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Pinellas schools agree to improve academic achievements of black students

Black students in Pinellas lag behind black students in every other highly urbanized school district in Florida. But help may be on the way, thanks to a new twist in a long-running dispute over integrated schools.

A new legal agreement in a 45-year-old desegregation case calls for the school district to keep better tabs on black student performance, offer more specific remedies and hold school-level officials accountable for progress.

It also promises to more "equitably" spend existing money on those goals.

The specifics are unclear. But for some schools it could mean longer days, smaller classes or more focus on teacher quality if it will help black students succeed, said superintendent Julie Janssen.

"We know, we accept and we admit that one-size-fits-all doesn't work," she said.

The "memorandum of understanding" is the latest development in Bradley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, the still-beating case that underpins the legal fight over integration of Pinellas schools. It's the first sign of progress since January 2006, when mediation began over charges that the district was not abiding by an August 2000 settlement.

The school board is set to discuss it at a workshop Thursday.

"It's significant," said Watson Haynes, co-chair of a community group that is advising the plaintiffs' lawyers. "We really haven't had the school system, as long as we've had this court order, really finally say we're going to do what's right by black students."

The memorandum, signed on June 26, is not an admission that either side violated the settlement. It does not end the mediation, which continues to slog through student discipline and other issues. Besides the School Board, it must be approved by U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, whose 2000 order formally ended the Bradley case.

But if approved, the agreement could leverage change in a district where black students are doing particularly bad.

In third-grade reading, for example, 82 percent of white students in Pinellas scored at grade level or above on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in 2008, compared with 47 percent of black students.

And compared with their peers in Florida's six other big urban districts, black students in Pinellas are behind in every grade in reading, math and science, according to 2008 state data, the most recent that is broken down by race.

In some cases, it's not close.

In 10th-grade math, 31 percent of black students in Pinellas are scoring at grade level or above. That's 13 percentage points behind black students in Miami-Dade and 16 percentage points behind black students in Hillsborough.

The new memorandum requires every Pinellas school to spell out specific teaching and intervention strategies to narrow the black-white gap.

"Principals and their teaching staffs are going to look at themselves and their data and their results, and come to the realization that certain things have worked and certain things have not," Janssen said.

To meet the new goals, the district agrees to spend funds more "equitably." It defines that to mean "certain schools and programs will receive proportionately higher funding than other schools or programs based upon needs demonstrated through verifiable data."

Will the effort require more money? "Obviously, it will," Janssen said.

The agreement in Pinellas comes as state and federal accountability rules are pressuring schools more than ever to boost minority students. They include requiring struggling schools to adopt specific changes, such as performance pay for teachers or new leadership.

In Pinellas, the details — and costs — will become more clear as schools revamp their improvement plans. But some changes could be far-reaching, including classroom-by-classroom looks at teacher quality.

"If you look each year and you see (failing students) are coming out of certain classrooms, then you need to look at what extra things do you need to offer to help that teacher," said School Board member Mary Brown.

The agreement says the district will provide written progress reports to the plaintiffs twice a year. "It's a good beginning," Brown said.

It's also a potential win for Janssen, whose detailed knowledge of the case and promises to follow through sealed the deal.

"I've been involved with this (case) most of the time since 1986," said Roger Plata, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. "And this is the most optimistic I've been."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas schools agree to improve academic achievements of black students 07/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 9:31am]

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