New strides in education

Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:08 p.m.

As a sixth generation Floridian and the son of an educator, with parents from Two Egg, Leesburg and Jasper, I was raised with an awareness of the history of Florida's education system.

My mother taught me that Florida's interaction with the minority community was both laudable and lamentable. Our state's actions resulted in opportunity for some, but significant roadblocks and inadequate resources for many others.

Central to that narrative were such indomitable people as Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a prolific writer and Everglades advocate; Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and civil rights leader, and George W. Jenkins Jr., founder of Publix Super Markets Inc.

My mother never permitted me to wallow in excuses — but neither did she minimize inequities. She simply emphasized that the path to prosperity is paved by education, and that the state can help clear that path or make it harder.

Florida's documented history of educational inequality always intrigued me, since my parents did not have the option to attend integrated high schools when they both started in 1960.

As time progressed, visionary community and political leaders stepped forward to correct this deficit. Florida Govs. LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Jeb Bush all took important steps to correct segregation and the educational inequalities that promoted low expectations for selected children.

I commend current Florida Gov. Rick Scott for continuing that legacy this legislative session. As part of the state's budget, Scott recently approved $619,000 to fund a mentoring and training program called the Situational Environmental Circumstances, or SEC, for at-risk males in elementary schools. The program will target selected counties, with the goal of increasing the academic achievement of these students.

The University of Florida College of Education will oversee this initiative in collaboration with Edward Waters College in Duval County, Bethune-Cookman University in Volusia County, Florida A&M University in Leon County and Florida Memorial University in Miami-Dade County.

In approving the program, Gov. Scott's conservative approach to addressing minority concerns is notable. It shows a keen understanding of what minority communities need and want most. Despite the often repeated refrain, minorities do not want handouts. They simply want an opportunity for their children; the same set of expectations we have for other children.

The governor and the Florida Legislature's Black Caucus should be applauded for this effort because it promises to attack high-risk delinquency rates within youth populations in underserved communities. It also seeks to address the history of educational inequality that I grew up hearing about — and unfortunately still see.

Establishing this collaborative effort between UF and Florida's historically black colleges and universities to mentor and research elementary-age minority males is historic and offers new hope.

As someone whose parents were not afforded access to similar educational programs when our state was drastically different, I know this project would make them proud by making clear the monumental effort to improve life choices and chances of success for ALL Floridians.

Jamal A. Sowell is special assistant to University of Florida President Bernie Machen and a liaison to the UF Board of Trustees. In that role, he acts as director of special projects and a strategic adviser to the president and the board. He also is a member of the Showers of Blessings Harvest Center in southeast Gainesville.

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