Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Baby steps for struggling Pinellas schools

In the wake of a rash of police shootings of blacks nationwide — some justified, others not — the Black Lives Matter movement was born. And once again a great, often heated conversation has been joined over the issue of race relations across the country.

Fair enough. We need to do a better job of talking about and acting upon so many lingering disparities within our justice system.

But you would be hard pressed to find a more vivid example of where the rubber meets the road when it comes to Black Lives Matter than the five struggling elementary schools in south St. Petersburg, which were the focus of the Tampa Bay Times Pulitzer Prize-winning "Failure Factories" investigation that exposed a deepening educational morass at Lakewood, Fairmount Park, Melrose, Campbell Park and Maximo elementary schools.

The series delved into the result of broken promises for more money and resources to schools that became predominately poor and black after the end of desegregation efforts in 2007. It was bad. It was an insult to a school district that ignored these schools. And it was a dire omen over the future of the city's black and poor children who were essentially being told their lives didn't matter.

But they do matter.

It is a tired, old axiom that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It is so tired, so worn, because it is so true.

Days ago, the Department of Education released its annual grades of the state's public schools based on how students perform on the annual Florida Standards Assessment test. And there was some good news, some so-so news and some bad news.

Maximo Elementary, which had been an F school for the past five years, received a grade of C. Lakewood and Fairmount Park moved up from an F to a D grade. And Melrose and Campbell Park remained F schools.

For three of the "Failure Factory" schools these were baby steps. Itty bitty steps. But steps forward nonetheless. A journey of a thousand hopes and dreams begins with a single child sitting a classroom when a lightbulb of learning turns on.

Obviously, all these schools have huge remaining challenges before them. But a C is better than a D. And a D is better than an F. And three out five schools improving is at least a start.

As the "Failure Factories" series unfolded, Pinellas school superintendent Michael Grego dedicated more money to the distressed schools. He added more mental health counselors and classroom aides. Principals and teachers were replaced. And things began to change, albeit incrementally, for the better.

To be sure, the modest gains at Maximo, Lakewood and Fairmount Park are hardly cause for popping champagne corks and fireworks. But for the first time in many years, too many years, the children at these schools are being given a chance to succeed and to know their lives matter.

Education is very hard, frustrating work. Success depends on a fragile alchemy of dedicated teachers, visionary administrators, involved parents, better resources, safer and less stressful communities and children arriving at the school door able and willing to learn.

What now? Well the speeches, the parades, the protests are all very moving. But in the end a B is better than a C. And a C is better than a D. And a D is better than an F — one grade, one student, one school at a time. And achieving even these simple goals is not just Grego's challenge. It is Pinellas County's communitywide mandate, too.

Black lives do matter. And nothing begins to accomplish that self-evident aspiration more than the reality of recognizing all classrooms matter.

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