For decades, school districts have organized around a simple idea: Whatever you give to white students, give it to black students, too.
Put both groups of students in the same schools. Expose them to the same teaching. If they struggle, give them the same help.
In the Tampa Bay area and across the nation, this was how educators atoned for the long-ago sin of relegating black children to inferior schools.
Now, in a class-action lawsuit that has Pinellas County’s top educators on the defensive, the plaintiffs say the policy of equal access has failed the school district’s 20,000 black students.
Black kids, they contend, will need uniquely tailored programs if the district ever hopes to erase an education gap that has them lagging behind every other ethnic group in school performance.
The case of William Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board—seven years old and finally headed for trial—may be the only one of its kind in the nation.
The call for a unique set of programs to help black students has been a central theme in recent days as lawyers prepare for a two-week jury trial starting July 9. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Guy Burns of Tampa, has summoned the entire Pinellas School Board for depositions, as well as superintendent Clayton Wilcox and his top deputies.
At one point as he appeared to choke back emotion, Wilcox argued that giving black students something special would imply they are, by nature, less able than their peers.
The case has since become a class action, meaning the plaintiffs include all black children who attend or will later attend Pinellas public schools.
Initially supported by the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, an activist group in St. Petersburg, the challenge has come to be embraced by a broader segment of the black population, Burns said.
It is a case grounded in numbers, none of them flattering.
Last year, 67 percent of black public school students in Pinellas scored below their grade level on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test—nearly twice the percentage of low-scoring whites.
The graduation rate for black students was a dismal 46 percent in 2005, and black students perennially are more than twice as likely as nonblacks to be suspended.
Part of the difference is in how the two sides interpret the numbers.
While Burns has pointed to aggregate numbers that show the gap in stark relief, Wilcox points to subsets of numbers that show smaller groups of black kids making modest gains.
While Burns points to the graduation rate, Wilcox says the statistic “is not a fair measure of all that goes on in a system.”
Another example: Last year, 13,105 black students took the reading FCAT. Burns focuses on the 8,780 who scored below grade level and sees a huge problem. District officials see the problem, too, but point to the 4,325 black students who did well in reading.
How can that be, they ask, if the district is systematically discriminating against black students?