ST. PETERSBURG — The way Ray Tampa sees it, dialogue would be nice. Outrage would be better.
The president of the St. Petersburg NAACP is talking about the black male graduation rate in Pinellas. By one count, it's the lowest of any big district in the entire country at 21 percent. By another, it's among the lowest in Florida.
Either way, Tampa said, the black community has hit rock bottom. And yet, too many community and political leaders act as if it's business as usual.
"Why don't we have outrage?" said Tampa, a former school principal. "That eats at me to the core."
To start a fire, Tampa helped organize a "comprehensive community discussion" Thursday that drew more than 200 people to a St. Petersburg church and featured a high-profile, 14-member panel that included St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Florida NAACP president Adora Obi Nweze.
For more than two hours, panelists and audience members ticked off potential remedies: more mentors, more engaged parents, more school choice, more God. Some wanted to see more community members volunteering in schools. Some wanted to hear more parents reading bedtime stories to their sons. "Amen," they called, when they liked what they heard. "All right, brother."
By night's end, nobody had threatened to storm the school district administration building, as some parent groups have done with other issues. But long rows of people in the pews at Bethel Community Baptist Church seemed fired up to do something.
"When's the next meeting?" a man in a red ball cap asked. "When we do get pens in our hands and start coming up with solutions?"
There's pain behind Pinellas' jaw-dropping graduation rates. Mystery, too.
The academic plight of black males is not new. Nationwide, they're falling through cracks in the education pipeline at higher rates than other groups. Lower test scores. Higher suspensions. More dropouts. Florida is ground zero, with more black male students than any other state and one of the worst graduation rates.
By some measures, it's even worse in Pinellas.
In August, a national report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education concluded that Pinellas had the lowest graduation rate for black males of any big school district in the country.
The Pinellas school district disputed the foundation's figure — 21 percent in 2008 — and questioned its methodology. It also noted that the district had more ninth-graders a few years ago because of a stricter retention policy, which skewed graduation rates downward.
But Pinellas looks bad when the state crunches numbers, too.
The district's state-computed graduation rate for black males was 53.4 percent in 2008-09 (the 2009-10 figures have not been released yet). That's lower than the state average of 59.4 percent, lower than the 70.7 percent rate in neighboring Hillsborough and lower than 58 of Florida's 67 school districts.
As a whole, black students in Pinellas also do poorly on the FCAT — worse and often far worse on the reading, math and science portions than black students in Florida's other big urban districts.
On Thursday, nobody asked why.
Jim Madden, the district's deputy superintendent and one of the panelists, didn't offer any wonky explanations. Whether it's 21 percent or 53 percent, he told the crowd, "it's still unacceptable."
In 33 years in public education, he continued, this was the first time he had seen a meeting like this one. "Wouldn't it be nice if instead of closing schools, we could close prisons?" he said. "Let's get together and do it."
There was no shortage of ideas on where to begin.
Joseph Smiley, the dean of social and behavioral science at St. Petersburg College, said research shows black male students benefit academically when black male adults serve as mentors. Make that a top goal, he told the group, and get on it now.
"We ought to say every African American male in this county will have a committed mentor in the next four months," he said.
Smiley and others also stressed parental involvement and a flip-side issue that doesn't get much attention: parental education.
After another panelist got a standing ovation for detailing how she helped her son through school, Gibbs High principal Kevin Gordon was asked if she was the exception to the rule. "I'm going to say she's the model," he said diplomatically.
Plenty of parents want to help their kids succeed, he continued. But some are weighed down by two or three jobs, or saddled with substance abuse or other problems. Others just flat-out don't know how to help.
"Getting them to school is sometimes the most parental involvement they know how to do," he said. "We have to augment that. We have to help our parents who don't know how."
Some suggested that public schools had failed black males. And that private schools would do better.
"Let's look at the statistics when the God factor is included," said Nation of Islam student minister Louis Muhammad. "Public schools have long ago lost their grip on the intellectual interest of our children. They're not stupid. They're disinterested."
DeVere Beard, the head of Academy Prep, a St. Petersburg private school, told the crowd that 87 percent of his fifth- through eighth-grade students, most of whom are black, go on to graduate from high school. The highly regarded prep school mandates longer school days and school years and puts a heavy emphasis on character education.
Pinellas does not have a public school like it.
"We have solutions," Beard said. "I want it to be replicated."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.