On African American student performance, Easter, and a 60-day session

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At least nine out of every 10 years, the timing of the Legislative session poses a double conundrum for Florida lawmakers. April, the most distractingly beautiful month in Tallahassee, falls in the middle of the 60-day session. And so does the Easter season. 

Easter juxtaposes the most important, contemplative, self-restraining time of year with all of the impulses and temptations of the political process.   

A wonderful coincidence. 

But what does all of this have to do with the theme of this column? It’s the academic performance of African American students in Florida.

The Easter season for Christians, and springtime for all humanity, is a time of reflection and rebirth. To Christians, retelling the story of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection means internalizing the message of living hope. Of triumph over adversity. 

Throughout February’s Black History Month, we are called to remember, as a society, the sacrifices and eventual emancipation of African Americans from slavery — the biggest sin of our nation and one not to be forgotten. Especially because the generations of discrimination and segregation that followed are still affecting children today. 

Too often, there are unspoken assumptions about the performance of African American students, and these exist across party lines. The assumptions go something like… “because average test scores or graduation rates are lower for these kids, it would be unfair to expect as much from them.” Or, “it would be unrealistic to do so.” Or, “that’s just how it is.” Or, “poverty sets the bar lower.” 

That’s hogwash, and guess what, Florida is leading the national charge to dispel these myths. 

Consider the following: 

Since 2011, Florida is the only state in the U.S. to have narrowed the achievement gap in 4th grade reading and math between white and African American students. 

The percent of Florida students graduating from high school within four years has jumped 6 percentage points since 2010-11 for African American students — a greater gain than that made by Florida students overall. 

Florida is 10th in the nation for reading achievement by African American 8th graders, and 13th in the nation among African American 8th graders in math. 

The percent of African American high school graduates who took an AP exam moved from 9.7 percent in 2003 to 14.6 percent in 2013; and the percent of those scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam increased from 5.7 percent in 2003 to 7.3 percent in 2013. 

Then consider that in 1998, prior to Florida’s implementation of comprehensive education reforms, about half of all Florida 4th graders were functionally illiterate. 

Today, Florida’s 4th-grade readers outperformed the nation in every sub-group — African American, Hispanic, white, students with disabilities, and low-income students included. 

These figures demonstrate substantial movement not only in student performance, but more importantly, in our expectations and commitments as a state. 

These gains did not happen by chance, but rather because Florida set the bar high, teachers brought their best game, and students soaked it up.   

That is the theme of the “Learn More. Go Further.” campaign — to bring light to the successes we’ve seen so far, and to reinforce efforts to double down, raise standards, and breathe more hope and belief into all students. 

Which brings us back to the message of this month, on a more spiritual front. 

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached an Easter sermon titled “Questions that Easter Answers.” A relevant and incisive sermon still today. 

In it, Dr. King said Easter to him was about living life acknowledging forces that go beyond the physical, and recognizing the presence of eternal spiritual forces beyond the material world. 

“Are you disappointed about some great ideal that you had and you felt that you would have achieved by now, but you have not achieved it? You have somehow been caught in the moment. You have somehow been caught at a point at which it seems that you can’t get out. Well, don’t give up in despair,” Dr. King preached. “This morning, have you had some high and noble ideals? Have you had some high and noble hopes, and it seems that they have been blasted by the years? Well, don’t give up.” 

Spiritual matters are to each person alone. 

But as a community, Florida has not given up. Florida has set a path with high ideals, hope for all students, and a time-tested path to getting there. 

If in a 60-day period full of distractions, lawmakers do anything in the spirit of springtime, it should be to reinforce these goals.

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.