Closing the achievement gap in Pinellas schools between black students and their peers is in everyone's interest. It will take considerably more effort and resources, but the problem is too urgent to ignore. Now a new agreement provides a chance for a renewed commitment to closing the gap, and the School Board should embrace it.
In the "memorandum of understanding" in the 45-year-old desegregation case, lawyers for the plaintiffs and Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen realize solutions will occur in the classroom, not the courtroom. If the School Board agrees and a judge signs off on the plan, Janssen is committing every school in the district to measure the gap, determine ways to close it and be held accountable if the strategies don't work. Specific officials at each school will have direct responsibility for this, which will help keep it from becoming somebody else's problem.
Both sides in the Bradley vs. Pinellas County School Board case see a new era in which they can work together in good faith for the benefit of the students. Too often in the past, there has been too much confrontation and too little cooperation. This is the first significant breakthrough in more than three years, since mediation began over accusations that the district was failing to live up to the terms of the August 2000 settlement of the suit.
Janssen grasps the significance of the achievement gap better than most and is better positioned in temperament and experience to mount a united effort to address it. She cares deeply about this issue, understands the nuances and has done substantial academic research on it. Now that she has settled in as superintendent, she is in a position to act.
The road map is still a bit vague, and there will be bumps along the way. Some possible solutions — longer days at some schools and smaller classes — will be expensive. It's also unclear if that spending will cut into school budgets elsewhere in the district in an era of declining tax revenue. But it must be done.
The cost to society of not dealing with the gap will be even greater and will only rise as time passes. As schools, particularly in parts of south Pinellas, rapidly resegregate, the schools with the neediest students will require more — not less — time, money and effort.
The memorandum acknowledges this need even if it is imprecise in the solutions. To achieve meaningful improvement in black student achievement, the district would spend money "equitably," which means "certain schools and programs will receive proportionately higher funding than other schools or programs based upon needs demonstrated through verifiable data." The importance of acknowledging that in writing cannot be overstated.
Black students in Pinellas not only lag behind their white classmates, they also trail black students in every other highly urban district in the state. In 10th-grade math, for example, the portion of black students in Pinellas who are at grade level or above is 13 percentage points behind black students in Miami-Dade and 16 percentage points behind black students in Hillsborough. Those sorts of disparities should be unacceptable to every Pinellas resident, regardless of race.
This agreement is a good first step. It moves the district toward helping students instead of litigating the case in court. The board should embrace this plan and flesh out the details quickly. And everyone in the district — students, parents, teachers and administrators — must be willing to do their part.