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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Hillsborough leaders promise dialogue about race

Marlene Sokol / TIMES



Don't be alarmed at the 103-page PowerPoint, Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman April Griffin said, starting a 9 a.m. workshop about racial disparities in the public schools.

Staff will be given 30 minutes to present information about district programs and policies, but after that she will open the discussion up to board members and community leaders. So much data exists, "there could have been 503 slides, there really could have," said deputy superintendent Jeff Eakins, who is going over the numbers on attendance, test scores and discipline.

Eakins touched on the federally-funded programs the district offers at the elementary school, under the rationale that if students fall behind during the early years, it will be difficult to catch up in middle and high school. "Our schools go all out," he said.

Additionally, the district has created new position in a Student Management and Reconstruction program. And assistant superintendent Lewis Brinson announced the creation of a community task force that will include organizations such as the NAACP, the Boys and Girls Club and the United Way.

Update: Nearly 60 minutes have passed and the PowerPoint presentation continues. Board member Susan Valdes is given the floor at 9:58 a.m. She is glad that, separately, the board plans to take a hard look at the instrument it uses to evaluate its superintendent, as one ofen  the issues the NAACP raised was a need to consider diversity goals when evaluating its chief.

She got a round of applause when she said school officials need to be able to talk honestly about race. "It begins with the adults," she said. "Adults have to be able to have the couragous converation and put things to rest, and know what we are all about."

Next up: Member Doretha Edgecomb, who applauded staff for presenting the data and acknowledged closing the gaps in achievement and discipline among racial groups is an enormous undertaking. Addressing community leaders in the audience who are critical of the district, she said that for the school system to move forward, collaboration will need to take place. "This is a monumental task and it is not going to corrected overnight," she said. "It's going to take all of us." She urged community leaders to work with the district "not as adversaries, but advocates, that your criticisms can now turn into collaboration. She also acknowledged the importance of connecting with community and faith-based organizations, "Students really grow, develop and become who they are based on relationships," she said.

Griffin urged the district to focus more on recruiting a diverse workforce, so students see teachers "who look more like them."   She also asked for more information that compares male students to females. She also suggested teachers be helped to interact more effectively with rebellious students. "I think we need to teach our teachers to be as respectful to our students as they have to be respectful to us," she said. "We need to listen a little bit more to our students as adults and we need to keep in mind that we are serving them."

High-stakes testing also seems to be eating into other activities, such as club sponsorship and field trips, she said."I think we can look at data on bus requests for field trips," she said. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, however, pointed out that the decision to take field trips could just as easily be affected by the availability of busses, principal's preference and other factors.

On a broader note, Griffin said she wishes people of diverse backgrounds could talk about race without being suspected of racism. "As a white woman, I have brought up issues of concern in this community," she said. "I've used data in those conversations and my motives have been questioned. My sources have been questioned. As we are having these crucial conversations, we need to try to trust each other. Myself as a white woman, coming from poverty, I understand a lot of the issues. So trust the intent. As a white woman -- and I keep saying, 'as a white woman,' my intent has been mistrusted. Get it out of your head. My intent is to help our kids, period."

Valdes countered that, as well-intended as educators might be, it is still important to pay attention to cultural competency and diversity in the teaching force.

Member Cindy Stuart agreed that "administrators and teachers have got to look like the students in the class." She was somewhat alarmed by the escalating numbers of children in ATOSS, an off-campus program that is an alternative to out-of-school suspension. "Some of them are there a long time," she said. But when they leave, they sometimes lack supports at home. And she said she was intrigued by recent statistics on expulsions and change of placement, which suggests some school administrators are more lenient than others. "You can't go from south county and behave one way, to the north end of town and behave differently," she said.

Member Candy Olson picked up on the mobility problem. "I would like to see us find out our highest mobility schools and look for ways to keep the kids there instead of  moving them around," she said.

She lamented that there is so much "drama at the dais," it's hard to find enough trust to have honest conversations about race. Those conversations might be possible at the school level, she said. "But I don't think we will see much more progress in student achievement untl we do this. We have a very serious problem with some of our children. But many of them just want to learn and survive."



[Last modified: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 11:46am]


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