The gun violence that’s marred one of St. Petersburg’s Black neighborhoods recently is compelling community leaders to pursue solutions beyond the usual marches, scolding, pleading and prayers.
Questions are many, but here’s one: Why, in the midst of a pandemic that’s been disproportionately tragic for Black people, are there continuing to be large gatherings, some that can spawn deadly disputes?
In the search for answers, one already in play teaches young people to resolve disputes peacefully. Leaders also see the need for more opportunities to ease feelings of hopelessness.
But opportunity generally requires education.
A recent article in The Crisis, the official magazine of the national NAACP, addresses the education predicament facing the Black community as a problem made worse by the pandemic.
“African-American students’ low literacy levels – which inequitable access to online schooling will exacerbate – won’t just impact grades and graduation rates,” says author Colette Coleman, a former classroom teacher. “Low literacy levels can also hinder kids’ success in college, career and life.”
And the National School Boards Association, referring to the Condition of Education 2020, a report prepared by the National Center for Education Statistics, points to the document’s “very unsettling national picture of the state of education for Black students.”
Fortunately, not everyone is throwing up their hands in defeat. Here in Pinellas County, the Pinellas Education Foundation is intent on working to address learning, particularly literacy, at a young age. The nonprofit, a more than 30-year-advocate for Pinellas County public schools, is committed to equity, believing that all students deserve a high quality education. That’s reassuring in a district that continues to wrestle with issues of race.
Last year, the foundation awarded almost $3.6 million in scholarships to seniors going on to college or career and technical schools. It also creates programs to improve student and teacher performance.
Wednesday the foundation held its annual ChangeMakers program, a showcase for some of its work. This year, it was a virtual event. I was touched by one high school graduate who expressed gratitude for the expensive tools he had been given by the foundation to help him pursue an automotive services career.
Dr. Stacy Baier, the foundation’s CEO, emphasized its focus on the future. “Research shows that when children are not reading on grade level by the end of third grade, these same students continue to struggle throughout school and some don’t graduate,” she said. “Or, if they do graduate, they may not have the same opportunities as their peers.”
Collaborating with Pinellas County Schools, the foundation will continue to focus on literacy to ensure greater achievement for lower performing students.
“While low-income, black and brown students are closing the achievement gap, unfortunately, they still lag considerably behind their higher income white peers. We must take action now to further address this gap and build educational equity among all students,” she said.
“A better education for students translates to a better economic future for our community. In the end, all of us benefit.”
One of the foundation’s key programs is Closing the Gap. It focuses on the literacy learning gap between boys and girls, a deficit that can leave boys behind and struggling to catch up. Sometimes they fail completely. Black boys often fall into this category, Baier said, adding that the foundation understands that early investment in programs such as Closing the Gap is crucial to stemming problems before they worsen.
Interestingly, the program, which is grounded in research, addresses the fact that boys and girls learn differently. As a result, teachers learn gender-specific strategies for both their male and female students. Woodlawn Elementary School in St. Petersburg, one of the Pinellas schools that initially had a literacy achievement gap of 10 percent between boys and girls, now is a showcase for the initiative.
A Reading Recovery program focuses on struggling readers in the first grade and is offered at 12 schools with the largest number of students reading at the lowest level. Several schools south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, an area of the city with the highest number of Black residents, are part of the program.
Other foundation efforts include college and career centers that give students access to vital information and guidance. Take Stock in Children provides hard-working, financially deserving students with college scholarships, a college success coach and a mentor.
Wednesday, Carl Lavender, chief equity officer for the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, said he was grateful for the Pinellas Education Foundation’s “very important work in advancing equity in education, specifically race equity in education.”
It’s easy to despair about unfairness around us, but individuals, groups and organizations working to right the wrongs of prejudice and neglect give me hope. Education might not solve everything, but it certainly can open up opportunities and point us to the right path.