Throughout the world, the voices of women and girls have often been silenced as nations and societies have failed to offer them the educational opportunities they need to succeed. Their stories are fraught with disappointment, courage and danger.
Often, we know them by only their first names. For example, there is Malala, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head in 2012 after campaigning for a girl’s right to attend school. Cambodia’s Sokha was orphaned and forced to pick through garbage for food, but she has persevered in her fight to get an education. Nepal’s Suma, who was forced into labor at the age of 6, taught herself to read and write music and now advocates for other girls to attend school.
But Third World countries aren’t the only places where support for girls’ education is needed. Right here in Jacksonville, girls too often fail to reach their full potential. It hurts the at-risk girls, who may be excluded from higher-paying jobs because they didn’t finish high school, and it damages the community at large, as a family’s financial well-being is diminished when a woman lacks an education. Indeed, according to one 2004 report, a woman can expect a 10 to 20 percent rise in earning power with each year of school completed after elementary school.
Let me tell you a story of one Jacksonville girl who was saved by an inspiring organization aimed at furthering the education of girls right here on the First Coast. Her name is Alex and she, like the girls in other countries, was in danger of becoming a woman whose opportunities, financial future and even self-worth were limited by a lack of education. Luckily for Alex, she found help at a special Jacksonville nonprofit, PACE Center for Girls, which has helped her achieve her high school degree and a chance at a better future. This is her story.
Alex moved to Jacksonville at age 6, along with her single mother who struggled to create a supportive family for her only child. As a youngster, Alex was extremely precocious and had early dreams of becoming a marine biologist or foreign language interpreter for an American embassy. She loved all languages and taught herself Latin, reading by the glow of a digital watch under her covers after bedtime, even before she reached middle school.
But then Alex hit high school and she began drinking and experimenting with drugs. She still kept her grades up during her sophomore year, often enrolling in honors and advanced classes. Her drinking, however, soon extended to her in-school time, and one day she and a group of friends left their private school campus to grab lunch at a local restaurant. Upon her return to school, she was expelled and failed her sophomore year.
She enrolled in public school the next year in an attempt to finish the 10th grade, but her drinking had escalated even more. She brought bottles of wine to school, drinking with friends in the bathroom. There were only a few school days that Alex didn’t skip at least one period. By this time, she knew she was an alcoholic and was having serious bouts of depression and anxiety. Alex admits that she simply gave up. Her grades fell, and she once again failed her sophomore year.
The once-star student and Latin reader was now two years behind her peers and in danger of dropping out of school altogether. Her mother succeeded in getting Alex enrolled in a special therapeutic school in South Florida, designed to help troubled teens, but Alex admits she never gave it a chance to work. After six months, she was sent back to Jacksonville. It was then, finally, that PACE got involved.
Seventeen-year-old Alex enrolled in PACE in October 2008, prepared to experience another failure. Yet what she found were caring teachers and counselors who were skilled in helping girls like her achieve their academic dreams. In fact, PACE specializes in taking at-risk girls, ages 12 to 17, who are at least one year behind academically in school and turning their lives around. Teachers reignited Alex’s love of learning and counselors quelled her fears and self-doubt. She took off like the star student she once was, graduating with her GED two months before the remainder of her same-age peers had graduated high school.
Today Alex, now 21, is a student at Florida State College at Jacksonville and will transfer to the University of North Florida next year. She is proud of all she’s accomplished thanks to PACE and hopes to graduate with a degree in education, which she wants to use to help other at-risk teens. Alex credits PACE with her transformation.
“It gave me the opportunity to have the future I envisioned for myself,” she said.
That’s Alex’s story. Sadly, there are hundreds of at-risk girls like the teenaged Alex all across the First Coast. According to 2012 statistics for Duval County gathered by Jacksonville Community Council Inc., the dropout rate for girls is 2.4 percent. That means that 464 teen girls in Duval County dropped out of high school last year.
But now you can help. HandsOn Jacksonville’s Blueprint Project for Leadership has launched a campaign to supply PACE with the classroom materials it needs to help students like Alex. Although PACE has an official public school designation from Duval County, it only receives about a quarter of its funding from the school system, so it must rely upon donations and grants to furnish its classrooms.
Education for girls is important both locally and globally. Girls who realize their full potential academically become women who can sustain a higher standard of living for their families, improving the well-being of their larger communities. Every dollar spent on girls’ education reaps an exponential return for society. In fact, a CARE report labeled it the “Girl Effect” — the notion that a focus on improving educational outcomes for girls creates a ripple effect in society, improving the quality of life for everyone. Investing in girls can, quite literally, change the world.
Help us change Jacksonville by investing in girls locally. Please give to Blueprint’s campaign to aid PACE’s girls.
Give courageous, talented girls like Alex — and hundreds more like her — a chance at a brighter future.
Horvath, a faculty member at the University of North Florida, is a member of the 2013 Blueprint for Leadership class.