Sunday, November 19, 2017
Education

New Pinellas schools plan touted as 'turning point' that would tackle achievement gap in 10 years

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After more than a year of negotiations, the Pinellas County School District has reached a new agreement in a 16-year-old state lawsuit that accused it of shortchanging black students, unveiling a plan Friday to "greatly narrow" or close the achievement gap within a decade.

District officials and the plaintiffs in the case crafted the agreement behind closed doors, with a mediator, after informal talks yielded little progress.

"We see this as a very significant turning point in this district," said Ricardo Davis, president of Concerned Organization for the Quality Education of Black Students, known as COQEBS, which took over as plaintiffs in the case in 2010.

"I don't think you'll ever find a plan as comprehensive and as thorough," superintendent Mike Grego said, adding: "I couldn't be more excited as a superintendent to own this."

An agreement hasn't been announced in a separate but related federal desegregation case, which went into mediation at the same time. David Koperski, the School Board attorney, said the district remains in mediation and couldn't comment on those meetings.

This is the second time that Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, a class-action lawsuit filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court in 2000, has been settled. COQEBS accused district leaders nearly two years ago of breaking promises made to settle the case in 2010; the two sides started informal discussions last May before agreeing in January to find a mediator.

Board members will hear the details of the settlement at a work session Tuesday and, if they approve it at a meeting later in the day, it will then go before a judge.

Many of the strategies in the new 81-page plan are familiar and address six broad themes: graduation, student achievement, advanced coursework, student discipline, identification for special education and gifted programs and minority hiring.

A key difference, however, is that district officials will be required to provide more in-depth data and quarterly progress monitoring. The plaintiffs in the case have complained for years about how long it takes to get reliable information from the school system. Davis also has repeatedly asked that the district establish a process to evaluate the success of its programs over time.

Grego said he planned to discuss the new plan with school principals over the summer, who will then incorporate it into their own school improvement plans.

Former St. Petersburg deputy mayor and police chief Goliath Davis, who is active in COQEBS, said the plan signaled a major shift in the district.

Pinellas school officials, he said, are making a statement that they believe "poor kids can learn, and rather than teach them at a sublevel, (they're) going to instill academic rigor. . . . Just flipping that whole assumption, we believe, is going to make a great change in terms of performance of the kids."

The original "Bridging the Gap" plan, which addressed black student achievement but wasn't directly related to the state or federal lawsuit, was just four pages.

About 19 percent of the district's 101,000 students are black.

Black students have been underrepresented in gifted classes and other special academic programs, but overrepresented in special education. Black students also have been suspended from school at a far higher rate than other children.

As part of the new plan, the district will test all second graders for gifted programs in an effort to increase the number of black students identified. District officials also will identify the top 20 percent of black seventh graders at each middle school to attend the "Talent Identification Program," a summer camp for students doing well in school.

The district also will bring back a position in human resources to recruit teachers of color. Of Pinellas County's 7,500 teachers, just 8 percent are black. The goal is to increase the number of black teachers until it "meets or exceeds the percentage enrollment of black students."

Lawyers in both the state and federal lawsuits sought renewed legal action against the school district after the Tampa Bay Times in late 2015 published "Failure Factories," an investigative series that showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then broke promises of resources for elementary schools that became overwhelmingly poor and black.

The series also found that black students in Pinellas were being suspended from school at four times the rate of other children and that black students were largely shut out of the school system's best public schools.

The new agreement in the Crowley case requires the school district to employ a minority achievement officer for 10 years, barring financial constraints. Lewis Brinson, a veteran school administrator from Hillsborough County, was hired for the new position in November. He will oversee implementation of the plan.

For the purposes of data collection, the 2015-16 school year will be considered the baseline. The first year of implementation will be this school year.

Grego still retains the right to determine which programs the district uses. But any change to the goals and targets outlined in the plan must be agreed to by both sides.

"I would like to think that this is the type of plan that will change the culture of the district," Davis said.

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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