Editor's note: This essay originally was published in the Times Perspective section on Sept. 24, 2009.
A little more than two years ago, there were no majority black public schools in Pinellas County. Now there are 14.
I have had children in Pinellas schools since 1993, and during that time the district has gone through four student-assignment schemes, from court-ordered busing for desegregation to today's neighborhood zones that don't take race into account. Some resegregation is now inevitable, so discussions of school achievement must start with this new reality.
Looking ahead, there are some hard-won lessons that should drive all decisionmaking:
-- Fundamental and magnet programs are the only proven way to create high-achieving, voluntarily desegregated schools. These schools allow students from anywhere in the county to attend without regard to race through a lottery system. Our housing patterns may be segregated, but our society is not. Diverse schools are more important than ever, as America will become a majority minority nation when today's schoolchildren are adults. We must not quit on these programs.
But in south Pinellas, these programs must be easily accessible to black students who are poor. That means within walking distance. When Madeira Beach's elementary and middle schools converted this year into the county's first K-8 "back to basics" fundamental school, only eight of the grade school's 363 students were African-American. That's 2 percent. Creating a new fundamental school far from black population centers effectively foreclosed their enrollment. The district must not repeat that mistake if it opts for more fundamental schools in south Pinellas.
-- The achievement gap between black students and others in Pinellas is yawning, and majority black schools, which are usually high poverty, put the problem in stark relief. The district has promised these schools extra help, but there isn't much time. Unless struggling schools demonstrate academic excellence and soon, parents who can leave, will. The state's grading system is flawed, but it is a broad indicator. Last year, the vast majority of Pinellas elementary schools earned A's. Yet, seven of the 10 black majority elementary schools received C's. Only one earned an A. That school, a math and engineering magnet called Jamerson Elementary in St. Petersburg, worked its grade from a C to a B to an A in three years while the percentage of black students was rising. Two-thirds of its student body is poor, but the school is helping its students succeed. Study what is working there, and apply its lessons.
-- This dovetails with a perception that has come up often during the St. Petersburg mayoral campaign: too many public schools in the city are second rate. There indeed are some very weak schools, but my wife and I couldn't have been happier with the academic challenge and diversity of the magnets - schools with special attractor programs such as arts or science - that our sons attended. It prepared them well for the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High, which has an intellectual rigor second to none. Some school programs in Pinellas are among the best.
-- This is a St. Petersburg issue. All but one of the 14 majority black schools are in St. Petersburg. Two of the city's four high schools are majority black. One of them, Lakewood, earned its fifth D in a row. And the other, Gibbs, is the only F high school in the entire Tampa Bay area.
The mayor has no direct control over school matters, and setting up programs of mentors and tutors or adding school resource officers carries a school only so far. To meaningfully change the course of some of these schools will require urgent and comprehensive cooperation between the district and the city. Some options include keeping schools open longer or using city libraries, recreation centers and staffers to track students before and after school and to engage them in educational activities for far longer than a regular school day. However the city and the district work it out, the result must be much more instructional time each day for these children.
Without a rising educated citizenry, no city can thrive. And whatever it costs - even if the city rather than the district has to bear some of the burden - will be worth the price if these students succeed.
It's time to focus on the top as well. African-American students are grossly underrepresented in the IB program at St. Petersburg High. My youngest son, a senior there this year, has a diverse class of students whose families hail from around the world. But of his roughly 100 classmates, only two are black.
So here's a challenge for Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster. One of you will be St. Petersburg's next mayor, and you both proudly had children graduate from the IB program at the city's namesake school. Make it your mission to raise black student achievement so that at least one-quarter of the IB students are African-American. That would roughly equal the percentage of south Pinellas high school students who are black.
Use the bully pulpit of the mayor's office to make this promise and then provide the support to make it happen by midway through your first term. Don't do this by making exceptions or changing the standards. Do it by working with students, parents, community groups and schools to prepare younger African-American kids for the challenge of the toughest high school program around.
In real terms, this means helping 30 black students or so a year rise to this high standard. Shouldn't students, parents, citizens, the city and the district be able to accomplish this much?
Jim Verhulst is the Times' Perspective editor. firstname.lastname@example.org.