CLEARWATER — For years, Pinellas County Schools officials have struggled with the black students’ low achievement numbers; but, for the first time, administrators are now looking to the students themselves for help in overcoming the racial divide.
Superintendent Michael Grego called together nearly 100 preachers, teachers, principals, school administrators, community and business leaders and law enforcement officers Thursday at St. Petersburg College’s EpiCenter to address the achievement gap, along with some of the students they aim to help. The school district has had one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation for years, and progress has been slow.
Last school year, only 56 percent of black male students graduated high school, and black students’ Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores also lagged behind. On the reading test, only 28 percent of black students earned proficient scores, compared to 66 percent of white students and 68 percent of Asian students.
Grego unveiled a five-step plan to boost black students’ academic performance last month, called “Bridging the Gap,” that aims to equalize graduation, proficiency, participation, disciplinary and disability rates among black students and their peers. To really make a difference, though, the entire community needs a “call to action,” not a “call to discussion,” he said.
This is the first time the school district has turned to students to address the achievement gap, said Rene Flowers, the only black member of the School Board. In years past, discussions were often too focused on “pointing the finger of blame” to result in any action, she said. Those at Thursday’s summit were invited by Grego and School Board members, but talking with students and the stakeholders in their daily lives is the only way the school district will improve performance in the classroom, Flowers said. A handful of black high school students attended Thursday’s meeting.
“I don’t see an African-American parent who’s struggling in that room, and I think we’ve missed out on that perspective,” Flowers said. “We’re just perceiving what we can do to keep parents involved and improve a student’s home life and attitude, but we’re not in their shoes. They can tell us what we’ve missed.”
Participants worked in small groups to come up with suggestions and visual representations, such as magazine covers and news headlines, that showed how the school district could become a national leader in black student performance both next year and five years down the road.
In the end, though, it will be up to students to do what’s right and teachers to hold them accountable, said Imhotep Tyler, a senior at Boca Ciega High School.
“At school, people are so smart, and there’s so much technology that everyone’s focused on their phone or the computer and not on doing their work,” Tyler said. “There are so many more distractions now for students; we need to get back to the old days where they would take privileges away from you until you got your job done.”
In boosting student performance, school officials need to do a better job of personally connecting with students, said Northeast High School junior Jade Copeland.
“So many teachers just stand up at the front of the class and talk at us,” Copeland said. “If you don’t make class more inviting, no one’s going to want to stay there. The district should really work with teachers on interacting more with all students, not just black students, and figuring out how they like to learn and what special skills they have.”
The students “held our feet to the fire” and came up with ideas across the board to help the adults understand the root causes of the gap, Grego said. The superintendent said he would like to host another summit soon that would only include students and would pull from all grade levels.
“I was amazed at how the students were saying, ‘We have to take charge of this,’ and I think the adults can really follow that example and learn from it,” Grego said. “Instead of looking at the risks or the disparities, we have to focus on building up that confidence in our students. When they take ownership, they’ll exceed our expectations.”