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Black students struggling in Pinellas schools

As a group, black students in Florida struggle almost everywhere.

In Pinellas, they struggle more.

From 2005 and 2010, the divide between black students in Pinellas and black students statewide increased in every grade on the reading and math portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis.

In terms of percentage points, the gap has now widened to double digits in five of eight grades tested for reading and in every grade tested for math.

"That hurts," said Ray Tampa, a former principal and past president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "We've got a serious mess."

The especially stark performance of black students in Pinellas is so under the radar, some School Board members didn't know about it. But it is beginning to attract scrutiny.

Last Sunday, a Times story noted black residents in Pinellas, frustrated with traditional public schools, are increasingly embracing private-school vouchers and considering charter schools. On Monday, the church-based group Faith and Action for Strength Together demanded the district find better ways to raise reading scores in predominantly minority schools. And Tuesday, state Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan blasted the slow pace of minority student progress in Pinellas at a summit for Tampa Bay business leaders.

The gap "haunts us," said Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen, who was hired in fall 2008. "It absolutely concerns me. It's complex. We're trying to tease it out to be sure that any possible thing we can do for the kids is being done."

Dealing with this emerging gap would be tough for any district under any circumstances. But finding remedies in Pinellas — or continuing existing efforts — will have to come as the district cuts as much as $60 million from a budget that has already shed $120 million over the last five years.

Black students make up 19 percent of Pinellas' enrollment. To be clear, they're making gains on the FCAT.

But the gains are nowhere near as big as black students are making in nearly every other large, urban district in the state.

It's important to note, too, that white and Hispanic students in Pinellas are also sliding further behind state averages.

Five years ago, white students in Pinellas generally hovered at the state average for white students. But now the gap ranges. Depending on the grade, from on par to 3 percentage points behind in reading, and from 1 to 5 percentage points behind in math. For Hispanic students, it's 2 to 6 percentage points behind in reading and 3 to 9 points behind in math.

The chasm for black students in Pinellas is especially alarming.

According to FCAT data, they're 6 to 12 percentage points behind black students statewide in reading and 11 to 16 percentage points behind in math.

The obvious question is why. But nobody has answers.

"I honestly don't know," said School Board member Terry Krassner, a former principal. "I always felt like we were ahead of the game. I don't know how we missed the boat, if we have."

Board member Peggy O'Shea wondered whether the resegregation of some schools, especially in St. Petersburg, may have something to do with it. More than a dozen schools became majority-black when court-ordered racial caps were lifted in 2007.

Then again, O'Shea said, it could be the instability caused by shuffling families back to neighborhood schools or the disruption of historic budget cuts or something else entirely.

"What is the key to success for minority students?" she said. "We've got to find what it is."

Is poverty a factor?

Eighty percent of black students in Pinellas are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, state figures show. The average for black students in Florida's 12 biggest districts is 77 percent.

Black students in Polk County have a free and reduced lunch rate of 84 percent, but their FCAT gains in math since 2005 have been nearly twice as big as black students in Pinellas. Over the same period, black students in Lee County, with a free and reduced lunch rate of 85 percent, have reading gains more than double those in Pinellas.

In every grade, in both reading and math, black students in Pinellas score lower than black students in each of the other 11 big districts, including Miami-Dade, Duval, Orange and Hillsborough.

School Board member Lew Williams, a former district administrator, said the problem goes back years, to what was once a reluctance in Pinellas to try different approaches for struggling black students. A decade or so ago, he said he returned from a conference inspired by another district's success with a math program tailored for black students.

"And I can remember after the meeting, I had asked for (an additional teaching) unit to do something like that," Williams said. "That didn't go over too well. I was told by a person in charge of curriculum at that time that 'that's not our philosophy.' "

Williams said Pinellas has never made an all-out effort to improve outcomes specifically for black students. He said he is beginning to see signs of such an effort now, but wants to see more of it — and more signs of success.

Despite the troubling numbers, real change is finally under way, said Watson Haynes, a Janssen supporter who chairs an influential group called Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students.

In the summer of 2009, the School Board agreed in a legal settlement with plaintiffs in a long-running desegregation case to keep better tabs on black student performance, offer more specific solutions and hold school-level officials accountable for progress. It also promised to more equitably spend existing money on those goals.

Since then, the district has given black students more access to Advanced Placement and other rigorous courses, and tripled the number of black eighth-graders taking Algebra I, which is widely seen as a stepping stone to tougher high school classes. It has partnered with the city of St. Petersburg to bring social services to F-rated and predominantly black Fairmount Park Elementary — an effort modeled after the successful Harlem Children's Zone in New York City.

It has also boosted the graduation rate for black students from 53 percent to 63 percent in just the past two years.

"We're dealing with some long-term, ingrained stuff," Haynes said. But "we've seen significant progress."

Tampa, the former NAACP president, disagreed — and took direct aim at Janssen.

"The numbers … are getting worse. How do you defend that?" said Tampa, who has been highly critical of Janssen in the past. "At what point do we have accountability in our district?"

"Sustainable change takes time," Janssen said in response. "It's not magic."

Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Black students struggling in Pinellas schools 04/16/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 17, 2011 12:40am]

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