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  1. Education

Racial disparities come into focus for Hillsborough School Board

TAMPA — Judging by the opening pages of the school district's latest report on racial disparities, the signs are encouraging for minority male students in Hillsborough County.

Pass rates in Algebra 1: Up 18 points for black males.

Percent passing advanced placement exams, enrolling in honors courses and passing the third-grade reading test: All trending upward.

But read closer. There's still a 12-point gap in the Algebra 1 pass rate between black males (78 percent) and white males (90 percent). And those reading gains got black male third-graders to only a 36 percent pass rate, about half that of white males.

Only 45 percent of Hispanic males and 47 percent of black males enter school ready for kindergarten, the report says, compared with 66 percent of white males.

The achievement gap persists as students age, with black males more likely to be held back in third grade and less likely to graduate.

The gap is not unique to Hills­borough, or Florida. In Pinellas County, the 2013 pass rates in Algebra 1 were 71 percent for black male students, compared with 93 percent for white male students, according to the Florida Department of Education. The Pasco County gap was narrower at 90 and 96 percent.

The Hillsborough School Board will discuss the new report Wednesday, the latest in a series of meetings over the years addressing inequities in academics and discipline.

"I hope we can have an honest and open dialogue about not just the numbers, but how we can resolve these problems in a way that we can sustain over time," said board member Doretha Edgecomb, whose central Tampa district includes many predominantly black neighborhoods.

The kindergarten readiness statistic, she said, is a good example of a problem that extends beyond the school doors and will require community efforts.

"If we knew how to solve this problem, I believe we would have solved it a long time ago," she said. "And if we knew someone else who had solved it, we would have been knocking on their door. Nobody knows the answer."

One tactic the district is taking, which officials will discuss Wednesday, is that of success teams at middle and high schools. Each team — consisting of counselors, administrators and "success coaches" (formerly called dropout intervention specialists) — collaborates to support 100 at-risk students at each school. In determining who the at-risk students are, schools consider behavior, grades and attendance patterns.

Separately, a community task force has been meeting to address disparities in discipline. Members include Saba Baptiste, education committee chair of the local NAACP; Melissa Erickson, founder of the Alliance for Public Schools; and Donna Elam, an education consultant.

At their last meeting, group members decided that after a year of work they were not clear on their mission and needed to regroup with a facilitator.

They did agree, after looking at data on discipline, that the numbers are troubling. The data show that black students accounted for 44 percent of disciplinary incidents last year in Hillsborough, yet make up only 21 percent of the total enrollment.

The School Board voted recently to expand the task force to include board member designees and students.

Jennifer Morley, a former administrator and high school teacher who served on the task force briefly, said she hopes members will be required to disclose relationships they have with the district.

She's concerned that those who have contracts face a conflict of interest if they go against the status quo. "If they're being paid by the school district, I don't think they're really representing the community," she said.

Deputy superintendent Jeff Eakins said he would welcome Morley's contributions if she rejoins the group.

"We appreciate everyone's input and see all of the people currently on the committee as bringing a valuable perspective to the table," he said. "Everyone on the task force cares about kids, and that's the most important thing."

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

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