Investigation finds separate and unequal is still alive in this Florida city's schools

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In an investigation released by the Tampa Bay Times today, the paper revealed that the five worst-performing elementary schools in the entire Sunshine State are concentrated in St. Petersburg's black community, in the heart of one of the wealthiest counties in Florida.


According to the investigation, a full 84% of black elementary school students in the Pinellas County School District are failing state exams. Just a few years ago, however, this wasn't the case. Throughout the investigation, reporters uncover the fallout of the school district's decision to abandon integration of its schools back in 2007, when it cut funding for busing programs in favor of sending children to "neighborhood schools." The move was made in the name of saving transportation costs.

From the report:

In less than a year, schools on St. Petersburg’s north side became whiter, and the neighborhood schools to the south began drawing primarily from the city’s blighted avenues and subsidized housing complexes.

Before, the area’s most disadvantaged children, including the relatively few with serious behavior problems, were spread among a large area, mixed in with more affluent classmates and given access to several schools’ worth of teachers and counselors. Now they were all concentrated in a handful of schools.


Those schools—Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo, and Melrose Elementary Schools—all received "F" ratings in Florida's A through F school rating system for the last school year. Prior to the push for keeping school children within their neighborhoods, the schools had B, A, B, C, and C ratings, respectively.

The previous success of those schools in black neighborhoods was by design—and by policy. In 1971, the school district voted to integrate its school system, stipulating that no school should have more than 30% black students (Pinellas County is 10.8% black overall). In 2003, it revisited the rule, declaring no school could be more than 42% black, the St. Petersburg Times reported at the time. This led up to the total abandonment of using race to assign students to schools in 2007, the same year busing funding was cut.

Melrose Elementary School, which was considered an average school just a few years ago, has been the single worst-performing elementary school in the state of Florida for two years straight. During the 2014 school year, a total of 160 students took state exams there—only six students passed both reading and math sections. The previous school year, only 11% of fifth graders (the highest grade in the school) passed the state's reading exam, the St. Petersburg Tribune reported.


When controlled for disability and behavior schools, privately-run charter schools, and non-traditional early learning centers, the five St. Petersburg schools are the worst traditional public elementary schools in the entire state, the Times reported.

"You can't undo the past. You have to take the district from where it's at," school board superintendent Mike Grego told the Times about the paper’s findings. He started in the position in 2012. "I'm going on the record saying we're going to fix this. And we're going to educate our students as if each of them was our own kid."


Perhaps most disturbing is how the school board ignored the long history of segregation in St. Petersburg in making their 2007 decision to resegregate schools:

Beginning in the 1930s, city leaders drew up plans for a “colored zone” on the city’s south side and made it impossible, through permitting and housing discrimination, for blacks to live or own businesses outside its borders. Blacks who tried to move out of the zone were met with death threats.

In the 1970s, city and county leaders routed Interstate 275 through the heart of St. Petersburg’s black community. Whole blocks were razed and thousands of families were resettled farther south of Central Avenue, where the county’s most segregated schools stand today.


As a result of that early division between whites and blacks, the Pinellas County's school board has operated "separate and unequal school systems based upon race" for "most of its existence," wrote James A. Schnur of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, in a 1991 report.

"The school board maintained segregated facilities until regional and national influences assisted local leaders in their battle to dismantle dual schools. The movement in Pinellas County exemplified a larger struggle between integrationists and segregationists. Both groups knew that education shaped society, but each hoped to create an essentially different community," he wrote.


Sending schoolchildren to "neighborhood schools," sounds like a good, homey idea. But when the racial and socioeconomic makeup of those neighborhoods is rooted in the misguided, racist policies of the past, policymakers should be mindful that achieving social justice and equality within those neighborhoods cannot be a passive undertaking. The racial injustices of the South's past require proactive, sustained solutions in order to be reversed.

"Basically, you can't have racial and class diversity of any sort if you don't provide transportation," Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project of University of Southern California told the Wall Street Journal back in 2008, just after Pinellas County schools were resegregated.


"This is kind of closing the last door for urgently needed opportunities for kids who are in schools that are really dysfunctional and inadequate," he said.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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