The Hillsborough County School District has some success to show for the millions it has spent to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. Graduation rates and disciplinary cases are moving in the right direction. But there is still a way to go, and educators and community leaders need to continue exploring how to reach at-risk students.
A School Board workshop this week provided a snapshot of the progress and of the work ahead. Graduation rates are improving for black and Hispanic students. More minorities are taking and passing advanced placement exams. Thanks to a sharp focus on the problem, the rate of black students involved in disciplinary cases is down significantly from last year. These are meaningful gains in an urban district still recovering from the recession, and they speak to the working relationship between the public schools and their private-sector partners.
Still, the gap persists between white and minority students. Graduation rates for black students (58 percent) and Hispanics (68 percent) still lag behind the overall average (73 percent). Black graduation rates also show softer signs of improvement in recent years. Black students are about half as likely as their white counterparts to read on level in third grade. And black students still make up a disproportionate share of disciplinary cases. Black students account for 22 percent of the district's 200,000 students but 38 percent of its misconduct cases. That means thousands of black students are not where they should be — in the classroom — but instead on a track to failure.
The district is creating a task force to explore other strategies that work. It should continue to provide extra tutoring, guidance and other resources to at-risk students. Having a role model provide personal attention can make all the difference. Officials also should strengthen ties with private-sector charities; these groups are community-based and often interact with these families on a regular basis. Local nonprofits can bring in mentors to fill the critical time after the school day.
Parents, community and civic leaders also need to take more ownership of the problem. The NAACP should recognize the quality of the school district it has as a partner and raise expectations for minority student achievement. The classroom doesn't operate in a vacuum. And no community in modern America will cut it that graduates barely half its young population. The school district is right to give this issue a sense of urgency. But it cannot solve the problem alone.