Times Staff Writer
The racial balance in several Pinellas public schools is quickly eroding under the district's new "close-to-home" student assignment plan, undoing decades of integration efforts.
But district officials and others say the change, which was expected, has refocused educators on improving the performance of black students in ways that years of integration did not.
Nine schools now have a majority of black students, according to numbers released this week by the school district. That compares to five majority-black schools last year and zero the year before.
Another five schools are just shy of a black majority, but officials expect them to reach a majority within the next couple of years.
The changes follow three decades of busing for desegregation, followed by five years of a "choice" plan that promoted voluntary integration — both of which capped the percentage of black students who could attend a school.
When those caps disappeared in 2007-08, the final year of choice, some schools immediately attracted more black students. The "close-to-home" plan, a return to neighborhood schools that began this year, is strengthening the trend.
The new system also has had another effect. Schools that once attracted black students as part of the desegregation effort are becoming less diverse.
At Shore Acres Elementary in St. Petersburg, for example, the percentage of white students rose to 68 percent this year, up from 57 percent just two years ago. Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach went from 53 percent white to 62 percent during the same period.
Starting in the early 1970s, the initial goal of mixing races in schools was to ensure that black students were given the same opportunities as white students. Now, as society has progressed and federal judges see less of a need to engineer an equal environment, desegregation efforts have been severely restricted.
Race ratios once loomed large in Pinellas education circles, but the conversation has changed dramatically.
"Those numbers are not an issue with me," said Watson Haynes, co-chair of Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, a St. Petersburg group known as COQEBS.
"We're not concerned about who's sitting next to who in the classroom. The question is: Are they learning?"
Pinellas' new superintendent, Julie Janssen, said her staff will spend the remaining weeks before the winter break developing a plan to send help to high-minority schools, which tend to have large concentrations of students from poor families.
"That's the only way we're going to keep the playing field fair," Janssen said. "It costs more to educate some kids than it costs to educate others."
Most of the schools with majority-black enrollments have poverty rates in the 60 to 80 percent range — far above the district average.
The gap between black students and higher performing white and Asian students is substantial, as much as 30 or 40 percentage points in reading scores, math scores and the graduation rate.
Reform efforts in recent years have brought only incremental improvement.
All across the South, in districts that once boasted the nation's most racially integrated schools, minority students are feeling the effects of court rulings that have brought a return to segregated schools, said Erica Frankenberg, an expert on integration efforts and a former researcher with the Civil Rights Project.
High-minority schools tend to have more teacher turnover, less qualified teachers and less high-level instruction, she said. "There's sort of this cumulative effect that we see."
Janssen is mindful of those effects, and her recent ascension to superintendent has set the stage for some different approaches in Pinellas.
Among the ideas already under discussion for "high needs" schools: significantly smaller class sizes, longer school days and bonus pay for teachers at those schools.
The bonus pay issue promises to be difficult because the district would need to find the money and negotiate the change with a teachers union focused on fairness for its members.
Janssen argued that teachers in high-minority schools often are called on to perform additional duties such as going to students' homes to talk with parents and guardians.
But she said the extra pay would have to be handled at the school level, not by district offices with a one-size-fits-all mentality.
"It can't be a blanket thing and it can't be a magic formula," she said. "We can't direct it from (district headquarters)."
Janssen said plans to decentralize the system, giving more power to schools, would help. For the first time, she said, principals are being trained in the intricacies of their school budgets so they can one day wring out enough savings to help pay some of the extra costs of educating minority students.
Janssen says she expects the district to decentralize the system by the 2010-11 school year. But she added that other changes, such as lowering class size and teacher bonus pay, could be in place sooner.
Haynes, the co-chair of COQEBS, said Janssen has agreed to share data with his group on how black students are faring class-by-class and under which teachers.
The practice will produce information on what's working and what isn't, Haynes said.
Another group that focuses on black students, the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee, is crafting recommendations for how to address the issue, said chairwoman Adrien Helm.
"Race is not really the issue," she said. "The issue is preparation for academic success and what is being done to make students successful."