Protests bring race, equity into focus for Tampa Bay school districts

Officials say schools have a duty to support the movement for change. Advocates push for a plan so momentum doesn’t fade.
Residents show their support for a Black Lives Matter march as it passes on May 31 in Tampa to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As demonstrations continue, local school districts are acknowledging that they need to step up their efforts to stamp out bias and help more students succeed.
Residents show their support for a Black Lives Matter march as it passes on May 31 in Tampa to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As demonstrations continue, local school districts are acknowledging that they need to step up their efforts to stamp out bias and help more students succeed. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published June 9, 2020

After weeks of protests against police violence and racial inequality, Tampa Bay area school officials are acknowledging the systems they run are in need of change.

In Pasco County, a new “equity team” will look for “biases and behaviors that prevent consistent equitable, fair and respectful practices,” according to memo released Sunday by superintendent Kurt Browning.

District leaders in Pinellas County sent out a letter Friday saying they are committed to improving outcomes for black children.

Hillsborough County signaled change with the appointment of two top leaders, a chief of equity and diversity and a “transformation” officer in charge of struggling schools. Superintendent Addison Davis told parents in a newsletter his district “does not and will not tolerate racism of any kind.”

Hernando County officials pledged to continue their efforts to close the achievement gap, including doing a better job of getting community input.

But those changes are sure to come with some hard conversations, as Pinellas found out Sunday when the president of the St. Petersburg Branch NAACP issued a sharply worded call for improved relations and announced a town hall meeting for later this week to address the concerns.

Maria Scruggs said Pinellas school leaders had displayed institutional racism and “blatant disrespect” of black leaders in some of their recent decisions. She gave as an example the changes to the district’s Transformation Zone system, which targets the lowest performing schools largely in the most heavily minority areas.

When zone director Nikita Reed recently resigned, Scruggs said, the community learned about it through rumors. And when the district picked a replacement, it did so without involving the community, she said.

“Until we recognize some very basic relationships and some basic respect, it’s going to be very difficult for us to move the needle on some very basic issues,” Scruggs said in an interview.

That movement is critical, said Pinellas associate superintendent for teaching and learning Kevin Hendrick, because the disparities have been evident for many years.

Students of color have fared worse than others both in Florida and nationally when it comes to academic outcomes, he noted. They are over-identified for special needs services, underrepresented in advanced courses, and disproportionately disciplined.

Leaders agreed that such a track record must be upended.

“As a school district, as a community and as individuals we must all pledge to commit ourselves to this work, to the examination of our own practices and to disrupting the barriers which negatively impact our students, families and staff,” the Pinellas School Board and superintendent stated in their letter.

The districts have taken steps in the past toward these ends.

Pasco, for instance, recently won national recognition for its actions to diversify the pool of teenagers taking and successfully completing Advanced Placement classes. Hernando added equity teams to all its high schools and is about to create a new school-level position of diversity coach to work with principals in closing achievement gaps.

In early 2017, the Hillsborough board adopted a racial equity policy that was considered provocative for its time, pledging to confront the “institutional racism that results in predictably lower academic achievement for students of color than for their white peers.”

That policy was the basis for an Achievement Schools initiative, which allocated extra resources to schools where students historically had been unsuccessful. The plan, like others before it, suffered at first because many high-minority schools had trouble attracting experienced teachers. The district responded with a teacher bonus program that has yet to show results.

In his early months as the district’s leader, Davis has shifted focus to a smaller “Transformation Network” of schools.

Such attempts have won praise from some corners. Parents and community members on social media cheered Pasco’s Sunday night announcement, for example, saying they appreciated the acknowledgement that change is needed and the pledge to do so.

But words are one thing. Actions are quite another.

That’s why Scruggs of the NAACP said she wants attention paid not only to protests, but to planning. Her group has organized a town hall meeting for Thursday to discuss how to get past racism in education, law enforcement, health care and other critical areas.

“This energy can be short-lived,” she said. “If you do not have a plan and a strategy to direct that energy to action, it will die on the vine.”

And that is not the fate that leaders in any of the districts say they want.

Pinellas board member Rene Flowers, who represents the county’s most heavily minority area, said she believed the efforts will have lasting power, because the attention is greater.

“This thing has expanded,” Flowers said. “It’s not just here in the United States. It is an international outcry and outrage as it relates to the treatment of black and brown people.”

It makes sense for schools to play a key role in the movement, Pasco superintendent Browning said in his announcement.

“Our educational system can be the driver that eliminates inequalities, creates responsible citizens, and fosters positive relationships within our community,” he stated.

He said getting to a better place would be a challenge, one that demands the attention and participation of everyone.

“The work isn’t easy,” Pinellas associate superintendent Hendrick said. “If it were easy, you wouldn’t see protests and the world would be a different place.”

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this story.