Jacksonville community comes together to strengthen city education


Christina Kelso

Students from “Kingdom Kids” sing “50 Nifty United States,” at the downtown branch of the Jacksonville Public Library April 4, kicking off the 2014 “GradNation” Jacksonville Community Summit.

The pitter-patter of little steps flooded the auditorium as the young students from “Kingdom Kids” approached the stage, singing at the top of their little lungs the song “Good Morning,” by American gospel and contemporary Christian recording artist Mandisa.

Once they reached the stage, those in attendance were treated to a rendition of “50 Nifty United States,” thus kicking off the 2014 “GradNation” Jacksonville Community Summit on April 4.

The 2014 summit served as a way to galvanize community action to ensure that students throughout the city of Jacksonville graduate from high school ready for success in either the workforce or college.

The summit was co-sponsored by America’s Promise Alliance and featured one of APA’s chairs Alma Powell as a guest speaker, wife of retired Gen. Colin Powell, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.

“I believe Jacksonville’s success depends on how we invest in the next generation,” said Alvin Brown, Jacksonville mayor, in his opening remarks.

Often given the distinction as “Jacksonville’s Education Mayor,” the subject of education is anchored to Brown’s heart.

Brown has set up numerous programs and initiatives during his time as mayor such as “Learn2Earn,” a summer program designed to immerse low-to-moderate income high school students with caregivers that have not attended college a glimpse into the college life, “Mayor’s Mentors,” designed to partner mentors with students in Duval County Public Schools, and a yearly education summit which, this year, took the form of the APA’s Grad Nation Summits.

Each of these programs and initiatives are a part of the mayor’s goal of giving Jacksonville a 100 percent graduation rate because to Brown education is, “the great equalizer.” Currently Jacksonville graduates 72 percent of its high school students, a stark increase from its rate of 56 percent five years before.

America’s Promise Alliance shares a goal similar to Brown’s, as it pushes for a national high school graduation rate of 90 percent by the year 2020, according to its website. The nation’s graduation rate is currently at 80 percent.

The alliance was established in 1997 after The Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future which brought together leaders from across the country including former Presidents Bush, Carter and Ford, then President Clinton, and Nancy Reagan, representing former President Ronald Reagan, according to its website.

The summit challenged America to put its youth and their needs as a top priority. Since 1997 America’s Promise Alliance has become the largest multi-sector alliance focused on young people, according to its website.

The alliance is built on a foundation of five “promises.” Caring Adults, caretakers or advisers who give positive and productive guidance during a child’s development, Safe Places, giving young people safe homes and schools, A Healthy Start, giving young people healthy habits like proper diet and exercise, Effective Education, promoting high education standards, and Opportunities to help others, giving students a chance to help others in order to build community and learn self-respect.

“Children are a product of their community, and the Five Promises play a major role in developing that community,” Powell said.

Jacksonville’s APA sponsored summit is a part of a series of 100 to be held throughout the country through 2016, according to the APA’s website. The “GradNation” campaign was started in 2010 by the APA to raise awareness of dropout rates in cities across America, as well as promote their goal of raising the nation’s graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, according to their website.

The Jacksonville event, held at the Downtown Public Library, commenced after the opening remarks from Brown, Alma Powell, and Jacksonville Education Commissioner Annmarie Kent-Willette, Ph.D. The remarks were followed by consecutive panels, the first, lead by Frank Denton, Ph.D. and editor of the Florida Times-Union, featured Brown, Betty Burney, founder of the “I’m a Star Foundation,” Darnell Smith, market president of Florida Blue’s North Florida region, and Nikolai Vitti, Ph.D, Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools.

The second panel featured students that attended local Jacksonville schools. The afternoon featured workshops discussing the topics of early education, literacy and grade level reading, why middle school matters, and black male achievement, as well as a keynote address from Robert Balfanz, Ph.D. and co-director of the “Everyone Graduates Center.”

The summit seemed to be encapsulated by Alma Powell’s opening remarks.

“Our children’s future is in our hands. When that future comes, how will we be remembered?”