U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered a stinging rebuke Friday to the Pinellas County School District, calling the rapid decline of five predominantly black neighborhood schools a "man-made disaster" and "education malpractice."
Standing in Campbell Park Elementary, Duncan said: "What has happened to too many kids, for too long, is unacceptable. It's heartbreaking. Part of me wants to cry. Part of me gets very, very angry."
Duncan linked the failing elementary schools to the Pinellas School Board's decision eight years ago to abandon integration, saying that bad decisions and broken promises had a devastating effect. He said that it wasn't a coincidence that "those who are most poorly served were black children who happened to be poor."
"You can't have this conversation and not talk about race," he said.
The School Board's decision was the focus of a Tampa Bay Times investigation, "Failure Factories," which detailed how the district neglected five resegregated schools until they became some of the worst in Florida. The series also showed how violence had spiked in the schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — and how experienced teachers had fled as the classes before them became less and less diverse.
Duncan, along with incoming education secretary John King, said they visited Campbell Park after reading the Times stories. King said that not every school system made the same decision as Pinellas — which opted for neighborhood schools — in the wake of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial quotas in the nation's schools. Others stayed committed to diverse schools, he said.
King said there are schools struggling around the country, but "when you read that Tampa Bay Times story you come away with the sense of how much is at risk for the kids and for the community." He called it a civil rights issue.
Before speaking with reporters Friday, Duncan and King met privately with parents, students, teachers and community members. Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego listened to the conversation, but wasn't invited to participate. He spoke with Duncan earlier in the day and said it was a "great meeting."
Duncan praised recent efforts by Grego, who was hired in 2012, to give the schools additional help, including adding classroom aides, mental health counselors and training for teachers and administrators. Grego "is working very, very hard," he said.
But Duncan said that school officials have to acknowledge the history of what has happened in south St. Petersburg. He said the children were not failures and that "we as adults have failed them."
"There are some horrific things that happened here. Let's be clear," he said.
Duncan said the conversation with parents, teachers and community members was "extraordinarily powerful." There remains a "tremendous unmet need" for services for families and early childhood education, he said, calling on the community to get more involved.
Some who met with Duncan and King said they hoped their visit would spark change.
"I think that we were heard," said Daphne Lampley, 48, who lives with her 9-year-old son Jonathan Miller, a fourth-grader at Lakewood Elementary. "I'm looking forward to seeing some progress as a result."
Others were skeptical.
Jabaar Edmond moved his three children out of Melrose Elementary two years ago. He said the meeting served "more as a press conference."
Ashley Green of the Tampa Bay Dream Defenders advocacy group said the tone of the meeting made it sound as if the schools were improving.
"I don't think that was fully honest," she said. "I don't think we can sanitize the problems that we're facing."
Green said topics included the need for more after-school services and more experienced, quality teachers. She said at times the speakers were frank about their problems with the district.
"There was frustration, definitely frustration — and glimmers of hope in the same time."
Duncan said he walked away from the conversation feeling hopeful.
"What I saw is huge heart, huge passion, real commitment from educators, from the students themselves, from parents, from grandparents," he said.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who attended the meeting, said she thinks it's important for Duncan and King to hear from parents and students directly.
"Secretary Duncan just being here is a recognition that it's not acceptable what's going on in south Pinellas County schools, and we can do better," she added.
Castor, a Tampa Democrat whose district includes part of southern Pinellas, asked Duncan in August to investigate how the school system has used federal dollars that were earmarked for poor children and whether children in south St. Petersburg are getting an equal education. The Florida Department of Education has taken up that investigation.
Only two school board members — Rene Flowers and Peggy O'Shea — came Friday to listen to Duncan and King. Chairwoman Linda Lerner told the Times on Friday that she was notified about the event, but wasn't invited.
She declined to comment on Duncan's strong criticisms.
"I wasn't there," she said. "I have no idea why he said it."
O'Shea said that she thought the most important people for Duncan to hear from were parents. But she said she visited Melrose on Friday and didn't see any behavior problems.
"We're getting so few parents saying there's a problem with the schools," she said.
Grego said after the news conference that he didn't know if he agreed with Duncan that Pinellas had committed malpractice, adding that Duncan had referenced a time before his tenure.
"We have a lot more work to do, we really do," Grego said. "As was mentioned in there, we cannot slow down, we cannot step back a little bit. We have to keep that sense of urgency and that momentum going."
Grego said students in the five schools were making "marked" improvement on state and district tests. He also said that behavior referrals were down.
In four of the five schools last year, fewer third-graders failed the state's new standardized test for reading compared with the previous year on the old exam. At Fairmount Park, for instance, 45 percent of third-graders scored in the lowest level on the new test, a 13 percentage point improvement from the prior year. Districtwide, only 19 percent of third-graders tested in the bottom level.
Discipline referrals dropped significantly at three of the five schools. However, out-of-school suspensions jumped at three of the five schools. Nearly half of the referrals were for striking another student or fighting.
Duncan said that federal officials plan to stay involved.
"This is the beginning, not the end," he said.
Times staff writers Colleen Wright and Nathaniel Lash contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.