For decades, a huge academic achievement gap has separated African-American students from others in Pinellas County public schools. Despite court settlements and years of plans of varying quality, too little has changed. Now two groups that faced off in court have come together to agree on a detailed, measurable blueprint that aims to eliminate the gap within a decade, and the Pinellas School Board should vote next week to ask the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court to approve the "Bridging the Gap" plan.
"Something different had to be done," said Ricardo Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students (COQEBS), the plaintiff in the long-running court case. "We see this as a very significant turning point for the education of African-American students."
It will be a steep climb:
• Only one-quarter of black students read at grade level, while 57 percent of non-black students do.
• Not even two-thirds of black students earn a high school diploma, while far more than eight in 10 of non-black students do. The gap was nearly 18 percentage points last year.
• African-American students account for more than half of out-of-school suspensions even though they make up only 18 percent of the student body.
Why should this new 81-page plan work any better than what's gone before?
Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego stresses that it not only sets goals, but lays out specific ways to reach them and to measure success or failure along the way — and doesn't rely on a particular person to carry it out. The "Bridging the Gap" plan "sustains itself when players around this table are no longer here."
He added, "What gets measured, gets done." Key to this is giving good, strong principals the ability to make their own schools work. Using the district's blueprint, let them become architects of their own success by hiring the right teachers who are culturally competent and keep high standards — and by engaging the entire community around the school, particularly the parents.
There are some notable specifics. All second-graders will be screened at school for gifted classes. Minority students are too often excluded from the enrichment that gifted classes can bring. All black students will take part in college readiness testing, such as the ACT and SAT. There will be a focus on "restorative justice." What might sound like gobbledygook is rooted in an important principle. When a student acts up and is suspended from class, it sunders a relationship. Before the student can re-enter the classroom, he or she must repair the damage the bad behavior caused. A student who is suspended isn't learning, and restorative justice, properly applied, can integrate a student back into the classroom faster — or deal with the issue without a suspension at all.
"Bridging the Gap" also makes clear some parental responsibility. If a child is falling behind, that student needs to enroll in Pinellas' Summer Bridge program. Also, a personalized computer program will provide resources to parents and students to guide them to extra help and resources. They need to use it.
In turn, school officials acknowledge the need to hire and retain far more teachers and principals who can reach and teach students in high-poverty, minority schools. The plan stresses the need for academic rigor, to make sure that minority students don't suffer from the quiet bias of low expectations. This would once and for all scrub away any lingering toxic notion that poor, minority kids somehow can't learn.
There are, of course, many concerns. For one, the superintendent doesn't necessarily see the need for more money, believing that "a shifting of resources" will suffice. That's debatable.
But the key point is that two groups who have often been in opposition have together drawn up a plan that all of them are enthused about and believe with conviction can finally begin to close the chasm separating black students and others. Davis, the COQEBS president, said, "It's a new beginning on an old issue." With both sides working together — if the community and parents do their part as well — he will be right.