Black student study in Pinellas won't happen after all

After a long, slow demise, a proposed — and some said promising — research study into low black student achievement in Pinellas County is finally being taken off life support.

Interim Pinellas superintendent John Stewart said recently that he's "not going to breathe any life into it," but also said whether it was totally dead depended on the Lastinger Center for Learning at the University of Florida, a proposed partner.

Lastinger director Don Pemberton said the center is ready to help, but suggested it's up to the district to move forward.

The proposed researcher, highly regarded Northwestern University economist David Figlio, said the district told him it was moving in a different direction.

Translation: It's over.

The news drew a mixed reaction, even among those who have criticized the district's efforts with black students.

"I didn't believe it was necessary in the first place," said Ray Tampa, immediate past president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "It was something district staff could have done."

The counter from community activist Sami Leigh Scott: "If the district had the ability and competence to do what this expert has proven he can do, we would not be in the crisis that our children are in," she said. Killing the study is "just another nail in the coffin" for black students.

The proposed study was pitched as a way to find out why black students in Pinellas, as a whole, do worse than black students in every other big district in Florida. But it got tripped up by one unexpected hurdle after another: rising tension over former superintendent Julie Janssen's tenure, opposition from a community group that advocates for black students and ties to Lastinger, which lost favor in the district after Janssen was fired.

Janssen initially proposed hiring Figlio last spring, after a St. Petersburg Times analysis found black students in Pinellas were falling further behind black students in other districts. She wanted him to look closer at the data and offer explanations. But the proposal met with resistance from leaders of the Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, a group that strongly supported Janssen. And because of other issues flaring around her, Janssen said she had to put the idea on hold.

In August, a new proposal emerged: Use Figlio to identify which teachers or teams of teachers were seeing the biggest gains among black students. Use another researcher to find out what they're doing to get those gains. Use professional development to share those methods or practices with other teachers. Use Lastinger to secure the funds.

Some national teacher quality experts said the project was potentially ground-breaking. But it was doomed.

Janssen was fired. COQEBS leaders continued to object. Stewart quickly curtailed the district's relationship with Lastinger.

Tampa, a Janssen foe, said her role with the study made him question it.

He also noted that the district, under former superintendent Clayton Wilcox, hired Figlio and another researcher to do a study in response to a lawsuit that charged the district with failing to properly educate black children. They concluded in 2006 that the achievement gap between black and nonblack students in Pinellas (as opposed to black and white students) was similar in size to gaps in other Florida districts. They also said they could find no evidence that "these gaps are due to systematic exposure to the Pinellas County schools."

"I guess I had a little cynicism about who was being asked (to do the study), and why he was being asked, and who asked him," Tampa said.

Scott said Figlio was credible and objective, and would have been fair.

She said Stewart is showing, like his predecessors, that the plight of black students is not a priority. She has criticized other Stewart decisions involving black students, including his choice of principal to replace Kevin Gordon at predominantly black Gibbs High, and his selection for chief turnaround officer, a top official who will work closely with the most struggling schools.

Black students are "not on his radar," Scott said.

It was never clear how much the study might have cost, but Stewart said money was "not the driving force" in ending it.

He said the district is pursuing other means of gathering information similar to what Figlio would have pursued.

For example, he pointed to a recent effort by regional superintendent Barbara Hires to identify and take a closer look at high-poverty schools where black students met federal standards in reading.

He also said the district can get other higher education partners besides UF to help, including the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College.

Stewart had praise for Figlio, but said ultimately it doesn't matter who does the work.

"Our goal isn't to have Figlio do it," he said. "Our goal is to close the achievement gap."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Black student study in Pinellas won't happen after all 11/27/11 [Last modified: Sunday, November 27, 2011 9:09pm]

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