Panel on racial disparities in Hillsborough schools tries to get back on track

Published Nov. 18, 2014

TAMPA — Starting from square one, a task force on African-American students in Hillsborough County tried Monday to get to the heart of continuing disparities in learning and discipline.

Task force members named a long list of issues including poverty, teacher turnover and varying opinions on punctuality.

Should kids be suspended when they are late? "If you are tardy at work, you will be unemployed," said Lewis Brinson, who recently returned on a contract basis as assistant superintendent.

Michael Pheneger of the American Civil Liberties Union said the result is that kids miss even more school. "It's almost inevitable that if you have an out-of-school suspension, bad things will happen to you," he said.

For more than a year, educators and community leaders have been meeting off and on to try to give the district some direction in curing these gaps.

At the most recent meeting, members agreed the effort was so adrift that they needed a facilitator to get them on track.

Glen Gilzean, a former member of the Pinellas County School Board, stepped into that role. He said he hopes the group can have something to show the district by March.

Members include Saba Baptiste, education chair of the local NAACP chapter; Michael Dove, representing the organization 100 Black Men of Tampa Bay; former magnet schools administrator and high school teacher Jennifer Morley; and Henry Ballard, a business owner who used to run the district's minority purchasing department.

They've already discussed some of the topics — such as the large numbers of suspensions for tardiness and the vague category of inappropriate behavior — at length.

Member Manny Rivero, executive director of the Jim Walter Partnership Center at the University of South Florida, said it's important to keep the group together, after it reports to the district, to ensure continued change.

"If this is a committee where we're going to put our findings into a nice, glossy report, check the boxes and go home, we're wasting our time," he said.

The task force is meeting as the federal Office of Civil Rights investigates the district stemming from a complaint by community activist Marilyn Williams, alleging minority students are shortchanged when it comes to both education and discipline.

Although Williams is not on the task force, she attended Monday's meeting.

"I was a little bit surprised that the focus was 100 percent on discipline," she said told the group. "How you frame a problem has a strong effect on the kind of solution you come up with."

She recommended the district consider national research on student engagement.

Members agreed in general to look at models in the criminal justice system that are designed to affect behavior without overly punishing; and to enlist student opinions.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol