The following story by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore will run in Sunday's Neighborhood Times section:
A group that advocates for black students is concerned about a plan to hire a researcher to explore why Pinellas black students are performing worse than black students statewide.
Superintendent Julie Janssen met last Wednesday with David Figlio, an economist at Northwestern University, who is familiar with Pinellas schools. In 2006, the district commissioned a study from Figlio in response to a class action lawsuit charging the district with failing to educate black children.
During a meeting that same Wednesday, members of the group monitoring compliance in Pinellas' desegregation cases - Bradley vs. Pinellas County School Board (1964) and Crowley vs. Pinellas County School Board (2000) - expressed reservations about hiring Figlio and the possible scope of his work.
"I just need to see what they are discussing with him to see if there is anything new he would offer,'' said former police chief Goliath Davis, a member of Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students. "We need to improve on the dialogue, not have the same dialogue over and over.''
Watson Haynes, president of COQEBS, said the district should be focused on the settlement agreement that requires them to keep better tabs on black student performance and offer specific remedies to boost progress.
"Implement what we have agreed to and give them a chance to work,'' Haynes said.
He and others at the COQEBS meeting said they were concerned that Figlio might focus on poverty and that his findings could influence teachers to approach students with preconceived notions.
Haynes noted that he and other black residents like Davis achieved success despite growing up in impoverished neighborhoods. That occurred because teachers expected the best from them despite their backgrounds, he said.
"If the individual is going to tell us what we already know, that there's a nexus between education and poverty, then we need to go to the districts that are making gains," said Davis, who also cautioned COQEBS not to over react to the proposed study, since details of its scope are yet unknown.
In the 2006 study, Figlio and another researcher concluded the achievement gap between black and nonblack students in Pinellas (as opposed to black and white students) was similar in size to gaps in other Florida districts. The researchers said they could find no evidence that "these gaps are due to systematic exposure to the Pinellas County schools."
Figlio's return was sparked by a St. Petersburg Times analysis that showed that between 2005 and 2010 the divide between black students in Pinellas and black students statewide increased in every grade on the reading and math portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. In every grade on both tests, black students in Pinellas score lower than black students in Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Duval and the other 11 big districts.
In a letter last week to the School Board, Janssen said Figlio would be joined by Bernard Oliver, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Florida. Their work would "employ quantitative and qualitative measures to identify the nature of the persistent black student achievement gap in Pinellas County."
"Internally, we felt we've spent a lot of time trying solutions and it really is healthy in my opinion to bring in some people from the outside,'' Janssen in an interview. "We have improved. Did we think that we are there? Absolutely not."
In a second phase, the district will organize a work group consisting of community leaders and scholars "to identify and evaluate potential remedies."
Janssen said she doesn't yet know how much the project will cost. She expects to present her proposal to the School Board during a May 17 workshop and anticipates work could start this summer.
"There are no easy fixes,'' Janssen said. "But - we want to make sure what we are focused on will be what we need to be focused on."