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  1. Education

Answers remain elusive as Hillsborough school leaders discuss racial disparities

TAMPA — A School Board that was somewhat optimistic but largely frustrated spent two hours Wednesday trying to make headway in closing the gap between white and minority learning in Hillsborough County.

Despite the district's nearly $3 billion budget, which includes more than $60 million for high-poverty communities, black male students pass third grade reading tests at roughly half the rate of white students. The pass rates drop between 3rd and 8th grades. And black males continue to lag behind their peers in high school graduation rates.

"It's still so sobering, but it's not hopeless," said member Doretha Edgecomb.

The third such workshop in the last 18 months, it coincided with a federal investigation of alleged racial disparities in the way Hillsborough schools educate and discipline students.

District leaders hope to see results from a new concept called "success teams" in which administrators and counselors collaborate to help 100 at-risk students at each of 52 middle and high schools.

They hope to give the board a progress report in December, said assistant superintendent George Gaffney.

Edgecomb had a long list of suggestions for administrators, including bringing kids to school on Saturdays and teaching them about local black leaders and educators, including those whose names are on their school buildings. "Students have to see themselves in what they're being told," she said.

Since male students are most at risk, she said, the district should make better use of research that is fueling the single gender education movement.

Board member Candy Olson said schools should stop doing things that do not work and get more suggestions from students.

In response to activists who contend there is a "pipeline" of minority students going to prison, she said, "We cannot say 'You can't have suspensions and consequences,' because classes become insane. We have to find ways to fix what the problems are, not to just push the numbers down."

Board member April Griffin said community leaders, who filled the audience but were not given a chance to speak, should be included in the next workshop.

And, Griffin said, "we've got to talk about health education and sex education" because too many children are born out of impulsive acts by teenagers.

Board member Cindy Stuart took issue with the presentation itself, which opened with increases in minority enrollment in advanced placement and honors classes. Those statistics are not relevant to a discussion about student struggles, she said.

But superintendent MaryEllen Elia said it's important to consider the whole picture.

Carolyn Collins, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, said it was a worthwhile discussion, although she would like to see success teams in elementary schools as well.

She was encouraged by Edgecomb's suggestions, and by the call for community organizations to be more involved.

"You can't blame parents and the community if you're not talking to them," she said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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