CLEARWATER — Superintendent Mike Grego said Thursday that the Pinellas school system will be aggressive as it tackles one of its most pressing issues, the achievement gap between black students and their peers.
"This is a call to action, not a call of discussion," Grego told about 100 participants at a half-day summit on his initiative, called Bridging the Gap. The group included business and community leaders, ministers, students, district administrators, teachers and law enforcement officers.
Grego asked them to review and respond to the main goals of the plan, which he unveiled quietly last month. Participants also were asked to rank what could be accomplished in the next year, as well as to create a five-year vision to make Pinellas a national leader in improving the academic outcomes of black students.
Pinellas has long had one of the largest achievement gaps in the state, and this year is no exception.
On the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests taken during the spring semester, 28 percent of black students in Pinellas scored at the proficient level in reading, compared with 68 percent for Asian students, 66 percent for white students and 49 percent for Hispanic students. Black students' performance was significantly lower than their peers in other large, urban districts, including Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.
Pinellas' graduation rate for black males also is low, with 46 percent earning a diploma compared with 73 percent of white males.
Grego asked summit participants to avoid finger-pointing and rehashing statistics. He called the gathering a "window into the future," saying Pinellas can't become one of the top school districts in the nation without "conquering this issue."
"And we will conquer it," he said.
Working in about a dozen teams at the Collaborative Labs at St. Petersburg College, participants crafted goals — "less incarceration, 100 percent graduation" and "all students performing above grade level" — and suggested methods to get there.
Marilyn Parker, a senior at Lakewood High, said her group identified what was important to student success. "Attitude, attire, attendance and achievement."
Parker, like many of the high school students who attended, put much of the responsibility on the students and their families.
"It starts at home. Your parents have to direct you … the student has to want an education," she said.
Many pieces of Grego's plan — providing students with mentors, pushing students to take advanced classes — have been tried before. He said the key to success is consistency and acting, not just talking and planning.
"We know what we need to do to solve this issue," he said.
Many of the groups ranked traditional remedies highly, while others said they were looking for something more.
Randy Lewis, a consultant specializing in criminal justice, told the entire group that Pinellas has to do something different from in the past.
"You've got to redefine what's going on in the schoolhouse," he said.
But it was easier said than done. Asked how to improve black students' outcomes on standardized tests, the top choice among the teams was "analyze student academic performance and assign appropriate intervention."
"This is not redefining," said Jozelle Johnson, a project manager who splits her time between the school system and the city of St. Petersburg.
Board member Rene Flowers agreed: "This is rehash."
Michelle Dennard, another member of the group, said she was "ready for courageous conversation." A lot of programs already are in place and students still are failing, she said.
She said after the event ended that she wanted to see efforts to forge connections with students and to break down stereotypes that prevent some educators from seeing potential, regardless of appearance.
"The bottom line is people," she said.
That message resonated with some of the students involved in the summit.
"The main thing was relationships," said Ivan Summers, a senior at Lakewood High. "That alone helps a lot."
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.