Special school programs for black students: racist or essential?
Thomas C. Tobin:
For decades, school districts have organized around a simple idea: Whatever you give to white students, give it to black students, too.
Put both groups of students in the same schools. Expose them to the same teaching. If they struggle, give them the same help.
In the Tampa Bay area and across the nation, this was how educators atoned for the long-ago sin of relegating black children to inferior schools.
Now, in a class-action lawsuit that has Pinellas County's top educators on the defensive, the plaintiffs say the policy of equal access has failed the school district's 20,000 black students.
Black kids, they contend, will need uniquely tailored programs if the district ever hopes to erase an education gap that has them lagging behind every other ethnic group in school performance.
The case of William Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board - seven years old and finally headed for trial - may be the only one of its kind in the nation.
"What's unique about it is the unadorned claim that if you have an achievement gap, you are violating the law," said Michael Kirk, a Washington, D.C., lawyer hired to help defend the district. If that were true, he argued, then every district with a significant number of minority students would be liable.
The call for a unique set of programs to help black students has been a central theme in recent days as lawyers prepare for a two-week jury trial starting July 9. The plaintiffs' attorney, Guy Burns of Tampa, has summoned the entire Pinellas School Board for depositions, as well as superintendent Clayton Wilcox and his top deputies.
In the four depositions to date, Wilcox and three board members have stayed on message: The district provides equal opportunity for all students to learn, they said. What students make of that opportunity is up to them.
If the district does any tailoring, they said, it's with an eye toward individual student needs, not race. They said the causes of the gap are too varied and complex to be solved by a single program or set of programs for black students.
At one point as he appeared to choke back emotion, Wilcox argued that giving black students something special would imply they are, by nature, less able than their peers.
"I know a lot of people want to ascribe things to us, but I will tell you I think we go out of our way to look at kids as kids in this district," he said. "I know we do at the highest levels. I know we do."
He added: "We don't just go into a school and say, 'You know what? We got a bunch of black kids here so we've got to teach (a different way).' I think that would be racist behavior. I absolutely won't do that. You can't make me do that."
The lawsuit was filed in August 2000 by William Crowley on behalf of his son, Akwete Osoka, then a 7-year-old student at Sawgrass Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
The boy, who is black, had faced academic problems that were "typical of those difficulties commonly faced by students of African descent," the lawsuit said. It alleged Pinellas failed to provide an adequate education to black students, in violation of Florida law and the state Constitution.
The case has since become a class action, meaning the plaintiffs include all black children who attend or will later attend Pinellas public schools.
Initially supported by the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, an activist group in St. Petersburg, the challenge has come to be embraced by a broader segment of the black population, Burns said.
It is a case grounded in numbers, none of them flattering.
Last year, 67 percent of black public school students in Pinellas scored below their grade level on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test - nearly twice the percentage of low-scoring whites.
The graduation rate for black students was a dismal 46 percent in 2005, and black students perennially are more than twice as likely as nonblacks to be suspended.
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