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New Standards Improve Jacksonville Afterschool Programs

Rhema Thompson

Jacksonville officials say they’ve been successful in creating higher quality standards for the city’s afterschool programs, but there’s much more work to be done.

“We want to measure and make sure that the quality of the afterschool programs are strong,” said Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown. “So how many kids are attending the program. Are they graduating from high school? Are they dropping out?..We want to make sure kids are learning.”

The New York-based Wallace Foundation gave Jacksonville a $765,000 grant in 2012 to improve the programs and their outcomes. The D.C.-based National League of Cities Institute for Youth partnered with the agency to provide the city leadership support.

Friday morning, Brown and the Jacksonville Children’s Commission hosted members of the Wallace Foundation, the National League of Cities and about 300 local stakeholders to examine where the city stands halfway into that initiative.

Jon Heymann, CEO of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission, said the city has come a long way since he helped develop its first four afterschool programs in 1999.

“I remember those days, because it was a wild ride,” he said. “Schools were not used to people coming in. They were not used to three hours every single day of the week, somebody else occupying their school building.”

Now, there are more than 60 city-sponsored afterschool programs serving more than 1,200 kids, and a wait-list of students, parents and principals wanting to get involved.  

Over the last two years, the city has adopted a uniform set of statewide standards from the Florida Afterschool Network to implement in its afterschool programs and plans to assess them through afterschool assessment system pilot.

“We’ve seen some schools go from F to A and they credit, in part, the afterschool programs,” Heymann said.

Friday’s forum comes on the heels of discouraging reports about where student achievement currently stands in Florida.
The state’s high school graduation rates at 75 percent rank among the lowest in the nation, according to a report released last month at the GradNation Summit in Washington.

The national average is currently 80 percent, and Duval County Schools’ graduation numbers lag further behind at 72 percent.

And this week, the National Assessment of Educational Progress—widely referred to as the nation’s report card—released exam results showing that only 19 percent of Florida 12th graders were proficient in math compared to 26 percent nationwide.  Likewise, 36 percent of Florida students were proficient in reading compared to 38 percent nationally.  

Research over the last decade suggests that afterschool programs can impact a student's academic, emotional and physical well-being.

“We know that students that participate in quality afterschool programming at about half the rate of their more affluent peers,” said Priscilla Little, Initiative Manager at the Wallace Foundation. “When you network programs together you can really help improve access and therefore, close the opportunity gap.”

Brown said he is hoping work to close the gap will translate into higher graduation rates in the city. Earlier this year, the city announced it was partnering with America’s Promise Alliance  to achieve a 90 percent graduation in the city rate by 2020.

“Working with afterschool programs, focusing on education and high school dropouts, all of this, there’s a strong correlation and that’s why this is so important to really focus on and drill down and be more strategic,” Brown said.
Members of the city’s Children’s Commission said they hope to expand their afterschool programs to five more schools by next year.

Commission head Jon Heymann said the long-term goal is to expand the programs to every school in the district. That would essentially mean doubling the number of programs offered now and an additional $12 to 15 million in funding.

“If somebody came up and wrote a check on a hood of a car, I would say ‘thank you very much for that,’and it would take one minute,” Heymann said. “To convince a community that this is an absolute essential in the life of a child…this is the beginning of it.”      

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.