The fate of a Duval County high-school boys’ leadership course named “the EVAC Movement” is up in the air. The Lee High School class has received national recognition and praise from both the mayor and state attorney.
Now, a Facebook event is inviting the community to voice support for it at Tuesday’s School Board meeting after Lee High teacher Amy Donofrio last week announced in a Facebook post the class is “over.”
A couple of years ago, Donofrio found male students who she saw as at-risk and stuck them in a class with the goal of helping them share their stories and help change juvenile justice policy. The name EVAC Movement (“cave” spelled backward) represents stepping out of ignorance and darkness into light.
Since 2015, the predominantly African-American students have traveled to Washington D.C. for a White House roundtable, met President Barack Obama, participated in more than 20 panels and formed relationships with city leaders including Mayor Lenny Curry, who earlier this year asked them to help duplicate the program in other schools.
“They are the model of how we can fundamentally change our city with young people,” he said at the time.
Donofrio declined comment for this story, but in her Facebook post she called her role with the class “the greatest honor” of her life and thanked the school’s principal Scott Schneider for allowing the students “amazing opportunities.”
She wrote that several students have doubled their GPAs, the class hosted a job fair at the school and the boys toured Howard University.
Class mentor Pastor Jay Harris of The Ville Church said Donofrio was assigned an additional class this upcoming year. That means she would have either had to use her planning period for EVAC, incorporate the leadership curriculum into her English and speech classes or make it an after-school club.
Harris said it’s naive to assume the class — a small, tight-knit group of young men — could be successful in those forms.
“I think the action right now needs to be, ‘How do we actually support this to turn it up?’ instead of ‘How do we kind of fit it in to what we’re doing?’” he said.
He said the EVAC class was a place where teens with powerful stories felt heard and leveraged that into action, and that doesn’t happen if it’s a side project in an English class.
“There’s not a room to stop and understand that they’re starving, or a parent has been killed by their boyfriend, or (a student) sleeps in a house with 12 people in one bedroom,” Harris said. “These are just some of the stories we hear.”
Harris said he doesn’t want to demonize school administration.
“I think it’s a lot of people trying to figure out a really hard situation,” he said.
The school’s principal disputes the class is going away, however. Principal Scott Schneider said in an email the school doesn’t plan to discontinue the class, and hopefully Donofrio will remain at the helm.
“For the new school year, we have discussed options with the teacher to continue integrating the program into instruction during class periods, and introduce it to all of her students. Additional after-school club options were also discussed and presented,” he said.
He said if Donofrio declines, Lee High will continue to move forward with EVAC and he plans to expand it to young women. If it ends up becoming an after-school club, he said, activity buses could take the students home.
Plans for a co-ed leadership class are already in the works for next year, he said, as long as there’s enough student interest to fill the seats.
Curry’s spokeswoman Marsha Oliver said in an email statement the mayor asked her to facilitate a conference call last week with Donofrio, Schneider and the district's regional director, who oversees the school.
“While it was clear that there were personnel matters being worked out, I shared those assurances that the class will continue with the mayor,” Oliver said.