CLEARWATER — The achievement gap between black and white students in Pinellas County schools has long been a thorn in administrators sides, but first year Superintendent Michael Grego is hoping a new initiative will end the discussion once and for all.
The plan, dubbed Bridging the Gap, will be a major initiative this school year and identifies five goals for the school district as well as the steps and data needed to meet them, Grego said.
“This was maybe a benefit of me not being a part of this school district for a long time, so I could look at this with fresh eyes,” Grego said. “We do have a distinct gap between the African-American population here and state statistics, and I for one am not going to run away from that,”
The plan focuses on eliminating the gap in graduation rates, scores on state required assessments, participation and performance in advance courses, disciplinary actions and the number of students identified with an emotional or behavioral disability. School Board members are likely to discuss the plan Tuesday with the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee, the group created in the wake of civil rights litigation to ensure equity in Pinellas County Schools.
In the plan, black high school students with low reading and math scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test would be assigned a mentor to develop learning and life plans. More black students in all grades would be recruited to extracurricular tutoring and test preparation programs, and struggling students’ parents would have regular meetings with school officials to monitor their progress. Schools with high suspension rates for black students would receive training in “culturally responsive positive behavior interventions,” and more students would be recruited and encouraged to try advanced coursework.
The plan is in its preliminary stages but has garnered positive feedback from School Board members.
“I think this is exactly what we needed,” said School Board member Linda Lerner. “There’s been so much discussion about this, I’m glad we’re taking some definitive action. These are the same kinds of goals we need to have for all of our at-risk students.”
But the school district needs to go beyond the services already available for at-risk students and find better ways to target the black student population, Grego said. Helping struggling black students catch up is repeated throughout the school district’s new strategic plan, which outlines the goals for the school year, and the Bridging the Gap program is designed to spread that responsibility to multiple levels and divisions in the school district, so everyone can “own the issue,” Grego said.
In 2011, 65 percent of black students in Pinellas County tested below grade level in reading, and 64 percent were below grade level in math, according to the state Department of Education. That same year, 30 percent of white students were below grade level in reading and 27 percent in math. Only 47 percent of black students graduated from high school that year.
Two legal cases are also pressuring the school district to close the gap, a 1964 desegregation case and a 2000 case alleging that the school district was not providing black students with a quality education, said school district lawyer David Koperski.
“This is probably one of the most difficult pieces of work we can take on as a school district,” Grego said. “But this is not something that’s going to be printed and placed on a shelf.”