Report: Pinellas improves on achievement gap, but needs to do better

When it comes to educating black students, the Pinellas County school district has improved in several areas, according to a new report. But the gap between black students and their peers remains.  [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
When it comes to educating black students, the Pinellas County school district has improved in several areas, according to a new report. But the gap between black students and their peers remains. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Sept. 18, 2018|Updated Sept. 18, 2018

School for black students in Pinellas County is getting better, according to a report detailing the school district's progress a year into its effort to close the educational achievement gap by 2027.

Of the six measures included in its "Bridging the Gap" plan, the district improved on five during the 2017-18 school year: Graduation rate, advanced coursework enrollment, student discipline, ESE (Exceptional Student Education) identification and minority hiring.

However, the gap between black students and others in terms of academic achievement on state English and math exams held steady from the previous year.

A 33 percent gap remains, the report shows, with between 24 and 30 percent of black students scoring at Level 3 or above on those tests, depending on the grade level. The state describes Level 3 as "satisfactory" performance, with the student possibly needing additional support.

"It's good; it's not great," Pinellas' minority achievement officer Lewis Brinson told the School Board during a workshop where he presented the report. "But good is acceptable and encouraging that we will become great … if we continue to keep the focus."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Results are concerning as Pinellas launches plan to bridge achievement gap, but it's early

Although the final graduation rate for last year has not yet been released by the Florida Department of Education, the district expects the ratio of black graduates to increase for the third consecutive year.

The report estimates the percentage of black graduates will grow slightly, to 73.3 percent from 69.3 percent in 2016-17. The state is expected to release the final rates in December.

The district's biggest area of improvement was in enrollment of black students in accelerated courses — Advanced Placement, honors, dual enrollment AICE and IB — which grew by nearly 2 percentage points, to 13.7 percent overall.

Black enrollment in gifted programs grew by 1 percentage point, reaching its highest ever at 5 percent, the report shows.

Dan Evans, director of assessment accountability and research called the growth a "nice uptick" but noted the district is still short of its goal to get black gifted enrollment to at least 18 percent.

"It's up each year, but still not at our mark," he said.

The ratio of discipline of black students compared to non-black students improved slightly overall, although the number of suspensions increased, particularly in elementary schools.

Still, since the 2013-14 school year, the number of black students suspended has fallen from 4,089 to 2,625 last year — a 35.8 percent decrease.

Fewer black students last year were designated EBD, or emotional/behavioral disability, last year. The ratio of black to non-black students in that category dropped for the third year in a row, from 3.94 to 3.84, the report shows.

"The reduction … is attributed primarily to fewer students with this designation transferring into the district," the report said, adding that ratio of black to non-black students across all ESE designations remained unchanged.

As far as staffing, Pinellas schools employed 671 black teachers in 2017-18, pushing its percentage of black instructors above 9 percent for the first time, the report said.

Brinson said School Board members should look at the report and ask themselves, "What did we do right, and what can we do better?"

Similarly, Evans reminded officials that bridging the gap is an "ongoing challenge" that requires a shift in mindset that trickles down from the district into individual school plans.

But it can't be a "fix mindset," Brinson cautioned. "We have to move toward a growth mindset. … We have to change the mindset that we can do it."

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego celebrated the results, pointing out that the plan, created in May 2017, has been noticed in other places across the state and nation.

It's being "recognized for its aggressiveness," he said, adding that district staff will soon present it to the Council of the Great City Schools.

Brinson said someone recently asked him how the School Board agreed on such a massive, detailed plan. He told officials his response was simple:

"When you keep the children in the forefront, great leaders have no problem doing the right thing for our kids," Brinson said. "And that's what we did here in Pinellas … We came together."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.