Sunday, May 27, 2018
Education

John Romano: You could boost schools thoughtfully, or you could be Tallahassee

Legislators see failing schools and look for someone to blame.

They see struggling students and come up with one-size-fits-all solutions. They see funding for education and devise schemes to funnel it to their corporate friends.

And this is why every parent of a Pinellas County public school student should offer a word of thanks this morning for school superintendent Mike Grego.

On the job for seven months, Grego has approached the problem of low standardized test scores with rational, compassionate and proactive solutions.

In other words, he has made the type of grownup decisions that our children and lawmakers are incapable of making on their own.

How does the plan work?

The concept is simple.

Identify at-risk students as early as possible, and then provide extended learning programs after school and during the summer to get them the help they need.

"We have students who are further behind than it will take to catch up in a year," Grego said Wednesday afternoon. "I may not be the smartest guy in the room, but that tells me we have to spend more time on task."

If the philosophy is simple, the execution can be tricky.

The school system has to come up with money to pay for the additional instruction time. There is also the question of child care after the extra learning sessions, and the issue of getting parents to enroll their children in the programs.

To address some of the functional issues, Grego has teamed with the Juvenile Welfare Board to find community programs that can help.

"There isn't a single parent out there who doesn't want their kid to succeed. We just have to make parental involvement a more personal issue," Grego said.

"I don't have a problem with accountability. If we don't put the right system in place, then shame on us. We should be held accountable."

And this is where Grego and our lawmakers differ. Instead of pointing fingers, instead of empty gestures and political rhetoric, Grego has studied the problem to find a solution.

For instance, he knows that schools drawing predominantly from low-income neighborhoods are having a more difficult time with standardized tests.

And so high-poverty areas will likely have more after-school programs, although the plan is to make them accessible throughout the county.

This is exactly the type of nuance and statistical evidence that our friends in Tallahassee don't understand or, worse, choose to ignore.

Based on the Department of Education's most recent accountability review, there were 46 public schools in Pinellas County where the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches was at 70 percent or higher.

That represents 39 percent of all the schools in the county. And yet those schools accounted for 100 percent of all the D or F grades in Pinellas.

So you can either believe that all of the worst teachers and administrators in the county are coincidentally lumped together on those campuses, or you can make the logical assumption that socioeconomic factors have a major impact on standardized test scores.

This ain't rocket science.

And yet it has taken an educator on the local level to point out the obvious signs that our state officials have been too slow to see.

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