Turning Around a Neighborhood

May 22, 2013
5 mins read

Five years ago this spring, a Jacksonville Children’s Commission task force, co-chaired by former sheriff Nat Glover and community volunteer extraordinaire Pam Paul, identified New Town, an impoverished neighborhood adjacent to Edward Waters College, to attempt its comprehensive turn around. The goal was to provide a safe, healthy, educationally attractive community for almost 5,000 residents, focusing on 1,500 children with care from the prenatal stage to college. The effort was inspired by a visit to New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone by then-mayor John Peyton and others in 2008.

The founders focused on four priorities: neighborhood safety and stability, health care, early childhood and public education. To achieve these, the city hired Irwin PeDro Cohen, a Jacksonville native and University of North Florida graduate with business experience, to manage the effort. Administrative responsibility was shifted to Edward Waters College to provide more flexibility and continuity.

Neighborhood safety and stability was a priority for residents young and old. Sheriff John Rutherford assigned a team of officers to reach out to the community in new ways. Instead of telling residents what to do to protect themselves, the police asked about their needs. Officers listened to folks talk of boarded-up buildings, pitted streets, broken sidewalks, missing street lamps and overgrown shrubbery, which made the area unsafe and unattractive. The officers called the city’s public works department, JEA and other agencies to begin the cleanup. They recruited men and women from the prison farm to remove debris from streets, sidewalks and other public properties. They turned a closed community center next to Eugene Butler School into the Mitchell Center for teen basketball and other activities. Officers took kids to sporting events and provided clothes, backpacks and food in partnership with other community volunteers. In the process, the kids began to see the police as no longer the enemy.

Regular patrols substantially cut the crime rate, particularly drug deals. In the first year of the new community policing, the number of crimes dropped 25 percent. Last year, it dropped another 16 percent. Drugs, gangs and crime still exist, but when there was a drive-by shooting in November 2012, neighbors helped police identify and arrest the perpetrators. The construction of a police substation on Edward Waters’ campus will strengthen law enforcement in the community.

Neighborhood stability also includes housing. HabitatJax has increased its commitment to New Town, now focusing all of its resources on building and repairing homes there for the next four years. HabiJax coordinator Angela Leatherbury estimates 140 houses have been built since the late 1990s, with 25 scheduled in 2013. The longer term envisions 100 more houses built. The resulting greater home ownership in New Town strengthens the community.

Missing in New Town in 2008 was a public park. A group of residents developed a photographic essay of their community and concluded New Town needed a park. They persuaded Edward Waters to donate the land and the city to build a park, opening in 2012. The two-acre Success Park includes walking paths for older citizens and playground equipment for kids.

Across from the park, Second Harvest Food Bank is partnering with the community to create Success Gardens, which this spring will provide fresh fruits and vegetables.

Developing a healthy community is the second priority of New Town Success Zone. Under the leadership of Michael Lanier of Baptist Health Care Systems, the community has developed several components. First, with a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, Baptist partnered with the Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida to survey New Town. 
They employed and trained 25 residents to conduct door-to-door interviews. The results showed that more than half the children in New Town had asthma, more than twice the rate of children across the city. Without treatment, kids miss school and parents miss work. This information led the Baptist Foundation to fund a registered nurse to treat children at S.P. Livingston and Eugene Butler schools.

In February 2012, Baptist and its partners at Shands Jacksonville Medical Center and Mayo Clinic opened a Center for the Prevention of Health Disparities at Edward Waters, to address major health disparities between poorer and middle class residents in Jacksonville.

Success Zone’s third goal focuses on early childhood. With funding from the Community Foundation, Carol Brady of 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 60 parents have taken part. Next, Jacksonville Urban League agreed to establish an early Head Start program for kids ages 1-3, which led into other preschool opportunities for New Town’s 4-year-olds.

These programs, housed in Schell Sweet Center at Edward Waters, joined with a range of services provided by Family Support Services of North Florida. This private, nonprofit agency implements programs for the Florida Department of Children & Families emphasizing preventive measures to assist parents and families while providing remedial support. Their monthly food distribution is particularly popular and necessary for families on tight budgets.

The final major thrust of the New Town Success Zone is education, particularly at two public schools. At S.P. Livingston Elementary, students wear uniforms, and the classroom is enhanced by extracurricular activities like Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Club and the initiatives of Celebration Church volunteers. Under the committed leadership of principals and teachers, results have been positive, and Livingston’s state ratings have improved from an F to a C over the past five years.

Eugene Butler Middle School has been a greater challenge. In the earlier years, Principal Sylvia Johnson identified 40 percent of students as being two to five years behind peers. She established Renaissance Academy to enable students to focus on catching up at their own pace. She engaged kids in annual district-wide science fairs and reached out to parents. When cold weather came, Johnson sought help (as did the principals at Livingston) to provide warm coats for kids who wouldn’t have come to school otherwise.

Butler students have struggled with state ratings, and the school currently has a D. To help, United Way 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 previously hadn’t engaged with the community. Now EWC athletes volunteer to mentor or read to youngsters. Butler and Livingston children attend college sports and cultural events. They hold special activities on the college campus. Glover, now EWC president, wants to encourage kids to think of college as the next step after high school. He calls it creating a “culture of hope.”

Edward Waters’ community commitment is seen in the land donation for Success Park, housing the new Center for the Prevention of Health Disparities, and hosting the proposed police substation.

Also important for New Town children is BOLD (Building Our Limitless Dreams), the Boys and Girls Club’s partnership with kids at both schools, directed by Cedric Hicks. Recruiting some 250 kids from Livingston and Butler (with more on a waiting list), BOLD offers a range of afterschool services which have contributed to improved promotion rates at both schools.

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 choose to attend magnet schools instead. In effect, these high school students move out of the community and beyond New Town’s support or control. Cohen is concerned about this but has yet to find a solution.

For five years, a lot of people have partnered in multiple organizations serving and encouraging New Town residents. The success of multiple agencies partnering with limited funds remains extraordinary. Residents gather monthly in the Better Living Community Association. Safety remains a major concern. Newer residents want grocery stores with a full range of healthy foods. They’d also like a pharmacy and need a clinic as an alternative to Shands’ emergency room.

Sustainability is crucial because five years of effort cannot 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, and, hopefully, positive change for New Town residents — especially the children — 
will continue. o

Crooks is a University of North Florida professor emeritus in history, former Jacksonville Human Rights Commission chair and author of two books on Jacksonville history.

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