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Black students sue Pinellas County school district over killing ‘successful’ reading program

in Local Courts/Top Headlines by
Attorney Todd Hoover

Parents of two Pinellas County students are suing the school district over the cancellation of a “highly effective” reading program for African-American students. They claim it was due to personal animosity toward the program’s founder, who happens to be the attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Jadrius Boykin and Malik Williams are African-American students attending schools in Pinellas County’s “Area 3” district. A story published May 15, 2016, suggests Boykin is a student at Melrose Elementary.

The boys’ mothers — Tracie Boykin and Camille Archie — filed a joint suit against the Pinellas County School District saying their children are more likely to end up “illiterate” as a result of what they claim is a “callous decision” to shut down rather than expand the “First 25” reading program.

They say top school officials — including Area 3 Superintendent Robert Poth and Pinellas County District Superintendent Michael Grego — were “hostile” to the program because of a personal animosity toward the program’s founder, attorney Todd Hoover.

Poth is a former Pinellas County teacher who became an administrator after 15 years of teaching. He was named Outstanding Mathematics Teacher of the Year by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers of Mathematics and was a finalist for Pinellas County Teacher of the Year in 1990.

Also named in the suit is Deputy Superintendent William Corbett.

Hoover, who represents the parents in the suit, is a graduate of Stetson Law and was admitted to the Florida Bar September 2016. While attending Stetson, Hoover introduced a voluntary, weekly, before-school reading and athletics program at St. Petersburg’s John Hopkins Middle School which later became known as “First 25.”

The goal of the nonprofit program was to improve the reading fluency of struggling African-American students. Barry Brown was principal at John Hopkins when First 25 began in 2012, and is still principal there.

In 2014, Bay News 9 named Hoover one is its “everyday heroes.” Nevertheless, the school district decided to end the program in 2015.

When district leaders decided to discontinue First 25, Hoover asked the full school board for an investigation — which later found no sign of malfeasance. However, Hoover claims the request made district officials even more hostile toward both him and the program.

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 25 in Pinellas County Circuit Court, says that although John Hopkins principal Brown was initially a supporter of First 25, he scaled back enthusiasm after district officials opposed to the program.

After the end of First 25, Hoover criticized the district in a 2015 Bay News 9 story, saying that the refusal to consider the program on its merits “cost the district an opportunity to improve the reading skills of African-American students, whose performance on average not only trails local whites’ but that of their black counterparts elsewhere in Florida.”

School district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf responded that the PCS was not trying to kill the reading program, but wanted to bring First 25 “into compliance with district guidelines.”

Hoover blasted that as “more excuses … the question is, why don’t you want 25 kids from the toughest neighborhoods showing up on their own to read?”

The suit argues that the program was effective — 75 percent of the students participating in First 25 saw increased reading scores, and 55 percent saw improvements so great as to be considered “learning gains” by Florida Department of Education standards.

According to the lawsuit: “By suppressing successful reading programs for black children, Defendant has increased the chances that Plaintiffs will be illiterate” and that “domestic strife and unrest” will continue to bedevil the black community.”

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