Dreaming of a school miracle

Facing a big achievement gap, Pinellas school leaders will vote on the same kind of plan that has led to weak schools elsewhere in America. What are they thinking?

By THOMAS TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007

If you think the Pinellas student assignment plan is just another boring piece of public policy, you're missing the drama.

We're not talking about the spark of excitement last week as the School Board tried to add more changes to the plan, prompting superintendent Clayton Wilcox to call a news conference and say that their late-in-the-game tinkering could cause a year's delay.

That will go down as a sideshow compared to the feat Wilcox and the board seek to accomplish with a plan that creates a system of neighborhood schools but reduces diversity and leaves several schools with high concentrations of poor, mostly black students.

Consider that black students as a group already do poorly in the classroom compared to their white, Asian and Hispanic peers, a problem not unique to Pinellas. The new plan stands to make things even worse if you believe the mounds of research strongly suggesting that academic achievement suffers badly in schools where minorities are racially isolated.

Yet Wilcox has told the board and the public that the situation is under control, the implication being that those schools will either hold their own or perform better than they do now.

If that were to actually happen, holy cow.

It would be a rarity, a triumph. Wilcox and the board would have completed the education equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

Educators from across the nation would make pilgrimages across the Howard Frankland Bridge, seeking to copy Pinellas' methods. Wilcox might be hailed as a genius and the School Board as visionaries. Pinellas' black leaders, if they aided in the effort, would be lauded as well.

How does the district propose to do it?

Last week, Wilcox gave the board a 16-page document summarizing all the academic initiatives that he and others have put in place. In it, he lays out how they fit with the student assignment plan, which might be approved Tuesday. It's a manifesto of sorts that includes the most detailed accounting yet of how the district would address predominantly black schools.

It talks of reducing class sizes in schools with large concentrations of struggling students, of reallocating counselors and social workers to schools where parents and students have "social and emotional issues."

New principals and assistant principals would be assigned to schools that need "an infusion of different thinking." Schools would schedule PTA meetings and parent conferences for the convenience of families instead of educators. They also would offer more child care before and after school, and the district would work with other agencies to set up centers for parents who need help.

Some schools would have the freedom to color outside the lines of state and district policy and experiment with new strategies. Educators would work to provide more "context" and real world experience for students whose parents have been unwilling or unable to provide it. An example: exposing them for the first time to a symphony performance.

Wilcox also alludes to the political challenge of giving some schools more resources than others, and of finding the money to do more with less as state budget projections grow gloomier by the week.

The document makes no mention of paying teachers more at struggling schools, a popular idea among some advocates.

In an interview, Wilcox said such a policy would be bad for morale.

"I want people who are there for the right reasons," he said. "I don't want them there because they're making $5,000 extra."

He said it's better to give incentives to teams of educators.

The manifesto has a can-do feel. But Wilcox - never shy about revealing his inner superintendent - admits to doubts that the district can make its new high-minority schools succeed.

"In my most candid, quiet moments what I would say is that nobody else has done it and sustained it," he said.

"It's the thing that keeps me up at night. In general I'm an optimist, but I've got to tell you: In my darkest moments, I don't see how it can be done."

It will take a healthy dose of help from parents, he said.

The Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group working to address the achievement gap, notes that minority performance varies across districts and states. That's proof, it says, that the problems lie with education policy and practice - not with kids and their families.

"Yes, low achievement among of children of color is at a crisis level in this country," the group says in a September 2006 report titled, Yes We Can. "But schools, communties, even entire states prove every day that our children can and do achieve at high levels, if we but use the tools for change at our disposal."

Do Pinellas County's top educators have the skill, smarts and savvy to find the right tools - to succeed where other districts haven't?

The drama is in the opportunity before them.

Is it possible to have high minority schools where students succeed year in and year out? Sure.

Is it probable? We're about to find out.

Thomas C. Tobin covers the Pinellas school system for the Times. He can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or 727 893-8923.