TAMPA — Black students in Hillsborough County are about half as likely as white students to read on level in third grade.
They're about two-thirds as likely to graduate from high school.
And they are far more likely to be suspended for bad behavior.
Such disparities, while hardly unique to Hillsborough, have attracted the attention of the NAACP. The group asked the school district this summer to set firm goals for the superintendent to bridge these and other gaps.
On Tuesday, before an audience filled with staff and community activists, the School Board discussed the request and the complex issues that often place minority students at a disadvantage.
"This is a monumental task, and it is not going to corrected overnight," said Doretha Edgecomb, the board's lone black member who is elected in east Tampa. She asked those who criticize the district for its record on minorities to work with educators "not as adversaries, but as advocates. It's going to take all of us," she said.
The district has multimillion-dollar grant programs that target poverty and high-minority schools, a study-skills program for older students and numerous partnerships with nonprofit organizations. Still, achievement among minority students continues to lag, according to a 103-page report that district staff distributed before the workshop.
While black students often show the lowest numbers, Hispanic students were least likely to be ready for kindergarten: 59 percent compared with 64 percent of black students, and 80 percent of white and Asian students.
Graduation rates are improving for black and Hispanic students, but that's also true among white students. The same can be said for participation in the Advanced Placement program, although that gap is narrowing.
While out-of-school suspensions are decreasing among blacks, those decreases also exist among students of all races.
In Pinellas County, the school district is operating under a 2010 settlement of two lawsuits that alleged black students there were not getting a high-quality education.
Recent data show black males have Pinellas County's lowest graduation rate, with 46 percent earning a diploma, compared with 73 percent of white males. More than 65 percent of white students were proficient in reading last school year, compared with 28 percent of black students.
In Hillsborough, there has been no call for a lawsuit. Carolyn Collins, president of the NAACP's Hillsborough chapter, said Tuesday that she appreciated the attention the district has given these issues.
But she said at the end of the meeting, "This is indeed a continuous process and we will continue to ask hard questions. It is about our babies in school and our babies still unborn."
The board will hold more workshops, and superintendent MaryEllen Elia announced the creation of a task force that will include community organizations.
Board members were mostly impressed with the district's efforts to give extra instruction to struggling students, form community partnerships and find alternatives to suspension.
But more could be done, members Susan Valdes and April Griffin said, to recruit minority teachers. Students should see teachers "who look more like them," Griffin said. She also asked that steps be taken to make sure teachers are trained to interact effectively with rebellious students.
"I think we need to teach our teachers to be as respectful to our students as they have to be respectful to us," she said. "We need to listen a little bit more to our students as adults and we need to keep in mind that we are serving them."
Member Candy Olson reacted to statistics from mostly black Potter Elementary School, where nearly half of the fifth-graders had been at the school for under a year when the latest Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was given. "I would like to see us find our highest-mobility schools and look for ways to keep the kids there instead of moving them around," she said.
Member Cindy Stuart suggested the district explore whether kids who are suspended get the help they need at home so they can succeed when they return to school.
A deeper issue — understanding how race affects a student's school experience — remained elusive, and board members said it can be difficult to discuss.
There is far too much "drama at the dais," said Olson, referring to conflict among School Board members that erodes trust.
Even if everybody got along, it would be difficult, Griffin said.
"As a white woman, I have brought up issues of concern in this community," she said. "I've used data in those conversations and my motives have been questioned. As a white woman, coming from poverty, I understand a lot of the issues. So trust the intent. Get it out of your head. My intent is to help our kids, period."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]