Speaking to a room of parents, teachers and community members, deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said what school district officials often say about the yawning achievement gap between black and white students in Pinellas County: "There's no silver bullet."
But Corbett didn't sugarcoat the truth either.
In a public presentation Monday at the North Greenwood Recreation & Aquatic Complex, he spoke plainly about many of the problems affecting black students. He said there hasn't been a change in the disparity between how often Pinellas black students face punishment compared to white students — one of the widest in Florida — and said it isn't the fault of black students.
"Why do black students get more discipline than whites? It is not because they misbehave at higher rates," he told an audience of about 50 people. Unconscious bias plays a role, he said.
Looking at a chart showing a decline in the number of black students referred for emotional and behavioral disorders, he said: "This chart makes it look better than it is."
His candor was something of a departure for a school system that has emphasized progress and downplayed problems in the wake of "Failure Factories," a yearlong investigative series by the Tampa Bay Times, which showed how the school district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised resources for elementary schools that became predominantly poor and black. The five schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — are failing at rates far worse than almost any other schools in Florida.
The series also found that black students in Pinellas are suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children. It noted that other large school districts stopped punishing students academically for missing school because it needlessly set them back.
The Monday forum was organized by the Superintendent's North County Minority Advisory Council. The community group had asked superintendent Mike Grego to speak about issues related to black student achievement, but Grego was ill and other officials, including Corbett, spoke in his absence. Four School Board members attended, as well.
Black students make up about 19 percent of the school system; a majority of the county's black population lives south of Ulmerton Road. But some members of the audience told Corbett that there are problems in north county, too.
"I get what they're doing in south county, and it's needed, but there are kids falling through (the cracks) up here," said Lois Bell, a kindergarten teacher at San Jose Elementary.
Diane Stephens, a teacher at Pinellas Park High, said: "I really think the School Board needs to take a look at this part of the county. There are African-Americans in this part of the county. Sandy Lane Elementary is just as bad as those five schools."
At Sandy Lane, which is about half black, 20 percent of students passed standardized reading exams last year. At Melrose, just 10 percent of students passed. At Maximo, it was 15 percent. Fairmount Park was at 17 percent. Campbell Park and Lakewood each had 19 percent of students pass, according to state data.
Sandy Lane's math and science scores also were higher than those at the five schools.
Corbett said Sandy Lane gets additional help but hasn't needed as much as the five.
He did highlight some of the positives in the school system, with a caveat that it was "in no way meant to gloss over areas that need improvement."
He said the School Board agreed this month to reduce the number of days a student can be suspended out of school and to allow students full credit for make-up work. (Final approval on the changes is pending.)
The graduation rate for black students has improved. Black enrollment in Summer Bridge, a program to curb summer learning loss, has outpaced other groups. Black students referred for emotional problems now are tested for gifted classes because smart students who aren't challenged often act out in class.
Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.