Innovative principal deserves our praise
A Times Editorial
Published January 12, 2006
The importance of a story that appeared in North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times between Christmas and New Year's Day may have been missed by people distracted by holiday events.
The story described the efforts of Clearwater High School principal Nick Grasso to address the achievement gap between white and minority students.
There has been no lack of discussion among educators in Pinellas County about how to bridge that gap in academic performance. But Grasso decided to color outside the lines. In searching for answers at his school, he stepped outside the circle of educators debating the issue to ask students and even city officials for their ideas.
Over time, and especially since the advent of school choice, the demographics at Clearwater High, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary, have been changing. The school population is now 16 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic. In addition to the social issues that shift has created, a large gap has grown between the academic performance of white students and minority students. Grasso wanted minority students to tell him their theories about the gap and how it might be closed. He convened "achievement councils" - one for African-American students and one for Hispanics - to talk frankly with him about the problem.
Black students told him that poor attendance was the primary roadblock for them. It is true that if you aren't in school, you can't do well in school, and it doesn't take long to get so far behind that it seems there is no point in going to school at all. Poor attendance can indicate that individual students and their families don't place a high value on education, but black students also mentioned to Grasso that judgmental teachers and boring curriculum options discouraged regular attendance.
In their council, Hispanic students also mentioned a lack of motivation to succeed in school, but for a different reason: If their families are in the country illegally, they will not have the same opportunities as other students. They know that college and great jobs don't lie ahead for them even if they excel in high school.
Grasso also sought the participation of Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne, who is African-American, and Clearwater city auditor Robin Gomez, who has led some of the city's initiatives to reach Clearwater's growing Hispanic population. Schools in Pinellas are operated by a countywide School Board, so school principals seldom encourage the involvement of city or county government officials in their school issues. Grasso bridged that gap, too. He will look to Horne and Gomez, who both mentor students already, to recruit more mentors who hopefully can inspire unmotivated students. And if he needs help on political or legislative issues, Horne and Gomez are already primed and ready to step up.
What seems clear from Grasso's efforts so far is that minority students especially, but in fact all students, need to see purpose in their education. Today, too many of them don't. Parents, curriculum planners and the community need to help school faculties find ways to show students not only that school achievement is important, but also that achievement can be exciting and a source of personal pride. Congratulations to Grasso for understanding that this job is too big for educators to tackle alone, and for asking for help.
[Last modified January 12, 2006, 01:23:25]
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