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Gap starts at home, study says

From the day they set foot in kindergarten, black children in Pinellas County are not as ready for school as their peers, a study commissioned by the School Board finds.

District lawyers will use the study to defend against a lawsuit alleging the school system has failed to give black students a "high-quality" education, in violation of the Florida Constitution and state law.

The lawsuit points to the achievement gap, which in Pinellas has black students trailing white students by 20 to 40 percentage points on reading and math test scores.

"Whatever is causing the gap, it, by definition, is something that happened to these children before they set foot in a Pinellas County School," lawyer Michael W. Kirk told the School Board on Thursday. Kirk, of Washington, D.C., is helping defend the district.

Noting that other Florida districts report a similar-size gap, the study also found that Pinellas "does not appear to be systematically contributing to" the problem.

But Kirk and district officials made clear that the findings also will be used to identify the causes of the gap and close it.

"This study is not an opportunity to say, 'We won,' '' superintendent Clayton Wilcox said.

Instead, the findings will help educators "carefully craft solutions to many of the problems that are impacting our community's kids," he said.

One surprising finding could help right away.

The two well-known researchers who performed the study found that when they factored out the impact of poverty on many black families, black students in about 20 percent of Pinellas schools performed better than their nonblack peers.

The researchers, David N. Figlio and Cecilia Elena Rouse, urged Pinellas to find out what those schools are doing to help black students and copy it in other schools.

The lawsuit was filed in 2000 by a black father, William Crowley, who said his son experienced academic difficulties that were all too common among black students in Pinellas.

A Pinellas judge later made the case a class action, meaning the plaintiffs include the 21,000 black students now in the Pinellas system as well as any who might be enrolled in the future.

A March trial date has been set, but lawyers predict it could be delayed.

Guy Burns, the Tampa attorney representing Crowley, said the study sounded like the district was trying to escape blame for the gap.

The lawsuit is not about blame, but action, he said.

"They're hung up on the issue that they, the School Board, have not discriminated,'' Burns said. "That's not the point. The point is, whatever the reasons are (for the gap), they have failed to educate those students."

That district officials were talking about using the study as an improvement tool was a good thing, he said. "I'm encouraged if they are trying to find some meaningful solutions."

Figlio and Rouse debunked one common solution districts often turn to: putting more black teachers and administrators in schools with high black enrollment.

According to the study, black students performed no better and sometimes performed worse in the presence of black educators.

Figlio, a professor at the University of Florida, and Rouse, a Princeton professor, are pre-eminent researchers in the field of education and economics.

To explore the fortunes of black kindergarteners, they tapped into data from the district's Omnibus Project, which tracked the 8,400 kids who entered Pinellas kindergarten classes in 1989 and followed them closely through high school graduation.

They looked at the readiness assessments teachers completed on each student, rating them on academic skills such as their knowledge of letters, and emotional skills such as the ability to communicate and take turns.

In all categories, black children were more likely to be deemed as not having the skills they should have by kindergarten age.

In the reading category, for example, 43 percent of black children were found not to have age-appropriate skills, compared with 29 percent of Asian children, 21 percent of Hispanic children and 16 percent of white children.

To account for the possibility of teacher bias in making the ratings, the researchers looked to see if the findings mirrored the students' performance in later grades. They did.

The students in that project are now in their early 20s.