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Meeting on black students is a start

Informal mediation tackling the achievement gap between black and white students produces a promise from black leaders and Pinellas educators to keep on talking.

Published February 9, 2006

In the long public drama over the education of black children, an epic that crosses generations, there have been many sit-downs like the one that took place Wednesday at Pinellas school headquarters:

Black leaders on one side of a table, saying the school district isn't properly teaching black children. Educators on the other, saying they are doing all they know how to do. A cadre of lawyers at the edges, aiming for clarity and a peace that never comes.

But after three hours of informal mediation over the lagging fortunes of black students in Pinellas, a session that began tensely, 17 people pushed back from the table smiling. Both sides gave ground - softening the edges of earlier, harsher words - and promised to keep talking.

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox agreed to clearly state the district's plans for black students in a detailed written report, setting aside the usual practice of lumping them in with other students.

Nine members of the group Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, or COQEBS, agreed to work with Wilcox. They also stepped back from their statements at a January news conference that labeled the school district the primary cause of the achievement gap between black and white students.

The gap, they repeatedly acknowledged Wednesday, must be confronted by parents, educators and others in the community.

"We are not saying, "Here's the problem, school board. Fix it,"' said Nathaniel Ramsey, president of the Upper Pinellas NAACP.

"We're trying to say, "How can we help and make your job easier?' " said Watson Haynes, a co-chairman of COQEBS.

Wilcox thanked the group for being candid, though he said he doubted his detailed report would substantially change the way the district instructs children. Pinellas uses a range of educational strategies that it thinks help "all learners" advance, he said.

He added, however: "I understand that the intensity knob needs to be ratcheted up a little bit" for some educators when it comes to tackling the achievement gap.

The two sides agreed to meet again soon.

The session came about because COQEBS is challenging whether the district is fulfilling its obligations under the federal desegregation lawsuit that brought busing to Pinellas in 1971, followed years later by the controversial school choice plan. The group cites the continuing achievement gap in Pinellas, where black students perform at levels 20 to 40 percentage points below their white peers. Black students also are disciplined at far higher rates and graduate from high school in alarmingly low numbers.

The district and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund settled the desegregation lawsuit in 2000, but the action remains open in certain respects. If either side feels the other is violating the settlement, it can initiate a mediation process.

That process starts with an informal session like Wednesday's meeting, which included nine members of COQEBS, three district administrators, a lawyer for the Legal Defense Fund and four lawyers for the district.

If informal sessions fail, the settlement calls for the process to become more serious. A federal judge could step in if the dispute cannot be resolved.

Wednesday's meeting made it clear that the main issue is the way the district has been reporting its progress on the achievement gap. Members of COQEBS say the reports have been incomplete, unclear and without a clear plan of action. The result, they contend, has been a lack of improvement.

Wilcox says the district is solidly commited to reducing the gap and is attacking the problem on numerous fronts.

He has made the gap the cornerstone of his superintendency since coming to Pinellas in late 2004, meeting early and often with the county's black leaders. So he expressed irritation when those leaders initiated the mediation process last month, rekindling the lawsuit.

Both sides agreed to move on Wednesday, with Wilcox telling COQEBS leaders to disregard the testy letter he sent them earlier this week.

"You've got one where the postage stamp wouldn't stick to it. It was too hot," he told the group.

He also noted that the district's motto, "Whatever it takes," aligns with COQEBS' new motto, "No more excuses."

"We never have been after you. We have been about the education of black boys and black girls," said Vyrle Davis, a COQEBS co-chairman. "We love you, Dr. Wilcox. But we've still got a job to do."

[Last modified February 9, 2006, 01:29:11]

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