Closing the achievement gap at Pinellas’ most struggling elementary schools needs holistic approach, principals say

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 November 7 2018
Updated November 7 2018

Principals of Pinellas County's worst-performing elementary schools gathered Tuesday to share their progress in closing the academic achievement gap between black students and their peers.

Successes, like added reading programs, new clubs and gains on state tests, were tempered with challenges, like the fight for more parental involvement in schools populated by kids in some of the county's most impoverished neighborhoods.

The meeting was organized by the Concerned Organization for the Quality Education of Black Students, an advocacy group that has long fought for racial equality in Pinellas schools.

Its purpose was to key in district leaders on how their 10-year plan to bridge the gap by 2027 is playing out in the county's Transformation Zone, or schools known to need extra support.

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"Sometimes (the school district's) definition of support isn't what schools need, so we need to hear from them," said Lewis Brinson, Pinellas' minority achievement officer. "It's going to take all of us to make a difference."

Donnika Jones, principal at Melrose Elementary School, spoke first. She said her students continue to struggle in reading, but under new programs this year, the school should see an uptick in performance soon.

Still, she worried about students' needs outside of academics. Many at Melrose come to school with social and emotional shortfalls that make it hard for them to learn, she said.

"Sometimes, the work we do has to go past learning and into rebuilding those social and emotional connections," Jones said. "We want to make sure we can support the whole student, the whole family. It's about more than the individual scholar. … We're growing a community.

Students at Fairmount Park Elementary School also face multiple barriers because of challenges outside the classroom, principal Kristy Moody said. The school saw an uptick in homeless students this year as surrounding neighborhoods undergo gentrification.

"That creates stress and frustration," she said. "It creates instability."

She said Fairmount's teachers this year are focused on leveling exposure to grade-level standards as much as possible, even for students who are under-performing. That mindset, Moody added, has boosted math scores.

"Coming to kindergarten and learning to be nice to each other is great, but these children are ready to learn," she said. "Every day should be challenging.

School Board member Joanne Lentino, who attended the meeting along with outgoing member Linda Lerner and newly elected member Nicole Carr, suggested the principals try to boost parental involvement at their schools.

But in the Transformation Zone, where many families face extreme poverty, that's not so easy, principals said.

"Our parents do what they can," Jones said. "We have to think outside of that linear understanding of parental involvement we see at other schools."

Ric Davis, president of COQEBS, agreed, saying that not all parents have the means to visit or volunteer at their child's school.

"Parental involvement can look very different," he said. "If a parent is sleeping in a car and wondering where the next meal is coming from, I would argue that that parent is engaged."

At Lakewood Elementary School, principal Stephanie Woodford recently opted to hold school advisory council meetings at various times so more parents can attend.

She's making a point to ensure parent-teacher conferences concerning student behavior also address academics, so parents can get a more holistic view of their child's performance at school.

Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.

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