As data regarding things like graduation rates and reading levels is periodically released, the substantial achievement gap between black and white students in Pinellas County has become a growing concern year by year.
Statistics show that the quantity of black students in Pinellas who are performing below grade level is larger than any other Florida county; the amount of black students below grade level in both reading and math was over 60 percent according to the latest data (2011). That same year, only 47 percent of black high school students graduated.
Numbers like this explain why the “We Care” Campaign included Pinellas County as a stop in its series of panel discussions around Florida.
On the evening of Wed., Sep. 4, the conference room located on the second floor of the Pinellas County Urban League was crowded. City officials, teachers and regular patrons gathered for a meeting which placed an emphasis on helping black students reach their full potentials, but also focused on education reform as a whole.
The panel meeting was free and open to the public.
Organizations including StudentsFirst, Step Up for Students and Black Floridians C.A.R.E were each represented by a member. These panelists were able to get their messages out and hopefully even recruit followers for their movements.
Chosen as moderator of the meeting, Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers introduced the panel. Flowers said that holding these panel meetings is a great way for the community to learn information about education and the African American community firsthand, rather than from outside sources.
Although Democrats for Education Reform and the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida are among the sponsors of this event, Flowers emphasized that the Pinellas County Urban League does not take a political stance.
“That's not what this is,” Flowers said. “We talk about and consider all sides.”
The meeting touched on various subjects including the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) — a topic which was introduced by Dr. Pamela S. Craig of the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE).
The CCSS, she explained, set clearly defined expectations and goals for academic achievement in each grade level — these standards match amongst schools so certain students don't move on to the next grade less equipped than others.
The results are confident, well-prepared students and teachers who are better prepared to help students reach certain benchmarks.
She emphasized that literacy is a significant component of the CCSS. Students must not only be able to read passages in subjects like history and science, but be able to analyze them and differentiate between biased and unbiased material.
The CCSS follows a curriculum which, if done properly, simultaneously prepares students for state assessments such as the FCAT.
“The Common Core State Standards challenges students,” Craig said. “It sets and expectation that they can do it, and then they do.”
Craig said that the DOE is working on fully implementing the CCSS in the 2013 to 2014 time frame.
The CCSS is supported by such organizations as StudentsFirst — a grassroots movement dedicated to transforming the face of education.
It is “designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout the country, and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level. It is a political lobbying organization dedicated to public school reform.”
Deputy State Director Troy Bell, who represented the Florida chapter of StudentsFirst, said that many black students are deprived of the basic human right of equality education — due to things like ill-equipped teachers and lack of access.
One of the current focuses of the organization is aiding “failing schools” around Florida.
“We want to get volunteers to come together and change things,” he said.
Volunteers of StudentsFirst are expected to represent interests that benefit students by performing such duties as following up with legislators about issues. To find out more about how to volunteer, visit www.studentsfirst.org.
StudentsFirst tends to focus on education reform as a whole, but other organizations such as Black Floridians C.A.R.E (Choice Advocates Reforming Education), represented by executive director Isha Haley, focus solely on the black community.
“When I think about black children and read data across the state, I know we need to care about Pinellas County,” she said.
Haley said that the organization, which is fairly new, has three goals — to recruit, create a fellowship program, and to create black leaders who will open up high-quality schools in their communities.
Regardless of the ongoing changes and improvements to the education system, all students learn differently and thrive in different settings — this could mean a public school in a different county, or even a private school. But many students still cannot attend the schools of their choosing due to finances.
That’s where Step Up for Students comes in. Dedicated to alleviating the educational challenges faced by poverty-stricken children, Step up for Students has given scholarships to more than 60,000 low-income students.
For the 2013-2014 school year, scholarships up to $4,800 will be awarded to for private school tuition. Up to $500 will be awarded to help cover transportation costs for schools in other counties.
“We want to provide low income students the same opportunities as everyone else,” Glen Gilzean of Step Up for Students said.
To learn more, visit StepUpForStudents.org/family.