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DCPS students speak to school board candidates about their priorities for public education

Guest blogger Brianna Paul is a summer fellow at JPEF where, through a partnership with the Southern Education Foundation Initiative, she is working on important research, advocacy and educational issues. Paul recently graduated from Bethune-Cookman University majoring in Liberal Studies with a minor in Exceptional Student Education and Psychology. Paul’s long-term goals include serving as a classroom teacher, becoming an Educational Policy Analyst and creating a non-profit organization that provides girls from underserved communities with opportunities for educational and professional growth, resources and advancement.  

Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF) hosted its first Duval County School Board Candidate Academy (Academy) with the objective of strengthening candidates’ knowledge and understanding of current education issues through data-driven discussion and exposure to voices of the community. In recognition that a multitude of people are affected by and invested in the decisions of the Duval school board, a significant portion of the event was dedicated to candidates listening to various members of the community.

The Academy included three panel discussions, consisting of parents, teachers and students from Duval County Public Schools (DCPS). Far too often students say their voices are not being heard or are ignored, and so offering them this safe space served as a platform for them to elevate their priorities to school board candidates who, if elected, will have decision-making power.

Leading and facilitating the Student Voice panel was another student, Deyonna Burton, a rising sophomore from Robert E. Lee High School. After Burton completes her early college program, she hopes to attend Duke University, Florida State University or Tennessee State University. She has been inspired by the recent student advocacy in Tallahassee and how young people are making changes first-hand.

What matters to DCPS students 

Led by Burton, the JPEF Student Voice team was intentional about drafting the panel questions in a way that would elicit sincere responses from students while allowing for discussion of relevant issues that fall under the school board’s authority. The panel discussion covered a range of topics including dress code policy, school safety, qualities of the students’ favorite teachers and how students feel their school is perceived.

Dress code: a commonality echoed by many of the students was the idea that DCPS dress code policies tend to be harsher on female students than male students. One student stated that he “feels the dress code is more for girls,” but that they should not be told what to wear or how they choose to carry themselves. Other students appreciated how the dress code, especially when it requires students to wear a uniform, made them feel proud of being students at their particular school.

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Favorite teachers: when it came time to discuss the qualities that their favorite teachers possessed, the students spoke about how those teachers would go above and beyond the curriculum and outside of the standard expectations of teachers. Those favorite teachers made the students feel cared for, not just as students, but as individuals who mattered. A student spoke of how her favorite teacher instilled in her the importance of being ethical and doing what is morally right, even when it is difficult. As a whole, the panel expressed gratitude for the teachers who did not give up on them even if they had already given up on themselves.

Students painted a picture of high-quality instruction that goes beyond school grades and test scores. Good teachers are more than instructional experts: they are caretakers who are truly shaping young lives. 

School perception: “[t]hey think because our school is in [a particular] area, that we are going to perform at the level, but our teachers tell us not to listen to that, to fight hard, to make good grades, and uplift my people so we can succeed and be great," said one student. Another student commented on how their school’s diversity is often overlooked. “[my school] is seen as a ‘white school’ given the location; it’s crazy how diverse we really are, but the diversity doesn’t get recognized - why is that the case? Why are Raines and First Coast seen as ‘black schools,’ but [even] when there’s plenty of minorities, mine is seen as a ‘predominantly white school?'” Some students lamented the role they believe the media has played in affecting the public’s perception about DCPS: “[t]hey bring up our fights, they never talk about our graduation rates.”

School safety: amidst the cadre of discussions that the panel had, school safety especially stood out. Recently, the state mandated that school districts “immediately implement active shooter training so that each teacher, student, school faculty member and school safety officer knows what to do during a crisis.” The mandate also created the role of armed school safety officers that will be present in every school. There was an overwhelming plea from students for an increased sense of safety at school. One student expressed that their school was not doing enough to make them feel safe, referencing several incidents that happened in the past year at their school and felt that the school’s security could do more for the students’ personal safety. Another student communicated that security needs to be more strict; students were able to get away with poor conduct with certain security guards. In reaction to recent events that have occurred across the nation, the students felt it was necessary that school staff should take more preventive measures especially to support other students who may be suffering at home. One student expressed, “[i]t’s not the adults, it’s the students - you never know what someone’s going through at home.”  

August School Board Elections Public Forums

JPEF believes it is critical that school boards and school board candidates listen to students and proceed with the intention to find ways to realize their hopes for the educational future of the district. This event was not empowering students, because they already have power. Rather, it provided them with the platform to elevate their voice. By having these critical discussions, we can continue to normalize and nurture community leadership and involvement.

Members of the public are invited to join us for the School Board Elections Public Forums that will be held in August at the Jessie Ball duPont Center at 40 E Adams Street. Click below to register or follow us on Facebook and participate in the forums LIVE from the comfort of your own home.

District 4 Public Forum - Aug. 7

District 2 Public Forum - Aug. 8

District 6 Public Forum - Aug. 9