Black Achievement Gap Focus of Pinellas School Talks

NAACP
ST. PETERSBURG -

Earlier this week, the group, Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students Coalition, or CO-QWEBS, held a community forum to call attention to what they say is a deplorable achievement gap between black and white students in the county's school system.

Vyrle Davis is co-chairman of the coalition.

DAVIS: For six years, the Pinellas County school system has failed to comply with a federal court order which only served to compound the problem. As of the 2005-06 school year, only 24 percent of black males are graduating with a standard diploma from Pinellas County high schools. We have purposefully and pointedly labeled that a 'crisis situation' and we can not rest until it is resolved.

That figure - only 24 percent of black males graduating from high school - is a number the school board disputes. School Superintendent Clayton Wilcox says his staff has concluded that the real figure is closer to 40 percent, but he says the exact number is really beside the point.

WILCOX: The fact is that we really don't want to quibble over numbers with them. I think it's low, I think we can demonstrate that the number they used is not entirely accurate. But, what I would say, is that any number of kids that aren't graduating is really pretty horrific.

Figures from the state Department of Education make clear that Pinellas County's black students ARE still lagging behind their white counterparts in math and reading.

School Board Chairwoman Mary Brown says the district has made progress, but much more needs to be done.

BROWN: I think the district is really trying to do some things to close that gap but in the process of doing that of course, other students rise too which says that we are doing some things to improve straight across the board. But we really have to focus and put some real emphasis on closing that black/white achievement gap because we've got to do something to bring African-American children up a little bit faster.

A 1964 lawsuit led to more than three decades of busing to achieve desegregation in the county's schools. That system was scrapped in 2000 and replaced by the school choice plan.

Education activists say the district has not worked hard enough to ensure that black students get the help they need.

Sevell Brown, President of the Florida Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says the district has figures showing that black students are not faring well in Pinellas, but he says the district has refused the disclose that data.

BROWN: We are demanding that we go forth in a legal forum to litigate to have that information come out where they're required before a judge to produce what they've refused to produce for the last six years and the reason we're here today is because they have refused steadfastly to produce any of that data and the data is there but they will not share it and the only way we can see that data is to get them before a federal middle district court judge.

Dr. Wilcox disagrees strongly with that contention and maintains that the district has provided all of the data requested by the NAACP.

Wilcox says he and his staff have been meeting with the coalition and with other groups to work toward solutions. The groups met several times over the past year but failed to reach a satisfactory agreement so, starting tomorrow, the groups will try again under the guidance of court ordered mediator.

Superintendent Wilcox says he is eager to reach an agreement, but doesn't feel the court-ordered mediation is the best way to achieve that goal.

WILCOX: An example is my schedule today, I have five hours of mediation prep. Time when I could be at Gibbs High School addressing serious issues there. Time when I could be at Lakewood. Times when I could be doing a lot of good things for kids, I'm sitting in a preparation for a court room and tomorrow I'll be sitting in a court room. For me, that really isn't a productive use of my time. Nor is it really a productive use of my time in the eyes of the people who are asking for the change.

The school district and the education activists did agree this week that the achievement gap is not entirely the fault of the school system, but is the responsibility of everyone in the community: teachers, students, parents and administrators.

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