As the sun sank behind the Pinellas County School District headquarters in Largo, activists stood on a shaded hill to give school board members an earful on what they see as a system that callously leaves behind its African-American students, namely in low-income areas.
In particular, they voiced concern over the five failing schools highlighted in a Tampa Bay Times expose last summer that chronicled the apparent impacts of reversing desegregation in the schools, from disproportionate responses to disciplinary issues to poor staffing choices in the schools that need the best teachers and administrators they can get.
They demanded immediate reform to a system that sees African-American students drop out at much higher rates than white students.
“We can't wait ten years," said Ashley Green of Tampa Bay Dream Defenders. "We can't wait for a different governor. We can't wait for a different schools superintendent. We can't even wait for another new school board. This has to happen now. Our children deserve better now.”
There's an underlying problem, said Rick Smith, Tampa director of the Florida Public Service Union: an approach to educating children (and nearly everything else) that's inherently biased against most African Americans.
“There's no question that all of our schools aren't the schools our kids deserve," he said. "Why? Well, you can start with the impact on structural racism and its impact on education, discipline, recruiting to the prison pipeline. To bury your heads in the sand without addressing this gets us no closer to resolution. But to get to resolution, you've first got to admit that there is such a thing and that it impacts our entire system. Those in power don't want to see those words: structural racism.”
But the blame doesn't lie only with school officials, some said.
“We do have to take ownership," said Mike Gandolfo, head of Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "We can't always cast blame. A lot of it is our problem. And we have to step. And I'm proud to say that people out here are taking the first step. We know that there's a lot of problems in our district. And a lot of it does come from Tallahassee. There is a conspiracy to privatize education and destroy the cornerstone of democracy that is a free public education for every kid.”
Kamir Allen, a sophomore at Lakewood High School, a school with a predominantly low-income African-American population, said he sees the often despotic approach to disciplining African-American students. Those kids would probably be more inclined to succeed, he said, if officials eschewed five- and ten-day suspensions in favor of mentor programs.
“It's rough out there," he said. "It's more of unfair discipline happening to the students who are of color in general. I say that instead of just taking action in disciplining the students, we should have mentors to the students [who can help them] get their act together.”
The school board voted earlier this month to reduce the number of days for which a student can be suspended. But that was only the policy's first reading, and the proposal faces a second reading.
Many of the demonstrators walked into the Pinellas County School Board's meeting chambers, where a regular meeting was in process, and some gave public comment after the meeting's regular agenda was finished.
Defending herself against a recent editorial urging community leaders not to "cave to School Board member Linda Lerner's plea that everyone just get along and lock arms with the district," Lerner admonished the Tampa Bay Times for casting those involved with the school system as "failures."
“That headline 'Failure Factories'...this is saying the school is a failure, educators are failures, and worst of all, the students are failures. Every time there's an article there is bigger and bigger print," she said. "I just find it irresponsible.”
On behalf of the African People's Socialist Party, also known as the Uhurus, Chimurenga Waller brought back the bigger picture theme, calling for an environment wherein African Americans have more control over the education of their children, given how the number of black teachers is not proportional to the number of black students.
“I think I disagree with the [Tampa Bay] Times and Ms. Lerner. Ms Lerner thinks it's wonderful and the Times thinks black people can't learn because they can't sit next to white people and I disagree with both of those. I think it's the system, not only Pinellas County, but it's mentioned how these people came from all over to the discipline. Meaning this is a U.S. problem because the U.S. is hostile to black people and has been hostile since we were brought here by force.”