Superintendent Mike Grego quietly unveiled a sweeping new plan last week to combat one of the Pinellas County school system's oldest and most pressing problems: the achievement gap between black students and their peers.
The plan, dubbed Bridging the Gap, calls for struggling black students to be monitored much more closely, pushing them into after-school and summer programs, meeting with their parents or guardians, pairing them with mentors, and making sure they have access in school to credit recovery classes.
Under the plan, all black students will be invited to take advanced classes and have access to preparation programs for college placement exams. Teachers, too, will be part of the plan's focus, with an emphasis on learning "culturally responsive" instruction and practices.
Grego said many of the strategies aren't new, but the district hasn't been consistent, perhaps because of a revolving door of leaders at the top. Grego, who is nearing his first anniversary with the school district, is the third superintendent in three years.
He said the focus will be on closely tracking student data and repeatedly asking, "How are our African-American students doing?"
School officials also will be persistent in looking for community involvement. At Leila Davis Elementary, for instance, Grego said the principal was recruiting mentors from a nearby church to work with struggling black students.
Rene Flowers, the School Board's only black member, acknowledged that parts of the plan are more "in your face" than what the school system has done previously, and some parents might not like it. But she said it should push students harder and keep better tabs on their academic performance, long-term goals and attendance — before a problem reaches critical levels.
"I think this monitoring will let us know as a district where our students are," she said. "I'm all for it."
Being "culturally responsive" could be as simple as knowing where students live and what their home lives are like, Flowers said.
"Maybe they have to deal with a parent who didn't come home last night," she said, adding that a teacher will then understand why a student looks "exhausted" in first period.
Bridging the Gap is Grego's first major districtwide initiative aimed specifically at the academic achievement of black students, a persistent area of weakness in the school system.
Black students make up 19 percent of Pinellas' enrollment, yet their academic outcomes are far worse than their peers. Black students also are doing worse in Pinellas than black students in other large, urban school districts, including Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
The statistics are startling.
Black males have Pinellas County's lowest graduation rate, with 46 percent earning a diploma, compared to 73 percent of white males. More than 65 percent of white students were proficient in reading last school year, yet only 28 percent of black students were. Math scores were similarly far apart.
That's despite two court cases that focused on black students in Pinellas — the Bradley case, a 1964 desegregation lawsuit, and Crowley, a 2000 case that alleged the school district wasn't providing black students with a high-quality education.
A legal settlement in 2010 merged the two, with the school district agreeing to keep better track of black student achievement and offer more specific solutions.
Grego said he was surprised, after learning about the cases, that there weren't more specific plans to tackle problems. Bridging the Gap grew from "five to six months" of conversations with church leaders, the NAACP, the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, principals and others, he said.
A lot of the plan's success hinges on how involved the community becomes, Grego said. "It's going to take us all and it's going to take a while."
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.