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New leader to play key role as Pinellas strives to raise minority student achievement

Lewis Brinson was Hillsborough’s chief diversity officer.
Lewis Brinson was Hillsborough’s chief diversity officer.
Published Nov. 15, 2016

Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego has taken another step in his growing effort to change the way black students are educated, hiring a minority achievement officer who will report directly to him.

Lewis Brinson, 64, is a veteran school administrator from Hillsborough County. Pending School Board approval Tuesday, he will start Dec. 1 and earn $107,565 a year.

Grego, who announced the move on Monday, said Brinson will bring both an outsider's perspective and a familiarity with Pinellas. In Hillsborough, Brinson played a central role in changing discipline policies that disproportionately affected black students and pushed changes similar to those being made now in Pinellas.

"He gets it," Grego said.

Brinson announced in June that he would retire rather than reapply for his job as chief diversity officer in Hillsborough, as superintendent Jeff Eakins was requiring many administrators to do at the time. Brinson could not be reached Monday for comment.

In the new position, Brinson will be responsible for improving educational outcomes for black and Hispanic students countywide. He will oversee the district's Bridging the Gap plan, which is focused on closing gaps between black students and their classmates in graduation, discipline and academic achievement.

The position, a first for Pinellas County, is separate and distinct from Antonio Burt's role as director of school transformation. Burt's role, which also is new, is solely to improve eight struggling elementary schools in what has become known as the "transformation zone." Burt was hired last year.

The school district has faced intense scrutiny in the last year after "Failure Factories," a yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times that found black students were suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children — one of the largest disparities in Florida — and that a 2007 vote by the School Board to create neighborhood schools caused the rapid resegregation and decline of five elementary schools in St. Petersburg.

The plaintiffs in separate lawsuits, one in federal court and one in state court, have sought to renew legal action against the district for shortchanging black students. And the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into whether the school district systematically discriminates against black children.

In April district leaders announced a series of changes to address disparities in the school system, including hiring a minority achievement officer, tracking students in real time, creating alternative sites for students to serve suspensions and offering higher pay incentives to attract teachers to struggling schools. Many of the proposals had been identified in the Times series as strategies used in other large, urban districts in Florida that had higher passing rates among black children.

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According to the district, the posting for minority achievement officer was advertised multiple times and attracted 150 candidates. Grego interviewed six finalists this month after a screening process that included his staff and three community representatives.

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this story. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow @Fitz_ly.