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  1. The Education Gradebook

Romano: Blame the parents, or just help the children?

I have been asked by some readers to grow up.

Their emails tell me to stop being a knee-jerk liberal and to acknowledge what is really happening at a handful of elementary schools in St. Petersburg.

If these schools are "failure factories," as a breathtaking Tampa Bay Times report suggested, then why don't I blame the parents responsible for the students who are struggling?

So, to those readers, I apologize.

And I acknowledge this basic point:

The circumstances described in the Times project have undoubtedly been aided by some percentage of irresponsible or inattentive parents.

Now what?

You see, blaming a group of parents may provide us with a self-righteous sense of justice, but it doesn't do anything to help their children.

It also doesn't help the children of the vast number of parents who do care. The parents who can't be home to help with homework because they're working extra shifts. The parents who can't buy laptops and can't afford to move to a neighborhood with better schools.

Tell me, how does blaming other parents help them?

I swear to you, there are few places in the world that I find more joyful than a classroom full of kindergarten students. They are full of energy. Innocence. Possibilities.

And its heartbreaking to think some are doomed to their fate simply because they had the misfortune of being born in a neighborhood ruled by low expectation and desperation.

That, essentially, is what the Times' project by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia was all about. The idea that we shouldn't just throw up our hands and say this is to be expected in poorer communities.

Providing every child an opportunity to achieve is not easily done, but it shouldn't be impossible. And it certainly shouldn't be dismissed simply because a child's economic circumstances make it more of a challenge.

So does that mean teachers are the bad guys?

Administrators? Elected school officials?

No, I don't think so. You can't hold educators responsible for a problem that has vexed communities across the nation and across the years.

What was clear in the report, however, is that Pinellas County should be doing better as a district. There is no question that our test scores are inexcusably behind the state curve. And there is evidence that our efforts to maintain discipline have fallen drastically short.

In other words, we may not have invented this problem, but we haven't been doing a very good job of combating it.

So where do we go from here?

Obviously, the School Board can't eradicate poverty, and politicians can't legislate parental involvement. But what can be controlled is the six-hour school day.

So if it means adding tutors and other personnel to make up learning gains and maintain classroom calm, then we owe it to the children to make it happen.

Or, if you prefer to be cynical, you could say we owe it to ourselves. A generation of better-educated students means a generation of higher-paying jobs and less potential for government intervention down the road.

In the end, this discussion isn't about excusing parents. It's about saving children.

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