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  1. Education

Black leaders skeptical about district plan to fix 'Failure Factories'

Wednesday's meeting of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students drew a full house as discussion centered around five failing schools in St. Petersburg and a decision by the U.S. Department of Education to investigate whether the Pinellas school district has violated black students' civil rights. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
Wednesday's meeting of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students drew a full house as discussion centered around five failing schools in St. Petersburg and a decision by the U.S. Department of Education to investigate whether the Pinellas school district has violated black students' civil rights. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Apr. 6, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Black leaders on Wednesday vented frustration at being left out of new proposals to aid St. Petersburg's black students and failing schools, but said they welcomed the spotlight that has been cast on the problem.

They said that a revolving cast of district officials have come before, with promises and plans but little change.

"We've had conversations with people who preceded you and here we are having it again," said Goliath Davis, a former police chief and deputy mayor, during a packed meeting of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students.

Guy Burns, a lawyer for the group, said he was glad to see the new initiatives, unveiled Tuesday by district officials. But he noted that district officials insisted for years that they were "doing all they can" to fix the problems, and were suddenly doing more in the face of two lawsuits and two investigations.

"Now that there is a brighter light being shone on the problem, first by the newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, and now by the federal government, we are now seeing a flurry of activity to up the game," Burns said.

"This reinforces how we have been treated over the last several years: as an irritant, not a partner," he continued. "Where were these programs in 2000, in 2005?"

The school district has been under added scrutiny following a Times series, "Failure Factories," which traced the rapid decline of five elementary schools in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods. The schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — are failing at rates worse than almost any other schools in Florida.

The series also found that black students in Pinellas are suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children — one of the largest disparities in Florida — and that black students are largely shut out of the school system's best public schools.

FAILURE FACTORIES: How five once-average schools were turned into the worst in Florida

In the wake of the series, the plaintiffs in separate lawsuits — one in federal court and one in state court — have sought to renew court action against the district for shortchanging black students. The state Department of Education has taken the lead to review how the school district spent federal money for impoverished students. And on Monday, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into whether the school district systematically discriminates against black children.

District leaders released a sweeping new proposal late Tuesday that includes hiring a minority achievement officer, creating special centers for students suspended out of school, and establishing a "transformation zone" with intense support for Pinellas' failing elementary schools. The proposal calls for paying teachers in those schools up to $25,000 more a year, a longer school day and more control at the school level over the curriculum and schedule.

Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett declined Wednesday to go over the details during the community meeting because the plan hasn't been discussed by the School Board. Board members will take it up at their work session next week.

But that didn't stop community members at the meeting from pressing district leaders on specifics of the plan.

Many of the questions centered around how the district would identify the best educators to teach in the five schools and receive the larger paychecks.

Michael Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said the district had overrepresented the union's support for the recommendations, which would require teachers to work an extra hour each day.

"Our decision whether or not to support the district's plan is going to be based on a lot more information than they've currently given us," Gandolfo said.

He told the room he needed to see more details about how the changes would improve student achievement and staff effectiveness. "Otherwise you're just going to burn people out."

Antonio Burt, the district's newly-hired turnaround leader, said his eight-member team would look at test scores and state data to determine which teachers would be most effective in the five schools.

Burt said he would key in on problem-solving skills, looking for people who acted quickly on their feet and could see data one day and act on it the next.

Principals know exactly who these top performers are, he said: "Teachers have been auditioning since the first day of school."

Some members of the community cautioned that a top teacher at an affluent, north county school might fall apart in the more turbulent classrooms of south St. Petersburg.

Cynthia Kidd, the principal at Lakewood Elementary, acknowledged that a high-performing teacher she brought in to teach music quit this school year, saying Lakewood wasn't the right fit for her.

But Kidd said the teacher's replacement, an educator from Cypress Woods Elementary in Palm Harbor, has soared at the school. "She gave up everything to come to Lakewood," Kidd said.

Board member Linda Lerner, who attended the community meeting, said she hasn't had a chance to review all of the recommendations, but said they were "well done."

Roger Plata, co-counsel for a 50-year-old federal desegregation lawsuit, said Wednesday that he was upset the new proposals hadn't been shared with him or his partner. He also accused David Koperski, the School Board's lawyer, of trying to operate in secret.

Koperski sent an email last month to ask that statements made by district officials in public meetings not be used against them in court proceedings. Koperski said his concern was that district officials wouldn't feel comfortable speaking at public meetings, including at COQEBS. Plata said the request was an attempt to "keep things quiet."

"This was a community organization founded by great people," Plata said. "The purpose of that was for the community to come together with the district and talk openly."

Etta Tucker, who mentors and has a grandchild at Melrose, said she recently attended a parent meeting, but added that many Melrose parents weren't invited. Tucker said she wanted to tell the School Board to "Stop being deceptive. We're onto them, and they need to know that."

She said families were tired of relying on promises from the School Board.

"We're done with that. We want results. We want results we can see, and we want children to be successful. That's the bottom line."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

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