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Pinellas says new plan offers stronger focus on minority student achievement

Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego addresses a community meeting in August 2015 concerning low-performing schools in St. Petersburg. On Tuesday, Grego and the School Board discussed a change in their “strategic plan” to better focus on those schools. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego addresses a community meeting in August 2015 concerning low-performing schools in St. Petersburg. On Tuesday, Grego and the School Board discussed a change in their “strategic plan” to better focus on those schools. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jun. 29, 2016

Pinellas County school officials on Tuesday unveiled a plan that they say will focus the district more squarely on improving the performance of minority students.

For the first time in about 15 years, officials said, the district is making substantial changes to its strategic plan, adding two categories to the list of directions that guide the school system's actions every year. One new category is called "Equity with Excellence for All," which includes language from a federal desegregation settlement agreement and outlines a plan to close the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students.

Previously, closing the achievement gap was lumped under the more general category of "Student Achievement."

Officials said the changes amounted to more than semantics.

Mary Beth Corace, the district's director of strategic planning and policy, said the revised document requires schools each year to develop their own improvement plans with a specific goal for black student achievement. She said the district already segments its results by student group, so creating a separate category for the achievement of minority students will bring about actions that can help them.

"It creates an emphasis, it creates a new focus, it allows for more research and best practices to pour into that area without diluting it in an overall achievement goal," Corace said.

"(It is) critical that we put this on the front burner as a district," said school superintendent Mike Grego.

Officials surfaced the plan at a School Board workshop, and its themes ran through the other issues on the agenda, including the 126-page draft budget for 2016-17 and student code of conduct policies.

About half of the district's remaining Title I funding — federal money given to help disadvantaged students succeed — will be mainly allocated to struggling elementary schools with predominantly low-income populations. Officials project that nearly $5 million of those funds will be used to pay for instructional coaches, an extended school day, teacher recruitment and retention, and extra paraprofessionals at those schools.

And after a year of implementing new ways to deal with discipline disparities, area superintendent Ward Kennedy reported that the district saw a 36.5 percent decrease in the number of out-of-school suspensions over the last two school years. He said that staff training sessions on implicit bias and discipline disparity, as well as practices that welcome and integrate students returning from suspension or incarceration, will be expanded to principals and assistant principals.

Ricardo Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, known as COQEBS, said he's heard similar promises before but hasn't seen how the district will measure how effective its methods are.

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He said, for example, that he would like to look at the raw data for out-of-school suspensions to measure the district's progress.

While the district said out-of-school suspensions went down overall, it released no figure on whether the long-term disparities in suspensions between white and black students declined as well.

"I'm hoping that what we're hearing is the type of dialogue that is the beginning of some real systemic change," Davis said. "But we're still going to take a show-me attitude."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

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