A coalition is pressing Pinellas school officials to set a timetable for closing the achievement gap between black and white students.
But the group also sounded a conciliatory note Monday, calling for a grass roots effort to fix some of the breakdowns in family life that often cause black students to perform poorly in school.
“When it comes to this community, we will sound the call for mentors, volunteers, men and women who can help us wrap arms around our children, our single mothers, our grandparents raising grandchildren (and), yes, our ex-felons fathers,” said Louis Murphy, a prominent St. Petersburg pastor and a member of the coalition.
Members of the group, Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students Coalition, will be at the table Thursday when the school district and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund discuss their differences with a mediator.
The two sides met three times without a mediator earlier this year but failed to reach agreement.
The Legal Defense Fund and the coalition contend the district has not lived up to the agreements it made in an August 2000 settlement that was supposed to end a decades-old lawsuit over the fate of black children in public schools.
The evidence, they say, is in the yawning gap between black and white students on every measure of academic performance and student life.
The district contends it continues to work hard on a problem that no other school system in the nation has been able to solve either.
The lawsuit, filed in 1964, led to more than 30 years of busing and desegregated schools, followed more recently by the school choice plan. Though a federal judge dismissed it six years ago, the case remains in play because a dispute has risen over how the settlement is being carried out.
The coalition, known as COQEBS, contends the district has not worked hard enough or smart enough to ensure black students get the instruction they need to perform better or to ensure they get access to rigorous classes and a wider variety of extracurricular activities. The group also contends the district has been lax in hiring more black teachers and administrators, and that black students are still disciplined in disproportionately high numbers.
Many black students are improving their test scores in math, but progress on erasing the gap is slow because white students are improving, too.
The district points to its many programs for struggling readers and a program that has placed more black students in advanced and honors classes. Regarding discipline, it points to an increase in “crisis prevention” and “positive behavior” initiatives at many schools.
Last week, the district released a study by two researchers who specialize in economics and student achievement. The study concluded that black students on average arrive in kindergarten well behind their peers and that the Pinellas school system does not appear to be systematically contributing to the gap.
It also found that in 20 percent of Pinellas schools, black students perform better than white students when the impact of poverty on black families was factored out. Wilcox said the district will study those schools to see what they’re doing right.
That trained educators would not be able to make up the kindergarten gap over 12 or 13 years of schooling is “unacceptable to us,” said Gwendolyn Reece, a member of COQEBS.
At Monday’s news conference, COQEBS stated that the graduation rate among black males in Pinellas is only 24 percent.
But that differs from published figures by the district and state, which put the figure at around 42 percent.
The rate for white students is 72 percent.