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Black parents' summit aims at education gap

In a first for Pinellas County, hundreds of black parents are expected to attend a daylong summit Saturday with the goal of getting more involved in their children's education.

The event marks the start of the black community's pledge to join the fight against the achievement gap separating black and white students, said Watson Haynes, a black civic leader who helped organize the summit.

In a May meeting with black residents in St. Petersburg, Pinellas School Board members pledged to take more aggressive action to narrow the gap but also made clear they needed help from black parents and civic leaders.

"This is the beginning of our part of the bargain," said Haynes, head of the Coalition for A Safe & Drug Free St. Petersburg Inc.

A Tampa Bay area native who graduated from St. Petersburg High in 1970, Haynes added: "This has never happened before."

The free event, open to residents throughout the county, is expected to draw as many as 800 parents, Haynes said.

It is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Campus Activity Center, 140 Seventh Ave. S. Child care and refreshments will be provided at no charge.

The main speaker will be Jawanza Kunjufu, a nationally known consultant on issues concerning black people, including child-rearing, education and the economy. Among his 22 books: Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys; Developing Positive Self-Images & Discipline in Black Children; and To be Popular or Smart: The Black Peer Group.

Clayton Wilcox, the incoming superintendent of Pinellas County Schools, also is scheduled to speak.

A series of workshops will fill most of the day, concentrating on subjects such as how parents can prepare children for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and how to navigate and build trust with the school system.

The event is organized by Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, a coalition of groups that stepped up its focus on the achievement gap this year after the Times published statistics on Pinellas County's gap.

Sponsors include the Pinellas Education Foundation, the School Board, the city of St. Petersburg and the Juvenile Welfare Board.

The gap between black and white students is wider in Pinellas than in any large county in Florida. Only 27 percent of the county's black students scored at their grade level in the 2004 reading FCAT. That contrasts with 61 percent of white students who scored at grade level in reading, a gap of 34 percentage points.

The black-white gap in math was 39 percent.

Researchers point to a connection between parenting and the gap. In a 1999 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 54 percent of U.S. black parents said they attended a school event during the year compared to 72 percent of white parents.

The survey also showed that black parents were less likely than white parents to read to their children at home, and that black children watch far more television than white children.

Some researchers say poverty and the high number of single-parent black homes are among the reasons black parents do not spend more time readying children for school and participating in school activities. Other studies indicate many black parents feel alienated from their children's schools and don't emphasize academics at home.

Often, some researchers say, black students view academic success as "acting white."

Haynes said summit organizers circulated fliers at local football games with a message for black parents: "Our children are passing football and failing school."

The correlation between parental involvement and school success is strong. In Pinellas County's seven fundamental schools, where parents are required to attend PTA meetings lest their children be expelled, black students do far better on the FCAT. An average of 62 percent of black fundamental school students scored at or above their grade level on the reading FCAT. That was 1 percentage point better than the countywide average for white students and 35 percentage points better than the county average for black students.

A variety of factors within schools are thought to work against black students, including teachers who assume they won't perform well.

In contrast, Saturday's event will be a time for black parents to look inward, Haynes said. "If there's a gripe about the school system, that's another meeting," he said.

A recent survey by the National Urban League found that 66 percent of black adults have "some" or "very little" confidence in public schools to educate their children well. Only half said their children had as good a chance as white children at getting a good education.

But when asked who was best positioned to do something about the problem, nearly 50 percent responded it was up to "black individuals and families themselves." Thirty-three percent said community groups and churches should take the lead. Only 10 percent said the government could help.

Haynes said the summit was open to parents of all races because the gap affects everyone. "If I was a white parent I'd be in the first row," he said. "We're not going to turn anybody away who's concerned about their child."

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