Editorial: Pinellas schools renew effort to reduce achievement gap

Pinellas schools chief Mike Grego acknowledges the plan needs more details.
Pinellas schools chief Mike Grego acknowledges the plan needs more details.
Published Sept. 27, 2013

Pinellas Schools superintendent Mike Grego's rollout earlier this month of the district's latest effort to close the achievement gap for black students was not flashy. But the plan has the potential to provide more focus and commitment to this historic problem than the district has had in years. Grego needs the public's support and help to succeed. That will require keeping the community and parents apprised of the progress and an honest assessment about what works and what doesn't.

For decades, too many black students in Pinellas County have failed to reach their potential. Even a pair of federal lawsuits filed on the students' behalf failed to force a remedy. Last year, just 28 percent of Pinellas' black students read on grade level compared to 66 percent of white students — and far below black students in every other major Florida school district. It is a trend that threatens the future of those children and the broader community.

So far, the only public documentation of Grego's ambitious plan is five pages of action items distributed at the end of a School Board meeting last week. It proposes focusing on five measurements where there is great disparity between Pinellas' black students and their peers: graduation rates, standardized test performance, participation in accelerated courses such as Advanced Placement, discipline referrals and recommendations for emotional or behavior disabilities. Each of the goals has an action plan. For example, black high school students who are at risk of not graduating would have a personal mentor; an individualized plan to support and monitor their progress involving their family, teachers and mentors; and access to afterschool courses to make-up credits and test preparation services.

The plan, however is short on details, and many of the ideas are familiar, fueling some understandable skepticism in the community after so many years of intransigence. For years, for example, the district has agreed to provide "culturally responsive" training so that teachers who come from different backgrounds might have new tools for reaching low-income black students. It is part of its memorandum of understanding with the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students — which represents the plaintiffs in the two lawsuits. That strategy is offered again in the new plan but without any sense of what past efforts have accomplished, if anything.

Grego acknowledges the plan needs more details and that "there is no silver bullet" for improvement. Outreach to the broader community is also underway. Last week, for example, he quietly gathered a few dozen retired educators in Largo to ask them to sign up as mentors or tutors at the most-struggling schools. But the lack of a more visible announcement of the plan was intentional. "This is everyday work. … I'm open to fanfare when there is success," he told the Times editorial board Friday.

But momentum is also important, and building it requires greater public awareness. Grego's commitment is sincere, and he has laid out a comprehensive approach to improving black student achievement. Now he has to keep selling it and enlisting public support.