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Small steps, not bold leaps to help Pinellas' black students

This fall, Pinellas schools are taking the first, small steps toward honoring a legal promise to accelerate the achievement of black students.

One is doing more vocabulary instruction. One will open a parent resource room.

But no schools with a majority of black students are proposing the kinds of bold leaps — like a longer school day or an intense focus on teacher quality — that have helped a smattering of public schools elsewhere find success with the student group that often struggles the most.

"It works toward it, but I don't believe it by itself solves the achievement gap," said John Hopkins Middle School principal Claudius Effiom, referring to his school's new improvement plan. "There needs to be more."

Superintendent Julie Janssen said there will be more. And soon.

The district is developing plans to give "extended learning time" to students at some predominantly black schools. It's also set to begin talks with the Pinellas teachers union on incentives that could lure more top teachers to some of those schools.

"We have a lot of pieces coming together, they're just not all at the same time," Janssen said. "As the cement starts drying on some of these bigger, bolder initiatives, they will be added."

In Pinellas, helping black students succeed is a legal imperative.

In July, the Pinellas School Board signed off on a new agreement in Bradley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, the 45-year-old lawsuit that desegregated Pinellas schools. The "memo of understanding" requires the district to keep better tabs on black student performance, more equitably spend money to close black-white achievement gaps and hold school-level officials accountable for progress.

It also requires each school to spell out specific teaching and intervention strategies for black students — and include them in its improvement plan.

The plans are crafted by teachers and administrators at each school, with input from district officials and a review by principals at other schools. The district considers them "living documents" to guide schools toward goals, but also updated as fresh data and ideas emerge.

The St. Petersburg Times reviewed the plans for all 14 schools with majority-black student populations.

Some are loaded with detail. Some are vague and incomplete. Some serve up a buffet of new ideas, while others mostly rehash programs and practices already in place.

Almost all of them offer specific action steps for black students. But it's clear that many remedies proposed for all struggling students apply to struggling black students as well.

In its 45-page plan, Gibbs High lists several new programs to improve literacy, including one called "Get Your Read On!" In its 37-page plan, Sanderlin Elementary plans to use "weekly behavior cards" to get a better handle on student discipline.

But other plans lack specifics and fall back on buzz words.

To help struggling students with reading, "technology will be utilized on a regular basis in all classrooms as well as in the computer lab," says the 23-page plan for Woodlawn Elementary. To help struggling black readers, Bear Creek Elementary proposes to "create a mentoring program.''

"That's not enough," said Watson Haynes, a St. Petersburg community activist who is working with the Bradley plaintiffs. "What are the specifics of the mentoring group? Who are they? Who trains them?"

Haynes said he has not looked at the improvement plans. And Clarence Givens, another member of the plaintiffs group, said the group hasn't reviewed them and has no plans to do so. "We're relying on their (the district's) integrity," he said.

Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, said his group has not reviewed the plans either, despite criticism last summer that the legal agreement was too vague. He said it would do so in coming days.

On the whole, the Bradley group remains optimistic about the district's direction.

Enrique Escarraz, the plaintiffs' co-counsel, said he reviewed all the high school improvement plans last year and could recall only one that even mentioned black students.

"I would hope and expect that at some point in time that (bigger policy changes) will come," he said. But "trying to move this monolith, with the inertia it has, will take some effort."

It's no surprise that some plans — which the district considers first drafts — are better than others, said Cathy Fleeger, the district's chief academic officer. The state Department of Education also put more focus on the plans this year with new requirements for them — beyond the district's focus on black students — that are tied to new accountability rules.

"I think some (schools) are struggling with what has to be in the plan," Fleeger said.

The plans often don't make it clear whether the listed initiatives are new. In many cases, they're not.

Lakewood High's plan, for example, lists a half-dozen strategies for helping struggling readers, including the 86 percent of black ninth- and 10th-graders who were not reading at grade level last year.

"I think we've been doing those all along," said principal Dennis Duda.

Some principals said boosting black students will take more dramatic changes. Schools like the nationally recognized KIPP charter network are getting big academic gains from low-income black students with a regimen that includes 10-hour school days, an emphasis on character education and teachers willing to make house calls to parents.

Schools with large groups of struggling students need more time to plan, collaborate and teach, some Pinellas principals said. "With all these required mandates, the teachers' day is full," said Melrose Elementary principal Oscar Robinson. "They really need the opportunity for uninterrupted time to learn new strategies."

Pinellas schools didn't include such ideas in their improvement plans because district officials told them to be realistic.

"It's better to do a few things well than to promise pie in the sky," said Effiom, the principal at John Hopkins.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.

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See for yourself

To see the Pinellas school improvement plans, go to www.flbsi.org.

Small steps, not bold leaps to help Pinellas' black students 10/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 1:58am]

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