The low graduation rate for black males in Pinellas County, long a sore spot, triggered heated words Wednesday at a meeting to discuss black student achievement.
Former School Board candidate Jim Jackson questioned whether the rate was as high as the district claims, drawing a strong rebuke from attorney Roger Plata, co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the long-running desegregation case against the school district.
"Wow, suddenly in three years, we have jumped up 30 something percent. It's so unacceptable," Jackson told the Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, which pushes the district to improve black student achievement.
"I'm sorry, sir, but that's really outrageous," countered Plata. That's "demeaning to the mentors and the teachers and the principals … to all the people who are working extremely hard to have success."
At issue: competing graduation rate formulas.
According to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which issued a much-publicized report last year, Pinellas' grad rate for black males was 21 percent in 2008, the lowest of any big school district in the country.
The Schott report used a formula that has been panned as oversimplified, and, among other shortcomings, did not account for students who transferred away from the district.
Pinellas school officials said the rate was 47.3 percent in 2008 and rose to 57.5 percent last year. But the numbers are based on the official state formula that even the state's education chief says is flawed. The problem: It excludes thousands of students who transfer into adult education programs. Many drop out, and if they earn a diploma via GED, it doesn't count toward the state rate.
A St. Petersburg Times analysis in December showed that the state rate drops from 79 percent to 73.3 percent once those students are put back into the mix. Pinellas's rate drops from 78 to 70.7 percent.
According to an analysis by Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, the graduation rate for black males in Pinellas was 48.7 percent last year using the state formula but counting adult education transfers. That's up from 43.8 percent in 2009 and 41.3 percent in 2008.