TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
A story in the Tampa Bay Times this week features some staggering figures about Florida schools. In one county, more than 4 out of every 5 black elementary students are failing state exams. Schools there have been become increasingly racially segregated, and test scores are in a downward spiral. Michael LaForgia and Cara Fitzpatrick are two of the reporters behind the investigative report titled "Failure Factories."
MICHAEL LAFORGIA: We spent a year examining what was going on with five elementary schools in our predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Pinellas County. What we found was that 95 percent of black children who were tested at these schools failed reading or math. Teacher turnover in the schools is a chronic problem. Last year, more than half of the teaching staff at these five schools requested transfers out. We found that all of this is a recent phenomenon. By December of 2007, when our school board voted on a plan that effectively re-segregated the district, none of the schools in question was ranked lower than a C. Today, all of them are Fs in the state ranking system.
VIGELAND: Wow. Well, Cara, how would you describe the county where these five schools are located - Pinellas County - because I think that is one of the surprises here.
CARA FITZPATRICK: Well, Pinellas County is one of the most affluent counties in Florida, so that's part of the surprise, I think, here. And one of the things that's interesting about this, too, is that these five elementary schools are all in a relatively small area of South St. Petersburg.
VIGELAND: Michael, as you noted, these schools were doing a lot better about a decade ago, and they had a very different demographic at the time because of integration and busing. So what changed?
LAFORGIA: So a decade ago, there still was in effect federal oversight that was mandated by a civil rights lawsuit that dated to the 1960s. The district got out from under that lawsuit in 2007. Rather than stick with the integration efforts that had been working up till that time, the school board opted to go to a neighborhood schools model which effectively re-segregated the school district.
VIGELAND: What did it mean in terms of the student population?
LAFORGIA: Well, it meant that schools that previously had been 60, 50, 40 percent black were now suddenly 80 and 90 percent black. And they were drawing from a high-poverty area. The children who previously had been spread among other more-affluent schools who had had access to 15 or 20 schools' worth of guidance counselors or behavior specialists suddenly only had access to five schools' worth.
FITZPATRICK: One of the things that's important here is not just that there's poverty in those neighborhoods, but that it concentrated a lot of poverty, a lot of high-needs kids into schools. And then there are different ways to address that issue, but the district didn't really do any of them.
VIGELAND: Let's talk about why the school board made these changes back in 2007. What was the logic, the reasoning behind that, Michael?
LAFORGIA: In Pinellas County, busing and special programs associated with integration were never popular. By the time 2007 rolled around, people were complaining about the cost of busing, the inconvenience of having their kids having to stand outside at bus stops before the sun came up, and it gave the school district and opening to make a change.
VIGELAND: So how do they, then, explain these five schools and what's going on there?
LAFORGIA: Well, there was never a question at the time about what was going to happen. They knew that these schools were going to become re-segregated. Their take on it was that they were going to steer money and resources for what they knew was going to become a higher-need population in these schools. Sadly, that never materialized.
VIGELAND: It certainly seems like the problems in Pinellas are a bit of an open secret there in Florida. But this report will certainly put a national spotlight on the issue. As reporters who have been following this for a long time, what would you say needs to change, Cara?
FITZPATRICK: I mean, I think there needs to be more conversation, particularly in the school district. One of the things that's been striking for me as a reporter covering it was just that when those devastating test scores came out in 2014, I was at the next school board meeting, and there was nothing said about it. I mean, it was just not mentioned by a single school board member or school official. And I think this might cause some of those conversations to happen more openly.
VIGELAND: Michael LaForgia and Cara Fitzpatrick are reporters with the Tampa Bay Times. You can find their year-long investigation "Failure Factories" at tampabay.com. Thank you both so much.
FITZPATRICK: Thank you.
LAFORGIA: Thank you.
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