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AMERICAN GRADUATE: Sandalwood High School Senior Andre Williams

Cyd Hoskinson

89.9 WJCT is participating in the American Graduate project supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  The goal of American Graduate is to reverse the national drop out crisis by identifying and then addressing the factors that cause students to leave school early.

Grand Park Educational Center is Duval County’s school of last resort for 6th-12th graders who have made one too many bad decisions and broken one too many rules at their home schools.

There’s nothing fun about Grand Park: no sports, no clubs, no activities, nothing that will distract students from doing their school work, and changing the attitudes and the behaviors that got them into trouble.

But it would be unfair to characterize Grand Park’s students as a bunch of bad kids. 

Credit Cyd Hoskinson / WJCT
18-year old Andre Williams shampoos the floor mat of a truck at Car Spa on Atlantic Boulevard in Jacksonville, Florida.

18-year old Andre Williams works at the Car Spa on Atlantic Boulevard after school and on weekends. If he’s not there, he's either at home or going to classes at Grand Park for doing something he readily admits he regrets.

"I was in the school parking lot smoking in my truck.  At the time, I wasn't thinking of getting in trouble. As a matter of fact, the security guard caught me when I was going back to school."

As it turns out, the school security guard saw Andre getting out of his Chevy Suburban with another student who'd gotten into trouble in the past.

Andre says he tried to be very cooperative, answering the guard's questions and doing what she asked. His attitude, and the fact that he'd never gotten into trouble before, prevented him from to jail. Instead, he was given a choice: attend ZIP (Zeroing in on Prevention) classes, or spend 45-days at Grand Park.

ZIP is Duval County’s substance abuse counseling and education program that lets students stay at their regular school as long as they and their parents attend a series of 12 special night classes together.

Credit Cyd Hoskinson / WJCT
Andre and his dad, 46-year old Mario Williams, standing in front of what used to be Andre's Chevy Suburban.

Andre's dad, 46-year old Mario Williams, spends four days a week in South Florida for his job with Comcast, so the night classes were out of the question.

Instead, for the past 5 weeks, Andre’s been getting up at 5:30 so he can catch an early bus to get to Grand Park by the time school starts.

Mario Williams says his son had always been one of those lucky kids who could break the rules but never get punished. Grand Park, he says, was the reality check Andre needed.

"I hope he sees what he lost, you know.  He had a lot of things going for him at the time," says Williams. "[He] has to do a full day in school now. Had his own vehicle.  Lost that. You know, just, from on top of the world to bottom now, I guess."

Andre says winding up at Grand Park definitely taught him a lesson.

"It made me think about how much more trouble I could have really gotten into. Because I met other people who were at Grand Park for the same reason but, instead, they were arrested and spent some time in jail or a holding cell or whatnot, went through court, a lot of those things I didn't go through. So it was a wake-up call."

Andre hopes to be released from Grand Park in plenty of time to go back to Sandalwood High School and graduate with his friends.  He says he's going to keep an audio journal of this transition process and has promised to share his thoughts and his insights with us.