Black leaders say it's on them to close Pinellas' learning gap. 'We have already lost too many children.'

Maria Scruggs, president of the NAACP’s St. Petersburg Branch, outlines her plan to address low reading ability among black students in Pinellas County public schools. The school system has “done what they can do,” Scruggs said, “but now it’s time for the community to step in.” [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Maria Scruggs, president of the NAACP’s St. Petersburg Branch, outlines her plan to address low reading ability among black students in Pinellas County public schools. The school system has “done what they can do,” Scruggs said, “but now it’s time for the community to step in.” [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Dec. 21, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County school leaders still haven't cracked the code for how to effectively educate black students, even in the face of a court order pushing them to do it.

Less than a quarter last year were considered proficient readers. More than half were in remedial programs. Overall, black kids in the county continue to lag far behind any other group by every academic measure.

"The (school) district has shown they just can't do it," NAACP St. Petersburg president Maria Scruggs said at the chapter's meeting this week. "They have done what they can do, but now it's time for the community to step in."

Her group this week publicly declared local black students' deficiencies in reading a major civil rights issue. But rather than point the finger at the school district, Scruggs said, it's time for the black community to accept part of the blame.

Educating black children can't happen only during the school day, she said. Kids need support from everyone around them, and the NAACP is laying the groundwork to make that happen.

Scruggs is proposing what she says is the county's first community driven reading campaign, set to launch about a year from now. She compared her plans to the 2006 movie Akeelah and the Bee, which tells the story of a young black girl from south Los Angeles who dreams of winning the National Spelling Bee, and the people who help her get there.

"Everybody in her community … was giving her words," Scruggs told an audience Wednesday at Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg. "Everybody was doing their part to make sure she got to that spelling bee, because that's what African-American people do. They support each other."

For too long, she said, Pinellas' black community has stood by, waiting for the school district to lift up its children. And too few black leaders have held educators accountable when their efforts to boost black students haven't delivered.

That's why, in her mind, the responsibility of teaching black students to read must be shared by parents, churches, barbers, sports leagues — everyone who comes in contact with a child — if the tide is ever going to change.

"We've really got to develop a model that touches children wherever they go," Scruggs said. "It's not only teaching our children to read. … It's about changing the culture so that we are actively engaged in making sure our children are well."

So far, school officials, who have their own ongoing initiative to close the achievement gap between black and white students by 2027, have been supportive of the NAACP's ideas. Minority achievement officer Lewis Brinson, who helped develop the district's decade-long "Bridging the Gap" plan last year, has attended many of the group's monthly education committee meetings.

"We welcome the opportunity to work with the NAACP and all the community organizations that are willing to assist with accelerating the reading proficiency levels of black students," he said in a statement this week. "I … continue to encourage all community members and organizations to focus on initiatives to increase the reading levels of black students in all grade levels."

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The idea also has support from Ric Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for the Quality Education of Black Students, which has long fought for racial equality in Pinellas schools and spurred the district's "Bridging the Gap" plan. But he knows the group faces a long and challenging road.

"More people getting involved is not a bad thing, but at the end of the day we have to know specifically what they are doing that is going to change the outcome," he said. "My question would be: How will this other program make a measurable difference?"

Davis pointed out that many in the black community face extreme poverty, inadequate housing and other struggles that get in the way of student development. The NAACP will have to be cognizant of that when it rolls out the reading campaign, he said.

"What kinds of resources do you bring to those children and families is the question," he said. "I don't know the answers. I just know there are a lot of families that are struggling where they are, and we have to find a way to meet them there."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas improves on achievement gap, but needs to do better, report says

Scruggs said the NAACP's plans are still in the developmental stages, but she is confident in her vision. She has already met with prospective donors and a handful of community groups whose leaders have expressed interest in getting involved. The office of U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, confirmed he is backing the group, too.

One organization that has agreed to partner is Bee's Learning mobile tutoring service, based in St. Petersburg but operating countywide. Founder Leah Veal was formerly a teacher at Fairmount Park Elementary, once rated the second-worst school in Florida based on test scores.

It was one of five schools featured in the 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation "Failure Factories," which detailed how Pinellas school officials abandoned integration efforts on those predominantly black campuses and broke promises of extra resources as academic performance and student behavior declined.

Veal, who uses a single RV-turned-classroom to teach more than 100 kids a week outside local recreation centers and libraries, said she hopes a partnership with the NAACP will allow her to grow the nonprofit's effort. Her goal now is the same as when she was a teacher: To help kids, particularly those who are black and struggling, learn to read.

"It can't be done by just the school system or just the community," she said. "But it can be done together."

Using testing data collected by the district, Scruggs estimates about 11,000 of the nearly 20,000 black students enrolled in Pinellas public schools need extra help with reading. Her hope is to rally enough help that the NAACP can give each one a personalized education plan, detailing just how a community can envelope a child and push him or her toward success.

"As a community, we have to control what we can control," Scruggs said. "If we don't, we will keep going in the circle that we're going, and we have already lost too many children."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.


Pinellas County's achievement gap | By the numbers


Number of black students in Pinellas County public schools


Percentage of black students who passed the state English test


Percentage of black students who passed the state math test


Percentage of black students in remedial programs


Percentage-point gap between black and nonblack students in English


Percentage-point gap between black and nonblack students in math

Source: Pinellas County school district, 2017-18