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Dad blogger argues ‘Failure Factories’ isn’t as bad as the Tampa Bay Times made out

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Most of us were disgusted over the weekend when we read the Tampa Bay Times investigative analysis “Failure Factories,” which showed five Pinellas County schools were grossly failing to educate its students.

Those five schools — Melrose, Campbell Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Fairmount Park – went from being considered average just eight years ago to being in the bottom tier of Florida public schools. Melrose Elementary is ranked the worst elementary school in the state, with Fairmount Park right behind it. The other three are at 10, 12 and 15 for worst schools in the state.

All five of those schools are predominately black and overwhelmingly poor.

The Times pointed to a couple of breakdowns in the district that led to the decline of these five schools. The district stopped integration at those schools, leading to what looks like a segregated school swarming with black students and devoid of whites. The district failed to provide promised funding to those schools and, as the Times put it, stood by and did nothing when middle class families fled the schools and teachers walked off the job.

It’s a clear-cut example of a district failing its most struggling students. But there’s at least one guy making an argument for the school district – that it’s not so bad because considering what you might expect from mostly black, poor schools, really only two are failing.

A blogger going by the user name “polysciguy9,” whose profile claims he’s an airport research manager, has written several blogs over the past few days analyzing data in a way that he argues doesn’t make the Times investigation look quite so bad.

Why? Because when you have poor, black kids all learning in the same school – of course they’re going to fail!

Of course, that’s my analysis of his analysis, but if you give it a good read and don’t get lost in his mind-numbing algorithms, you’ll draw the same conclusion.

So here’s what Mr. Polysciguy9 does. He takes all of the data and calculates how a school should reasonably perform on the FCAT based on demographic information. He establishes a metric by which student failure on the statewide standardized test is directly correlated with income level and overall blackness.

He found that as the percentage of black fourth graders increases by 10 percent, the percentage of students passing the FCAT – earning a score of 3 or more – reduces by 2 percent. That reduction jumps to 8 percent when looking at increases to the number of students on free or reduced lunch.

So, since being black and poor is a direct source of academic failure and the five miserably failing elementary schools are predominately poor and black, they weren’t going to be successful no matter what the district did.

Seriously, that’s the argument here. Polysciguy9 actually says, “we would expect a school comprised of a larger than average percentage of Black students whose families earn less than the mean U.S. household income to have FCAT scores below the average for all schools.”

He then adds the disclaimer, “that’s not to say we expect less of these students, or should ever feel comfortable with this, but that’s the nature of the beast.”

There are so many things wrong with this premise it literally hurts my brain. First, accepting the status quo that black kids just don’t do as well is the biggest part of the problem.

Sure, this professional researcher (as he claims to be in a semi-biographical section of the blog) seems to do a bang-up job of analyzing numbers. I doubt very seriously there are any substantive errors in his findings. But even making the argument he has is shortsighted and defending a position that shouldn’t be defended.

Instead of painting an “it’s not that bad” picture defending Pinellas County Schools officials and arguing against reintegration, perhaps those numbers should be used to find real answers.

This guy makes it sound like everyone should sit back, cross their arms and do nothing because, “well what did you expect, what with all those black kids and all?”

I doubt the author’s intention was to argue in favor of letting an entire demographic of our youth continue to fail, but the way he lays it out there sure sounds like that’s what he’s saying.

Polysciguy9 refers to himself as “left-leaning.” But he later writes that his liberalism has limits – his two kids. He points out that he’s white and living quite comfortably and implies that he wouldn’t want to bus his kids to a school in a black neighborhood.

The Times did an excellent job on highlighting a very real problem. Its report has already commanded a response. Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego announced he intends to transform three of the schools – Fairmount Park, Lakewood and Maximo – into magnet schools.

Even though that may not be enough – Melrose Elementary, the worst in the state, is already a magnet program – it’s at least a start. And the investigative piece has attracted national attention.

The proposed magnet programs include an International Baccalaureate program at Lakewood Elementary, a Science Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math program at Fairmount Park and an entrepreneurship program at Maximo Elementary. The Melrose magnet program is for journalism, but has failed to attract families from outside the neighborhood.

With all five of those programs falling within six square miles of one another, concerned citizens need to be spending time figuring out how to fix the problem and ensure kids who are not fortunate enough to be born to affluent white parents have better opportunities in their neighborhoods.

What needs to not happen is critiquing numbers to show there isn’t as much of a problem as the Times made out. That’s a substantial waste of time.

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Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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