Stories about Jeremiah Daniels’ history-making achievement are popping up across the internet.
He is the first Black male salutatorian at Boca Ciega High School and is headed to Florida State University.
I’m so pleased for him and the path he’s on. Some may disagree, but I see him as an example – not an exception. An example of bright, academically focused young Black men. And I look forward to the day when achievements like Jeremiah’s will be routine in the Pinellas County School District.
Black leaders have fought for decades to get to the point at which the Pinellas County School District can now brag about the steady rise in graduations of Black high school students. It was the community’s persistence that impelled the district to commit to providing the quality public education Black students are entitled to receive.
Ricardo “Ric” Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black and Brown Students, or COQEBS, can attest to the long struggle.
“This effort started with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1964,” he said, referring to the lawsuit Black parents filed against the then largely segregated school district.
“There was this hopefulness about the suit. We were going to fix this disparity in education. By the mid 1990s, it was apparent to us that this wasn’t working. COQEBS filed a new suit and that didn’t do it immediately. We have been at it at a very long time.”
The early years were more difficult, said Davis, a former chair of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the first Black person to be elected to that office.
“It took years of tense dialogue. Some people might have considered it confrontational back in those days,” he said and recalled the school district’s response to a request for specific data about Black student achievement.
“They brought boxes and said, ‘Here.’ We have a much more refined system now … We have not seen as much incremental progress as in the recent years.”
He’s referring to the aptly named Bridging the Gap plan the district created with the goal of closing, or greatly narrowing, the achievement gaps between Black students and their non-Black peers.
In January, the district touted a graduation rate among Black students that rose to 86.3 percent for the 2020-2021 school year, an increase of “nearly a full percentage point from the previous year and 29.9 percentage points since the 2012-13 school year.”
The school district added that it’s continuing “to focus increased resources on its Bridging the Gap plan, which once again resulted in the … highest graduation rate among Black students and the lowest gap in district history.”
When the Bridging the Gap plan went into effect, the graduation gap between Black and non-Black students was 18 percentage points, it said.
Perhaps most encouraging is that at 92 percent, the Hispanic graduation rate was the same as the district’s overall graduation rate.
“I think the district deserves credit for the improvement,” Davis said. “But that statement has to be qualified by an understanding that the measure of what constitutes graduation rates has changed slightly over the years.”
As minority achievement officer for Pinellas County Schools, Dr. Lewis Brinson is in charge of planning, coordinating and implementing the initiatives to close all achievement gaps. Brinson, who arrived in 2016, the year the plan was developed, has a lot to be happy about.
“The main thing that I am pleased with in the Bridging the Gap plan is that we have a plan which was approved by the school board and that we collaborate with the community in this with COQEBs and we have monthly meetings to review where we are and where we are progressing and not progressing, and our plans move forward,” said Brinson, former chief diversity officer for the Hillsborough County School District.
“Our plan is to accept constructive criticism and hear concerns from the community,” he said, adding that he also meets with the NAACP and the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee, a community group established by the court order that granted unitary status to the district.
Brinson said he’s also pleased “with the graduation rate and the number of Black kids enrolled in advanced classes, and the decrease in number of Black males that’s been placed into special ed programs such as emotional behavior disorder, and the slight increase in minority hiring.”
Davis believes one of the toughest challenges the district has had is trying to get teachers “from all groups” to relate to disadvantaged students. “What we have learned is that those teachers need to be trained on how to instruct and encourage students who don’t look like them and understand some of the challenges they have,” he said.
“A good teacher is a teacher who adapts to the students she is teaching and that’s asking a massive school system to individualize the teaching to the child. I could imagine to some teachers, that was overwhelming. But the district has trained a substantial number of those teachers on how to do that, but that took time. My observation has been that teachers are unique. The ones that have that special something and are able to reach those children are invaluable.“
Though pleased with the progress being made on behalf of Black and Hispanic students, Davis wonders whether the goal to completely eliminate the achievement gap will ever be achieved.
Minority students are benefitting from the implementation of the Bridging the Gap program, he said.
“Can we sustain this? I know that there’s a point when you’re working towards a metric that there is only so much progress you can achieve. I would love to eliminate the gap, but there are going to be fluctuations,” he said. “I don’t know that we will ever get to a point where there is no gap and whether we can maintain that year after year. There are too many variables and you can’t control all of them.”
But students like Jeremiah, and the at least two other Black students ranked among the Class of 2022’s best, make me brim with optimism. Jeremiah is heading off to college as a Woodson Warrior, a recipient of one of the scholarships established in partnership with Gulfport artist Jane Bunker and the Woodson African American Museum of Florida’s executive director Terri Lipsey Scott.
Jeremiah’s motto, “Don’t let obstacles stop you, keep fighting through,” would serve his elders well.