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Fourteen schools not meeting racial targets may stay that way

Pinellas County schools may forgo rezoning next year for 14 schools not in compliance with a desegregation order while school district and civil rights officials continue to negotiate possible alternatives to ratios and busing.

The School Board will vote tonight on a rezoning moratorium for nine schools that exceed the maximum of 30 percent black students and five elementary schools that fall below a minimum of 5 percent.

If the board approves, the district will seek the court's approval of the plan.

The schools exceeding the maximum ratio are all in the southern part of the county, where black residency is higher. They are Bay Point Elementary, Bay Point Middle, Bear Creek Elementary, Lakewood Elementary, Melrose Elementary, Mount Vernon Elementary and Woodlawn Elementary, all in St. Petersburg; Boca Ciega High in Gulfport; and Madeira Beach Elementary in Madeira Beach.

The elementary schools falling below the 5 percent minimum are in the northern part of the county, where black residency is lowest. They are Brooker Creek in East Lake, Ozona and Palm Harbor in Palm Harbor, Leila Davis in Clearwater and Forest Lakes in Oldsmar. High schools and middle schools in the northern part of the county are held to a minimum of 3.8 percent black students.

The school district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have been in talks for the past year, exploring the future of school desegregation in Pinellas County.

District officials have asked that the maximum ratio for black students in any one school be raised to 35 percent, and that the minimum percentage for north county schools be eliminated altogether.

Meanwhile, the Legal Defense Fund has asked the district to improve the achievement of black students and to address their low representation in magnet and gifted programs and their higher proportions in disciplinary and special education programs.

"This includes the elimination of programs which utilize ability grouping as a factor in determining class placement," Enrique Escarraz, attorney for the NAACP, wrote in a letter to school officials last December.

Escarraz noted in the same letter that more than half of the black children in Pinellas schools "are not being taught to read at grade level . . . (and) that more than 50 percent of the black middle school children are not being taught to perform at grade level in any subject matter."

Many black parents are eager to find alternatives to busing, since their children bear most of the burden. More than two-thirds of the students in Pinellas County who are bused for desegregation purposes are black.

"The root cause of the dysfunction in the black community today is busing," said George Moseley Jr., a resident of Childs Park whose son would have been bused to Azalea Middle School if he had not been accepted this year at Academy Prep, a free, private school at 2301 18th Ave. S. "The black community has no identification with its schools, and it's ripping the heart out of the community and fragmenting it."

To be effective, Moseley said, schools must draw their teachers and students from the same environment. "The kids need black role models. They're getting basically young, white teachers who can only superficially relate to black life. They don't have a history of oppression and how to deal with that."

But parents like Suzan Goodin, who heads the School Advisory Council at Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg, fear that loosening ratios will speed the white flight from southern parts of the county.

"I'm all for neighborhood schooling, but it seems like a few of the schools will end up with more and more minorities," Goodin said. "The white parents, especially, are all going to want to go to neighborhoods that are farther away from the south side."

Neither NAACP nor district officials will say whether a proposal aimed at raising achievement in the district's highest-poverty schools is being considered as an alternative to stringent ratios.

A Federal Interagency Task Force formed soon after the racial disturbances last year has been looking at ways to improve student success in the district's 21 highest-poverty schools. The task force is composed of local, federal and state authorities as well as representatives from the local teachers union, businesses and universities.

The proposal calls for new pay incentives for keeping the best teachers where they are needed most: in schools with the most impoverished students. A peer review system would pay exceptional teachers to observe and help other teachers in those schools and to work closely with teacher trainees from the University of South Florida.

The plan would use new standardized tests in reading, writing and math to guide teachers in their instruction and gauge student progress against state and national standards. Already, an army of volunteers from Pinellas County churches and businesses is being recruited to help tutor disadvantaged, young children and bring them up to speed.