This post was written by the Honorable Alvin Brown, Mayor, Jacksonville, Florida. It originally appeared on the GradNation blog.
As mayor of Jacksonville, I recognize the importance of education to the success and vitality of a city.
By equipping students with the skills they need to achieve their fullest potential, we ensure our city has a talented and competitive workforce ready to meet the challenges of the global economy. Support for education must be the responsibility of the entire community – we all have an interest in providing empowerment and opportunity to our young people.
That’s why it was so important to me to bring a GradNation Community Summit to Jacksonville. I am proud of the way our community has rallied around our children and young people, increasing the graduation rate from 56 percent to 72 percent over the past five years. But we must continue our efforts to close the achievement gap, ensuring that every child has the opportunity to succeed in school and in life.
From the first day I took office in 2011, education has been a top priority in my administration. During my first week in office, I created by executive order the cabinet-level position of education commissioner to carry out my vision for education initiatives that support lifelong learning in our city. The commissioner, Dr. Annmarie Kent-Willette, partners with schools and community organizations to improve the quality and accessibility of educational programs for Jacksonville residents.
Our recent GradNation Community Summit focused on four key issues that require our attention: early childhood education, mentoring and support for at-risk middle school students, literacy and grade-level reading, and African-American male achievement.
I was delighted that Alma Powell was able to join us in person for the summit, and we were honored to host her and the America’s Promise Alliance team in our city, along with the opportunity for our community to hear Mrs. Powell speak so powerfully about our achievements, challenges and goals here in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville’s GradNation advisory council reconvened on May 20 to discuss findings from the summit, and make recommendations about short-term and long-term education goals for our community. One of the goals highlighted by the council and meeting attendees was to meet the continued demand for mentors in our schools.
Our community has rallied around our young people, increasing the graduation rate from 56 percent to 72 percent over the past five years.
I have been so gratified to align our mentoring efforts with Achievers for Life, a dropout prevention initiative developed and funded by the United Way of Northeast Florida in partnership with Communities in Schools of Jacksonville and Jewish Family and Community Services. Serving the community since 2007, Achievers for Life has expanded from two to ten middle schools with plans for additional schools in the near future. By leveraging the influence of my office in support of our students, my Mayor’s Mentors program has successfully placed over 600 screened and trained mentors with youth considered at-risk for dropping out of school. I have been able to connect students at these schools with diverse opportunities including visits by NBA Legends players to talk about the importance of staying in school, to science enrichment opportunities offered by partnerships with DuPont, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the United States Military Academy at West Point.
At our city’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast earlier this year, I announced a citywide youth initiative to improve opportunities for Jacksonville’s next generation, recognizing that we must invest in their success and help them take their lives in the right direction. An important aspect of this initiative is helping young people who are first-time offenders stay out of further trouble by expanding Teen Court and Neighborhood Accountability Boards.
These programs follow a restorative justice model, allowing students to be accountable for their mistakes through sanctions such as public apologies, community service, and other rehabilitative measures. Successful completion of these requirements means they avoid a criminal record that could otherwise foreclose future educational and employment opportunities. By guarding young people who have made minor mistakes from the harsh realities of the criminal justice system, we give them the opportunity to stay focused on their education and enter adulthood with a clean slate.
The overwhelming percentage of students not only fulfill the requirements, but also take to heart the lessons they learned through the experience. Consider that 92 percent of juveniles who appear before Teen Court and Neighborhood Accountability Board in Duval County successfully complete the program. Of those students, 91 percent are not rearrested within the next year. Statewide, these programs boast a 4 percent recidivism rate, the lowest of any Florida juvenile justice program.
Additionally, through the expansion of this initiative, young people are receiving increased quality of care as Teen Court monitors work with them identifying needs for mental health services for trauma, neglect, or sexual abuse, as well as substance abuse counseling.
Recognizing the wealth of resources within our own community, we have partnered with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the Florida Department of Children and Families, and other youth services groups in Jacksonville to increase funding for a system of care that will help young people with mental health and/or substance abuse problems access services. By reversing a damaging trend of low funding for these vital services, we are able to improve the lives of young people who face the highest risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Together we can give hope for a healthier, more productive future and the opportunity to succeed. That hope has the power to transform our young people, and we must honor our shared responsibility to stand by them during that transformation, nurturing the self-respect, self-confidence and self-discipline they need to succeed in school and in life.
Alvin Brown is the Mayor of Jacksonville, Florida. He was elected in 2011 and education is one of his top priorities, along with job creation, downtown revitalization, and public safety.