My initial, fist-shaking reaction to Tampa Bay Times’ “Failure Factories” – Part 1

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Like many Tampa Bay Times readers, I am fist-shaking angry after reading the first story of its “Failure Factories”  investigatory series.

After eight years of overworked teachers, failed integration and cutbacks in budgets and resources, several predominantly black neighborhoods in Pinellas County have produced five of Florida’s worst schools.

The educations of thousands of children have suffered these five worst performers — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose Elementary. For example, the Florida Department of Education ranked Melrose as the state’s worst elementary school, with Fairmount coming in second.

Many of the students in these schools leave without basic skills. For example, nearly 8 in 10 have failing reading scores, while 9 in 10 are failing math.

For so many reasons, this situation upsets me. Because I am a parent. Because I care so much about Pinellas. Because I have for decades worked on political campaigns in the black community home to these schools. Because I helped elect some of these School Board members. Because, as a high school student, I served as a member of the Zoning Task Force, one of the school system’s many blue-ribbon committees which examined the desegregation issue.

I plan to re-read this story today and then re-read it a third and fourth time. I am not going to write a post each time something in the story provokes me, so here are my first five initial reactions.

— Of course we don’t know what other newspapers will submit for consideration, but this series is an immediate front-runner for a Pulitzer Prize, especially if it provokes the School Board to make substantive changes — and there is a lot of room for that.

— The data visualization accompanying this story is better than almost I’ve ever seen online. Failure Factories” makes the New York Times‘ once-groundbreaking “Snow Fall” look like a film strip.

To paraphrase Harvey Dent’s line in The Dark Knight Rises (You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain), one-time progressive icon Linda Lerner has served on the School Board long enough to see herself become a villain. Her flippant response to the situation at these five schools — blaming the “cycle of poverty,” while saying the School Board shoulders none of the blame — should be the end of her career.

— Were the School Board members who voted for the plan that desegregated the district in 2007 Roman generals, instead of inept local polls, they would draw a warm bath and slit their wrists in the face of their failures. Suicide isn’t in fashion the way it was two thousand years ago, so how about they resign — immediately.

— Reading the newspaper version of this story, there is a separate section profiling some of the students trapped in these schools. This one really stood out:

“Jaymir Wooten — In a quiet voice, little Jaymir will tell you that Lakewood Elementary was a scare place to be a 6-year-old. “It’s bad,” he said. “people get in fights. People in class, they punch and kick. In the first grade last year, his favorite subject was “lunch on Friday.” It was the day his teacher would let him eat in the classroom, away from the bigger boys in the cafeteria who called him names and tried to fight.”

I can’t help but think about what I would do if our Ella Joyce faced this kind of situation. I wish I could rule out burning down the damn school.

— That feeling in my gut can be described as white guilt. There’s no doubt about it. My daughter started preschool last Wednesday. Her classroom has only six children in it and there is a teacher and a teacher’s assistant. Each of the children’s parents are married. All of the parents who want to work (there are a couple of stay-at-home moms and dads) have a very good job. The level of support and resources behind these kids is likely greater than what is directed at six (or sixteen?) classrooms in these schools.

— The blame for this situation lies with the school system, not external forces. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Of course there is failure in the school system and that can be blamed on the “cycle of poverty,” or the decline of the black family or the War on Drugs or any number of a myriad of problems plaguing black students. You can even inject your racist ideas here and say “black kids don’t know how to behave” or whatever else you’ll troll in the comments section below the story. BUT NONE OF THAT APPLIES TO WHAT IS BEING DISCUSSED IN “FAILURE FACTORIES.” This is about how, after resegregation, the Pinellas school system did nothing like what other districts did to bolster the educational opportunities of children who come from impoverished neighborhoods.

— “Fairmount Park had an A in Florida’s statewide ranking system. More than half the students in the school were reading at grade level. Fifty-nine percent were proficient in math. … House at Fifth Avenue South and 41st S, the one-tome A school is now the second-worst in Florida. Fairmount Park recorded at least 661 referrals for violence…” What is the mechanism for some outside force to take over this school? Can’t Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri flood the school system with his deputies to crack down on the violence?

To be continued…

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.