When I was a young girl, I recall Sunday mornings being my favorite time of the week. Looking back now it seems odd that a child would relish in the idea of waking up on a weekend morning, however I was a bit different. I didn't even require an alarm clock or my mother's assistance to hop out of bed before the sun had even fully risen, excited and anxious to once again head to Sunday service. Even then, there was a magnetism that church held for me; it was the music, the powerful hymns, the ceremony, the scripture and most importantly the community. Church was and has always been, in my eyes, the place where the community comes together to celebrate, to reflect, to pray and to fellowship. It was with this in mind, as well as my fond childhood memories, that I awoke on the morning of February 1st excited to attend the Sixth Annual Urban Education Symposium: Reclaiming Young Black Males for Jacksonville's Future. Not only was this my first Urban Education Symposium, it was also focused on increasing the academic success of young Black males through partnerships with the faith-based community. I knew that I would walk away with important information and best practices for these types of initiatives around the country, but more than that, I was hoping to experience a little of the "church" I recall so fondly from my childhood. And I was not disappointed.
The symposium provided an outlet for meaningful discussions and exchanges of information centered upon solutions to the educational crisis that we know affect African American males across the country. Community members, parents, clergy and concerned citizens had an opportunity to talk about the achievement gap, which exists between African American males and their peers. Discussed was the fact that despite significant strides over the past five years on such measures as graduation rate and academic performance, African Americans males are still trailing behind African American females and their peers of other races. For example in 2013, the graduation rate for African American males statewide was only 58.9%.
Florida Statewide Graduation Rates (2008-2013)
But amidst this potentially somber information was always the promise of hope and through prayer and song, participants bonded over their steadfast dedication to closing the achievement gap and breaking down barriers that hold back so many young, Black men and boys. To promote a broad-scale, solutions-based approach to closing the achievement gap and combating many of the other underlying issues, the Urban Education Symposium brought together leaders from the faith-based community to share about their current work to help reclaim young Black males. The keynote speaker, Pastor Brian Gullins from the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative, and panelists from the local faith-based community, discussed the importance of mentorship, focusing on fathers, and making meaningful connections with local schools. Dr. Nikolai Vitti, also a panelist at the symposium, answered many of the audience's questions about the current state of education for young Black males and provided updates on how the district is partnering with the faith-based community through initiatives like Parent Academy, for which 13 courses have been hosted at local churches and faith-based organizations. As a participant, I left with an overwhelming feeling of reinforced dedication and clear ideas as to how this challenge can be overcome through strong partnerships, clear and common goals, and yes, a whole lot of faith.
As I walked out of the glass double doors of the Jacksonville Public library, I couldn't help but hum the hymn that my great-grandmother used to sing as she braided my hair in preparation for Sunday church service, "This Little Light of Mine." I left with a sense that this symposium had empowered a community to let its light shine for the youth of their city; never giving up, ever pushing forward, and always keeping the faith.
To learn more about the presenters from the 6th Annual Urban Education Symposium: Reclaiming Young Black Males for Jacksonville's Future and the current state of education for young Black males, click here to read the full program.
Imani Hope and Kelly Turner