After Five Years, Has Jacksonville’s New Town Success Zone Made a Difference? James B. Crooks, University of North Florida professor emeritus, author of two books on Jacksonville history and past chair of the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, takes a look.
Related to the health of the New Town residents is the third goal of the success zone: early childhood. Parents and prospective parents need to learn positive measures of child rearing including nutrition, hygiene, physical and emotional development. Reading and talking to one’s kids on a daily basis is important too.
Early on with funding from the Community Foundation, Carol Brady of the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition and partners designed “Jacksonville Children’s University” to train moms and dads in prenatal and early childhood care. Over the years more than sixty parents have taken part. Children are also provided with pre-school opportunities preparing them for kindergarten.
These programs housed in the Schell Sweet Center on the Edward Waters campus joined with a range of services provided by the Family Support Services of North Florida. This private, nonprofit agency implements programs for the Florida Department of Children and Families. They emphasize preventive measures to assist parents and families while also providing remedial support. Their services included parent training, budgeting, resource referrals and GED preparation. There is also a senior fitness group, computer training, health screenings and services for veterans. Their monthly food distribution is particularly popular and necessary for families on tight budgets. For a while Shands provided an in house physician at city expense at Schell Sweet until budget cuts ended the effort. Efforts are underway to find a replacement. Seattle-based Casey Family Programs has designated Schell Sweet as one of its national “Community of Hope” centers for its exemplary work, a citation that may bring additional funds to the community.
The final major thrust of the New Town Success Zone is education particularly at the two public schools. At S. P. Livingston, children wear uniforms and the classroom is enhanced by extracurricular activities such as girl scouts, Boys & Girls Club, and the involvement of Celebration Church volunteers. Results have been positive as state ratings of Livingston have improved from an F to a C over the past five years.
Eugene Butler has been a greater challenge, partly because the children are older and more aware of their dysfunctional environment. They are more likely to challenge authority. Also subject matter in middle school is more challenging. In the earlier years Principal Johnson identified 40 percent of students as two to five years behind peers. She established a Renaissance Academy within the school to separate and enable the overage students to focus on catching up at their own pace. She engaged children in annual district wide science fairs, reached out to parents and police who established the after school intramural program at the Mitchell Center. When cold weather came, Johnson sought help in providing warm coats for kids who otherwise did not come to school. Seemingly simple things like providing underwear, socks and shoes for kids at both schools fall under the principals’ domain.
The merger of Paxson Middle School with Butler in 2011 brought fresh challenges as teenagers from different, sometime competitive neighborhoods, began classes together. Butler students have struggled with state ratings and the school currently has a D. In an effort to help, United Way has introduced its highly successful Achievers for Life program for sixth graders who are behind in subject matter or have absentee or disciplinary problems.
Both schools have partnered with Edward Waters College, which long had been in the community but not engaged with the community. Now EWC athletes volunteer to mentor or read to youngsters. Butler and Livingston children attend college sporting and cultural events. They hold special activities on the college campus. President Glover wants to encourage the younger children to learn to think of college as the next step following high school. He calls it raising expectations and creating a “culture of hope.”
Edward Waters’ community commitment also is seen in donating the land for Success Park, housing the new Center for the Prevention of Health Disparities, and hosting the proposed police sub-station.
Also important for the New Town children is BOLD (Building Our Limitless Dreams), the Boys and Girls Club’s partnership with the children at both public schools under the direction of Cedric Hicks. Recruiting some 250 kids from Livingston and Butler (with more on the waiting list), BOLD provides a range of after school programs which have contributed to improved promotion rates at both schools.
The Best of BOLD parent group has been active providing additional support. It recently celebrated its third anniversary honoring the role fathers play in school and community. It sponsor, Jewel Flornoy, from the nonprofit War on Poverty program, also has a parenting group called Stork’s News for 28 women and men which encourages members to work together on common issues. One participant recently graduated from the Clare White Mission janitorial program, and another from the Beaver Street Enterprise hospitality program. For Flornoy, seeing hearts and minds opening to these new opportunities brings satisfaction.
Missing from New Town’s cradle to college scenario is a high school component. Butler Middle School graduates may go to Raines High School, but they may also choose to attend Ribault, Jackson, Lee, or another magnet school. In effect, these high school students move out of the community and beyond New Town’s support or control. PeDro Cohen is concerned about this situation but has yet to find a solution. The move of Northside Community Initiative, an after school program for teens, to the old James Weldon Johnson school site just north of Edward Waters, may provide a partial answer. So too might a data system for all New Town residents including teens which would enable the program to maintain contact with the teenagers. Cohen is looking for state funding resulting from the recently concluded legislative session.
Another concern is employment and training for a neighborhood where many people have no jobs. LISC Jacksonville (Local Initiative Support Corporation of Jacksonville) has begun a GED program for adults at Eugene Butler which will feed into technical training programs at FSCJ, all tuition-free. More significant would be a substantial improvement in the local and national economies to provide jobs as happened in the 1990s.
For five years a lot of people partnering in multiple organizations have worked hard in New Town openings doors and encouraging residents, both children and adults. Residents gather monthly in the Better Living Community Association meetings to discuss issues. Safety remains a major concern. So are jobs. Newer residents want grocery stores with a full range of healthy foods. They also would like a pharmacy and need a clinic as an alternative to Shands. One mom voiced a desire for an ice cream store to treat her children, a facility suburban moms often take for granted.
Bertha Richardson, the retiring president of the Better Living Community Association, praises the new energy level in New Town reflecting hope and belief in the possibility of more change.
New Town Success Zone Executive Director Irwin PeDro Cohen
Much has happened in five years, and there is the promise of more with a new school superintendent, a center focusing on health disparities, and additional HabiJax homes. The success of multiple agencies partnering with limited funds remains extraordinary. Sustainability is crucial because five years of effort can not turn around a neighborhood like New Town. The kindergarteners of a half decade ago have not yet reached middle school and have a long way to go. The public-private partnerships need to continue thinking long term.
For co-chairs Glover and Paul, executive director Cohen, the partnership agencies, and the community residents, the goal is continued positive change for New Town, especially for the children.
Article by James B. Crooks
Crooks is University of North Florida professor emeritus, author of two books on Jacksonville history and past chair of the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission.