seed money from foundation donors.