ST. PETERSBURG — One of Florida's top education leaders painted a troubling picture of Pinellas County schools before a symposium of about 100 education, business and community leaders Tuesday.
After 10 years of Florida education reform, said state Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan, Pinellas County is still falling short.
"Pinellas still has D and F schools after 10 years," Shanahan said. "That has to change. You have to get engaged with those schools. Either shut them down and offer charters, get in with those principals, work with your superintendent. You cannot have consistent D and F schools."
The comments came during the Your Voice in Education Reform Symposium at Tropicana Field, a 31/2-hour luncheon sponsored by the Pinellas Education Foundation, the Voice of Florida Business Education and the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations.
Shanahan brought a series of charts showing Pinellas County's educational deficiencies:
• Pinellas has a larger proportion of D and F schools and smaller percentage of A schools compared with the state average, she said: "This has to change. That's all I can say."
• In Pinellas, African-American and Hispanic third- and 10th-graders perform consistently below their African-American and Hispanic counterparts in the rest of the state in reading and math, she said: "They're not getting a full day of knowledge in a full day of school and it's coming out in the data."
It wasn't the first time Pinellas County has come under fire for the performance of its minority students. In August, the Massachusetts-based Schott Foundation for Public Education issued a report stating Pinellas graduated a lower rate of black males than any large district in the United States.
Pinellas County superintendent Julie Janssen said at the time that the finding was based on an unfair reading of data.
Shanahan's keynote address preceded a panel discussion on vouchers, teacher quality, pay for performance, career technical education and state funding.
Before she ended, she issued a challenge to those gathered to "roll up their sleeves" and find solutions. "Because," Shanahan continued, "I would say to you like (former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools) Michelle Rhee said to many principals that she fired, 'Would you send your child to a D or F school?' And if the answer to that is no, then nobody should have to go to a D or F school. I don't care who their parent is."
Shanahan's comments drew emotional responses from some Pinellas County representatives.
Linda Lerner, a Pinellas County School Board member, stood up and asked Shanahan to consider Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. The historic campus moved this year from an F graded school to a C school. And though it has struggled to overcome its reputation as an academically troubled school due to its F grade, Gibbs has continued to attract a pool of talented students thanks to its highly touted Fine Arts magnet program.
"She doesn't have the facts," Lerner said afterward. "Let her go to Gibbs. Let her see what's happening there not only with our magnets but with some of our most struggling kids."
Lerner said the grading system has not painted an accurate picture of schools like Gibbs.
"I've always been against school grades," Lerner said. "With her pushing it further and saying, 'Who wouldn't want to send their kids to a school with a low grade?' is absurd."
Janssen was seated almost directly in front of Shanahan. Afterward, Janssen said she wasn't surprised by Shanahan's words but did expect the state board member might draw more attention to the gains Pinellas has made.
Like Lerner, Janssen said she questions the usefulness of school grades.
"For me, I have to focus on these last two years and where we're going to go," said Janssen, who was named superintendent in 2009. "We couldn't get from where we were all the way up to where the state is in two years. It takes time to build."
Shanahan, who lives in Tampa and worked as chief of staff for then-Gov. Jeb Bush, said she didn't intend her words as an "attack" on the district.
"I think it's important for them to know what the baseline is," she said, "and to figure out from the community perspective what their priorities are and know that there are a lot of different pools of opportunity to tap in Florida and nationally focused on education reform."
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster also attended the symposium.
"She was just reporting fact, based on her research," Foster said, of Shanahan's presentation. "It wasn't negative, she was just demonstrating on a statewide level how we were doing."
Foster said he left before Lerner spoke and objected.
"I had no reason to question the facts as presented," Foster said. "Shanahan came off as very credible."
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.