One year in, the plan to close Pinellas’ achievement gap needs a school-level focus

Ricardo Davis (center, holding a microphone) addresses a 2015 meeting on Pinellas County education issues. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Ricardo Davis (center, holding a microphone) addresses a 2015 meeting on Pinellas County education issues. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Oct. 3, 2018|Updated Oct. 3, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The local group that helped Pinellas County schools develop a plan to improve education services for black students by 2027 got its first look Wednesday at how the district is inching toward that goal.

During a meeting with district staff at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center, members of the Concerned Organization for the Quality Education of Black Students reviewed a report showing improvement on five of six measures outlined in the "Bridging the Gap" plan.

REPORT: Pinellas improves on its achievement gap, but needs to do better.

Reaction the the report was minimal. However, COQEBS president Ric Davis told the group that though there is still much work to be done, he was glad to see positive movement.

"This is not easy work," he said. "It's like trying to turn a big tanker. You're not going to whip it around in six months or a year."

COQEBS spurred the creation of the plan in 2016, during legal mediation with the school district following a 16-year lawsuit alleging inequities between black students and their peers.

The 2017-18 school year was the first of the new program, which tracks six measures to illustrate the the achievement gap between black and non-black students in Pinellas schools.

Compared to data from 2016, which is used as the baseline, gaps narrowed slightly for five of the benchmarks: Graduation rate, advanced coursework enrollment, student discipline, ESE (Exceptional Student Education) identification and minority hiring.

However, the gap for the sixth measure — academic achievement on state exams — held steady at 33 percent.

Davis expressed concern about the grad rate for black students, which he believes is growing due to an increase in waivers, rather than an increase in achievement.

"We're hoping to see an reversal in the trend," he said.

Davis also said he worries that while the gaps are growing smaller for the district overall, a closer look at the data shows some schools individually aren't improving.

"We need to not just report out, but analyze," he said. "We need to find out what some schools are doing better, so we can recognize them … partner them with other schools that are struggling."

Lewis Brinson, Pinellas' minority achievement officer, agreed.

"There are some schools out there (that are) successful examples, and places where there wasn't enough progress made," he said, adding that the district needs to "dig deep" into school-level data.

Dan Evans, Pinellas' director of assessment accountability and research, told COQEBS members that most of the last year has been spent putting resources and trainings in place to support the goals of the plan.

Now, he said, the district is focused on making sure those ideas trickle down to the school level, and that the needle for each measure moves even further in the right direction.

"We have to have schools own this," he said, adding that each school in Pinellas gained an equity team this year that is responsible for identifying needs and shortfalls on campus.

Of the district's 84 schools with 30 or more black students, Evans said, 27 improved on some of the measures in the plan last year. Once the district has another year or so of data, staff will gain more insight on what made those schools successful.

Brinson said the district is working to put systems in place that ensure students at every level feel challenged and invested in school.

Education shouldn't be "cookie-cutter" for every child, he said. "We have to become prescriptive … making sure we're giving the student the support they need, and not just teaching to the group."

Brinson explained the district's concerted effort to recruit more African American instructors, and to provide professional development to all existing school staff, so they can better understand the needs of black students.

"Our students can't wait … We have to train the teachers we have so they can stand in front of students and help them learn," he said. "We have teachers, regardless of their skin color, that can teach students."

School Board member Joanne Lentino cautioned that the district should be asking teachers directly what they need in their classrooms to be successful. Bridging the gap shouldn't be a "top-down approach," she said.

Both district staff and COQEBS members expressed faith in the process, saying they expect the data to improve each year.

Brinson did so using a metaphor similar to Davis' tanker comparison.

"We're not turning a Maserati … We're trying to turn a truck," he said. "The mere fact that we're showing gains is a plus."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.