Hillsborough Schools seek to boost academic performance for minorities; one activist prefers results


The Hillsborough County School board is trying to improve educational outcomes for some minority students. The board is supporting a pledge aimed at boosting graduation rates and reducing disciplinary problems among African-American and Hispanic males. But an investigation prompted by a complaint from a retired teacher about the how the district teaches minority students is still ongoing.

“I think the best time to make a judgment is to see the outcome of what they pledge – if there is any change. I’m skeptical to be honest.”

That’s Marilyn Williams. Earlier this year she submitted months-worth of data she compiled from an Office of Civil Rights data report on minority student performance in Hillsborough County to the federal government. In June, she got word that they were going to look into it. Now the district is planning on implementing a program that will create a team of educators in every high school and 24 middle schools established to help minority males do better in school and get in trouble less. Doretha Edgecomb is a school board member.

“You can think of kind of a triage – a group of people who are going to be working with these students supporting them, providing the skills, giving them the opportunity to be successful, being their point of contact in the school, monitoring those students – it’s going to be their circle of success that students will be able to come to when there are problems and challenges and that those people within the school can respond immediately to help those students.”

The Hillsborough School district is joining 59 others in supporting America’s Great City Schools’ pledge with 11 specific actions. Those start with pre-school and include keeping data to monitor progress, reducing absences, suspensions and expulsions and increasing the number of African-American and Hispanic males who fill out financial aid forms for college. Edgecomb says part of that process will also include speaking directly with the students to identify and solve problems.

“And help them to know how to translate them from what they know and how they know to survive in the streets or on the streets or in their neighborhoods or even in their homes and transfer those same skills to the classroom and sometimes I’m not sure that they know that. So, that’s one of the things that I want to see happen. How do we take part of their world and turn it around to make it a better world for them in the future?”

Williams, the activist who prompted a federal investigation into whether or not the district is discriminating against minorities, says the school board has tried to do this before and it didn’t go so well. Based on the data she compiled, more minority students are suspended than the percentage that are enrolled in schools. Here’s what that means.

“The first school, 20% of their pupil enrollment is black, whereas black students represent 35% of in-school suspensions in that school and 47% of out-of-school suspension in that school. Even more egregious than those percentages, they have 1,237 students enrolled yet they have 1,763 students that have been suspended. So, that means some students are being suspended multiple times.”

She also cites abysmal graduation rates. Just over half of minority students – ones Williams refers to as black and brown – graduate. That may not sound too bad, but what parents don’t know is that of those who graduate, not all of them are getting an actual diploma. She looked at one graduating class’ FCAT scores from 10th grade on. Only 29% of them were able to read at or above grade level and didn’t passed the mandatory standardized test. That means instead of getting a diploma, those students walk away from graduation with a certificate of attendance.

“With the certificate of attendance, you’re not eligible for college; you’re not eligible for attendance in community college. There are vocational schools that you cannot get into. You’re not even eligible to enroll in the military.”

Williams says she wants the district to recognize that there is a problem. Even with this pledge, she worries leaders still aren’t doing that. But Hillsborough County School board member Edgecomb says they are.

“The pledge is the first step. It is our public announcement that one, we are aware of the problems. Two, we accept some responsibility for some of the things that are occurring to keep these young men from being successful. But the most powerful part of this is that we are going to take these words, put them into actions that we are going to monitor, beef up, change, add power to in order for them to be successful.”

Edgecomb wants parents and other members of the public to help. She says mentors and adult roll models are a great tool to get kids excited about learning.

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