In 2016, Pinellas County schools were in a crisis they made themselves. Five schools were labeled “Failure Factories”. They were the result of a 2007 school board decision to end busing and allow the resegregation of schools. Prior to 2007, Pinellas was under a federal school integration plan. When busing ended, south Pinellas schools became very segregated. In theory, these mostly minority schools were promised district support; in practice little support was given. As a result, they could not keep teachers or students and achievement levels plummeted. Of the 187 Florida schools whose students were from families as poor or poorer, only seven had lower achievement scores than the ‘Failure Factories’. The pattern of the increase in the achievement gap as schools became more segregated is a national problem.
In 2016, Pinellas school district launched a massive effort to turn around these five schools and to eliminate the achievement gap in all schools, by infusing data driven instruction, faculty training to change expectations for their students, teacher bonuses, and a host of other support programs for students and families. The report is out for the first year. Schools improved slightly on five measures: graduation rate, advanced coursework enrollment, ESE identification, minority hiring, and student discipline. On the sixth measure, closing the achievement gap between white and black students, there was no change. Approximately one-third of the black students earned a level 3 score, indicating proficiency or near proficiency levels in math and English language skills.
Pinellas set a ten-year goal to end the achievement gap. It is too early to predict how well students will fare. Some schools made more progress than others. Gains may be uneven from year-to-year. Why this is so matters. Is it a difference in attitude of students and the school community, a meaningful difference in the implementation of the plan in particular schools, or changes in socio-economic differences in student backgrounds within schools? Student enrollment within a school can change dramatically from year-to-year as families move around or enroll and then withdraw children in charters and tax credit supported private schools. These are the questions the district must address to give meaning to the data. Numbers do not tell the real story; they just shine a light on a problem.
It is short sighted to put fingers of blame on the districts alone. Elected school boards reflect community values. The entire community must be committed to providing equal access to a high quality education for all students. Finding ways to create equal access within and across schools is a challenge thwarted by the more segregated housing patterns that have evolved in the last twenty years.