Pinellas bolstering ineffective champion for minority students
CLEARWATER - Created to ensure the issues of minority students didn’t go unnoticed, the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee was supposed to help address the embarrassing achievement gap between black and white students in Pinellas County schools. The group, known as DMAC, has been largely ineffective, though. In fact, the group often has been unable to take any action in recent years because too few of its members have shown up for meetings. Committee members also say a lack of attention from the school board has hampered its effectiveness. The school district, led by first-year Superintendent Michael Grego, is trying to change that, with new protocols aimed at making the DMAC more effective. The first signs of change could be seen as early as Thursday’s DMAC meeting, which Grego is expected to attend — something superintendents typically haven’t done — and where committee members are expected to review new achievement data, including graduation rates of black students and Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores.Tapping into the DAMC’s expertise is a priority for Grego. “I look at them as an arm of the community,” he said. “I think they could be a huge benefit, and I’m going to start to grow with them in terms of looking at remedies and looking at potential solutions. So I think we’re moving into a very healthy phase of the relationship between DMAC and our school board, really working closely together to increase the student achievement level … .” Next month, school board members are expected to give final approval to changes in the DMAC’s bylaws. The new rules will specify how committee members should be trained, require the committee to meet at least 10 times a year — up from four — and require it to meet at least once a year with the entire school board for the next five years. Instead of always meeting at the school district’s headquarters in Largo, the DMAC will start meeting in different parts of the county to make it easier for people to attend. Just getting people to show up to the DMAC meetings would be a step in the right direction. The 12-member committee has had a quorum of seven people only nine times between 2010 and April, even though the court order that established the group requires it to meet four times a year and the group had set a goal of meeting monthly until this year, when it scaled back to 10 meetings a year. The committee had a quorum only once in 2011 and twice in 2012, though it met in January and February and is scheduled to meet this week. The committee can still meet without a quorum but can’t take formal action, and minutes aren’t kept of those meetings. The committee has made few recommendations to the board in recent years, according to district records and administrators. Shifting around the meeting location is a change that should have happened years ago, said Stephen Sarnoff, a DMAC member from the North Pinellas chapter of the NAACP. Community members will have more of an opportunity to come and discuss issues, said Sarnoff, who made only four of the meetings where there were quorums since joining the committee in August 2010. Even though DMAC members may not have the best attendance records, that doesn’t mean they are apathetic, Sarnoff said. Everyone’s a volunteer, after all. “The fact of the matter is that finding people who are available is difficult,” Sarnoff said. “People who are interested in our children are often very involved, so that sometimes conflicts. … But we only need a quorum to take official action. We’re always reading reports and asking questions.” The school district needs to accept some of the blame for the group’s lack of activity, said school board member Rene Flowers, who sat on the DMAC before becoming a board member in 2012. A school board member is supposed to attend every DMAC meeting, but a representative was present at only five of the nine meetings where there was a quorum since 2010, according to school district records. Neither Grego nor his two predecessors attended the meetings, those records indicate. Grego, though, said he plans to start. “Hopefully, with some of the additional leverage we’ve given them, this will be a very constructive, hard-working, thought-provoking board and not just a board that’s meeting for the sake of meeting,” Flowers said. “Those things they come up with, those requests, the board needs to take very seriously. In the past, it’s kind of been they met, they came up with some good, strong things, they came to the board and they were told ‘Have a nice day.’
To be sure, the DMAC has important work to do.
The committee was created in 1999 as part of the resolution to the 1964 lawsuit filed the desegregate the school district, parts of which dragged on for decades. The group is made up of school district leaders, teachers union members, parents and NAACP members.
Graduation rates among minority students, particularly blacks, are on the rise, Grego said. Those gains, though, are pushing against significant achievement gaps that have persisted for generations.
The school district was under federal court supervision until 1999 to ensure that all students received an equal education, and court-ordered busing didn’t formally end until August 2000.
In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, 65 percent of black students in Pinellas County were below grade level in reading, and 64 percent were below grade level in math, according to the state Department of Education. That same year, only 30 percent of white students were below grade level in reading and 27 percent in math.
Only 47 percent of black students graduated high school that year.
As part of the court-approved agreements resolving the Bradley v. Pinellas County School Board lawsuit, the school district adopted memorandums of understanding that deal with student discipline, achievement, assignment to programs and classes and staff and faculty assignments.
Things have improved, but inequalities are still evident, said Betty Ward, the education chair for the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.
Ward, a retired schoolteacher of 37 years from Kansas City, Mo., said she would like to address the school district’s shortage of black teachers, the high number of black students in dropout prevention and disciplinary programs and the limited communication between the DMAC, the NAACP and school district officials.
Even finding out about the DMAC’s meeting times or reading up on the group’s recommendations has been problematic, she said.
“I’ve only been here a short while, but I do see many community resources that could be better utilized that would help keep kids in schools,” Ward said. “But kids are kids all over. No matter where you are you’ll have the same issues and same problems.”
The lawsuit that created the DMAC only required it to be in existence for 10 years, school district lawyer David Koperski said. If members feel like their work is done, and school board members agree, the committee could disband.
Achieving equality in schools will always have to be a conscious priority in the school district, and the DMAC will play a bigger role in the next few years as the school district tackles ambitious goals such as creating an expanded summer school program, stabilizing the workforce in high-poverty schools and creating more programs to help failing students, Grego said.
The DMAC meets at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the School Administration Building at 301 Fourth Street S.W. in Largo.