The Gainesville Sun – James F. Lawrence: Move to the next level in eliminating inequities

The data and documentation just keeps stacking up showing shameful disparities between black and white people in Alachua County. Yet too often the response remains another workshop, conference or emotion-packed speech. If only we could talk these problems away.

Don’t get me wrong: There is certainly a place for the gathering of concern-minded citizens and experts to seek solutions to persistent racial and socioeconomic inequities that continue to rob this community of its full potential.

But isn’t it time to move to the next level? Of course it is. And while it’s true that some progress has been made, the truth is that forward movement has amounted to only baby steps.

For example, it’s been nearly two years since the Friendship Seven-commissioned report, “Understanding Racial Inequity in Alachua County,” was released. Yet the racial disparities it documented in such areas as education, criminal justice, health, housing and transportation remain as wide as ever.

Let’s take education, an essential building block for a successful, productive life. The most recent Florida Department of Education statistics show just 29% of black students in the county read at grade level compared to more than 70% of white students. No wonder so many black students are doing poorly in a challenging health professionals program and that just five black students were tested “gifted” under a new universal screening program that targets all second graders.

Now let’s go to charts that Anne Koterba, a local community activist, gleaned from DOE stats. Disturbingly but not surprising, this social justice warrior found that district-wide black students in Alachua County continue to fare poorly compared to black students elsewhere in Florida. Statewide the reading scores of 38% of black students were satisfactory compared to 29% in Alachua. In math, 40% of black students statewide had a satisfactory rating compared to only 28% locally.

Lately it seems the only people being held accountable are principals who must make the best of having neophyte teachers and substitutes on their staffs, short-lived additional education resources and students who show up with severe emotional and family problems. Just ask former principals Karla Hutchinson of Lake Forest Elementary and Wanza Wakeley of Idylwild Elementary — both of whom were removed since September.

Under state rules, principals at schools receiving two consecutive “D” grades must be transferred. Given the predicaments they too often find themselves, state lawmakers and DOE policymakers should revisit this requirement to ensure fairness.

A long-awaited update of the school district’s equity plan was presented to the School Board Tuesday. While there was evidence of change such as getting more black students into rigorous academic programs and professional development, it’s unreasonable to expect black student performance to improve appreciably with so many black students lacking reading fundamentals.

Fortunately, the board later took action that could lead to broad community engagement in efforts to improve reading scores of Alachua County’s black students. After tossing aside a measure that would have stymied a community-wide approach to addressing the reading problem, board members wisely voted unanimously to join the city of Gainesville, the local United Way and community groups such as Gainesville for All in pushing to reach a five-year goal of literacy for all children by third grade.

Is this another one of those wishful thinking projects that sound great but never get off the ground? Not if all segments of the community such as parents, churches, businesses, neighborhood associations, fraternities and sororities get involved.

Enough talk. Let’s all get to work.

James F. Lawrence is director of Gainesville for All.

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