The Pinellas school district will strive to hire more black teachers under a proposed legal agreement that goes before the School Board next month.
Some of the draft language is similar to what's in a 2000 federal court order tied to the district's desegregation efforts. But it renews the district's commitment and offers guidelines on how to boost the ranks of black teachers through recruiting and retention.
The hope: More black teachers will mean higher achievement among black students.
"Because a teacher is black doesn't mean they're better than . . . the white teacher," said Watson Haynes, a St. Petersburg College administrator who was closely involved with negotiations over the draft agreement. "But it does give hope to that child . . . who says, 'That teacher looks like me.' Our hope is that teacher has experiences . . . the child can relate to."
Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook said she supports efforts to increase teacher diversity. But she also said the district needs to be careful, if the agreement is approved, to continue focusing on quality first.
"I have some (concern) just because of the nature of the agreement," Cook said. "I don't want to turn it into hiring anybody (just) because of the color of their skin."
The draft was sent to board members this week. They are set to discuss it at a Jan. 17 workshop and could vote on it Jan. 24.
The draft is the latest spinoff from Bradley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, the long-running desegregation suit against the district. Like the 2000 court order, the draft says the district will consider black teachers a "critical shortage" area as long as the number of black teachers is two or more percentage points below the percentage of black students.
In 2010, 18.8 percent of Pinellas' students were black, compared to 7.6 percent of its teaching corps. Statewide, the ratios were 23 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
Some research shows black students perform better with black teachers.
A 2008 study in North Carolina found a teacher's ethnicity didn't have much impact on white student test scores. But "we see evidence that both black and, surprisingly, other ethnicity students are sensitive to their teachers' race — they respond positively to a black teacher in the classroom," said the study by University of Washington researcher Dan Goldhaber, an expert on teacher quality.
More recently, a 2011 community college study found black students were much less likely to drop a course if it was taught by a black instructor. But the study also concluded, "The topic is ripe for further research."
Other researchers have found more mixed results.
In 2006, the Pinellas school district, then in the midst of a separate lawsuit over black student achievement, hired education researcher David Figlio to look at achievement gaps between black and nonblack students. Among his findings: The gaps were slightly bigger in classrooms with black teachers.
Last summer, former Superintendent Julie Janssen proposed hiring Figlio again — this time to identify which teachers or teams of teachers were seeing the biggest gains from black students. But the idea met with stiff resistance from Haynes and other leaders of the Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, who serve as advisers to the attorneys for the Bradley plaintiffs.
Superintendent John Stewart nixed the idea a few weeks ago, saying the district could pursue similar information on its own.
Haynes said his opposition had nothing to do with Figlio's findings. He also said it was misleading to consider the draft on black teachers without looking at the sum of other recent agreements from the desegregation case, including efforts to reduce discipline rates for black students and ramp up their placement in advanced courses.
Among other things, the draft says the district will:
• include specific recruitment efforts for black teachers
• focus on the grade levels and subject areas where they are most underrepresented
• conduct an annual analysis to see how effective its retention efforts are
• pursue "culturally responsive teaching practices by all who teach black students."
Haynes and School Board attorney Jim Robinson said more detailed programs and strategies will emerge if the agreement gets a green light.
The district is doing some of these things already. Its recruiters make regular swings to several historically black colleges, and quickly offer contracts to promising black prospects from majority white colleges, said assistant superintendent for human resources Ron Ciranna.
The problem, he said, is the pool of young, black teachers isn't that big, and districts everywhere are competing for them.
"We will be on the lookout if there are other means we can use," he said.
The draft agreement also says the district will step up efforts to recruit black administrators. That will happen naturally if the district hires and retains more black teachers, it says.
Currently, 20.5 percent of Pinellas administrators are black, including two of four regional superintendents.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.