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Quality, not quotas, should be schools' concern

In its abrupt attempt to end court-ordered desegregation in Pinellas public schools, the School Board has misinterpreted the anti-busing sentiments of black and white parents. Parents are not opposed to transportation or to desegregated schools. They are opposed to their children riding a bus 15 miles to receive an inferior education.

Parents, especially black parents whose children the school system has historically neglected, want schools that understand and educate their children. And ending forced busing is not going to solve this problem. The only way to improve the quality of education in our schools is to begin demanding that every child, parent, educator and school accept nothing less than success. Failure must no longer be acceptable.

The good news is that a growing number of schools around the country have discovered how to reach all students, not just those most likely to succeed, and are providing a road map for others to follow. One of these schools is Azalea Elementary School in St. Petersburg _ a typical south county school in most respects, except for its results.

White and black students at Azalea Elementary experience more academic progress than their peers at other Pinellas schools. For example, standardized mathematics scores for Azalea's third-grade students went from the 45th percentile in 1996 to the 73rd percentile in 1997. During this same period, second-graders went from the 49th to the 77th percentile in mathematics, and from the 43rd to the 71st percentile in reading.

This extraordinary academic success has enabled many Azalea students, especially low-income and black students, to avoid being labeled as deficient and tracked into low-level classes. While more than 20 percent of students countywide have been categorized as learning deficient, less than 4 percent of Azalea's zoned students carry this label.

The progress of Azalea's black students during the past two years, most of whom are bused from inner-city neighborhoods, has been especially impressive. In 1996, 51 percent of third-grade black students and 61 percent of fourth-grade black students had standardized test scores below the 25th percentile. By 1997, these percentages had dropped to 31 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

Azalea's success starts with the attitude that failure is not an option. Each child and adult is expected to meet high performance standards _ no exceptions.

Public accountability is next. Graphs tracking class achievement cover the walls in each classroom and are used to guide class improvement efforts. Periodically, teachers at each grade level sit down and compare their classes to see who is doing well and what strategies they are using. Teachers whose classes are performing poorly are expected to learn from their colleagues who are experiencing more success, and are expected to improve their results. Teachers also regularly review their students' work with the teachers who taught their students last year and those who will be teaching them next year to explore how they can ensure that students have mastered the proper knowledge and skills before being promoted to the next grade level.

Personal accountability is also important. All Azalea students keep personal folders that track how well they are meeting their grade-level standards in reading, writing and mathematics. Students who are struggling in reading, for instance, are expected to work cooperatively with more successful peers to improve.

Azalea's schoolwide improvement efforts are organized around these concepts of high expectations for all, accountability for results and continual improvement.

For example, after analyzing schoolwide test results, the school recently established a goal of ensuring that no student leaves second grade performing below grade level in reading, writing or mathematics. Incoming second-grade students were then assigned to classes in a manner that increased the probability of achieving this goal, and class sizes were lower for students who required special attention. Throughout the year, students are continually assessed and moved to another class, if necessary, to ensure that this school goal is achieved.

Azalea Elementary is also trying to confront one of the unspoken issues that is at the heart of the desegregation debate in Pinellas _ the racial prejudices that children and adults bring to school each morning. Like every Pinellas school, Azalea has to combat a cultural racism that often unfairly tracks black and low-income children into low-level classes.

The most common example of this racism is the expectation that black students cannot perform as well as white students. This message is regularly communicated to white and black students by black and white educators in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which black students become convinced they cannot achieve and stop trying, thereby ensuring they will never achieve.

Breaking this cycle is a prerequisite to providing each black child with a quality education, but our biases about the abilities of black and white children are so culturally ingrained that most educators have no idea they are sending these messages, and are offended by the suggestion they are.

Azalea is hoping to change those attitudes by holding educators, parents and students publicly accountable for the success of every child. If every child must succeed, then there is no room for anyone to believe they can't. There is no room for high expectations for some students and lowered ones for others.

Unfortunately, anyone who reviews student achievement data in Pinellas will see that we, as a school system and a community, have failed in our 27-year attempt to provide black children with a quality education. While many black students have benefited from the greater resources that came from attending white schools, the majority of black students today are still leaving our schools without the knowledge, skills and self-confidence necessary to be successful adults.

The main obstacles blocking our efforts to provide each black child with a quality education are political _ not technical. As Azalea's initial success illustrates, we know what to do and how to do it. What we are lacking is the political will to act on what we know.

Four years ago, the School Board created a coalition of high-poverty schools and promised to turn these schools into models for what works, but as soon as the media attention faded, so did the board's commitment. The negotiated desegregation plan the School Board rejected about two weeks ago included yet another commitment to provide each black child with a quality education, but the board dismissed this commitment as a superficial "goodwill gesture" unrelated to the court order and school desegregation. Clearly, our School Board is unwilling to confront the failure of our schools to provide each black student with a quality education and will continue to ignore this failure until the community _ including our business community, which has neglected this issue for too long _ forces schools to act.

Continuing to ignore the quality of our children's education while lawyers debate racial quotas is wrong. Our children _ all of our children _ deserve better.

Doug Tuthill, former president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, is a social studies teacher who is on leave while working with the University of South Florida Urban Initiative.