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  1. The Education Gradebook

Romano: After findings of 'Failure Factories,' time for action in Pinellas schools

The numbers are stunning, the descriptions tragic.

By the time you finish reading "Failure Factories," the gripping Tampa Bay Times report on the squandered education of black children in St. Petersburg, I wouldn't blame you if you were furious. Disgusted.

Or simply heartbroken.

For the image of a forced smile on the face of a sweet 6-year-old afraid to go to school should haunt us all.

Tell me, how can we allow that?

In this community, in this nation, in this century, it should be inconceivable that any child has to fear walking into a first-grade classroom.

So if we're looking for a starting point to solve this travesty, let us begin there. Schools should be a haven. A sanctuary. A place where cruelty can never find you.

If that means tougher disciplinary policies, then so be it. If that means additional expenses to control troublemakers, then that's a price we need to pay.

For the simple truth is there can be no learning if there is no calm. If teachers are consumed with restoring order, then every other aspect begins to break down.

Of course, it's possible I'm being too reactionary. Former St. Petersburg police chief, and deputy mayor, Goliath Davis suggested as much when we talked Monday.

Davis agrees discipline is a major part of the solution, but he warns that it must be administered in conjunction with a larger plan that encompasses the entire educational experience. For too many years, he warns, Pinellas County has approached this issue in a haphazard, and piecemeal, fashion.

"This is not a chicken or egg question, where we have to decide what comes first,'' Davis said. "We need a road map that provides us a comprehensive plan. And we know that it exists because there are other districts that are doing a better job.

"So go to those districts. Look at them, study them, replicate them, and do what needs to be done.''

That is, perhaps, the most damning part of the story ­— the evidence uncovered by Times reporters that Pinellas is so far behind the curve when it comes to helping black children succeed. For too many years, it was easy to dismiss failing test results as part of a national trend for poor and minority neighborhoods.

Other areas treated it as a hurdle. In Pinellas, it became an excuse.

Pinellas has the eighth-largest population of black elementary children among Florida counties. The seven in front of Pinellas had an average failure rate of 70 percent for black students on state standardized test scores. The seven behind Pinellas had a failure rate of 74.3 percent. Pinellas was the worst of the bunch at 84.2 percent.

That is intolerable.

So is the apparent School Board policy of underfunding poorer schools, and using federal money to make up the difference. The federal money is available to help those schools succeed. It's supposed to be in addition to regular funding, not in place of it.

Beginning now, the School Board needs to allocate whatever is necessary. Put two teachers in classrooms. Add math and reading coaches. More behavioral specialists.

If the price sounds high, then consider the cost of turning out generations of undereducated citizens. Consider the cost of losing corporations that do not want to relocate to a county with such a woebegone school system.

Consider it all.

And stop making excuses.

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