The setting is Jones High School in Orlando. It’s the late 1960s. A high school student walks down the halls of the newly integrated school, achieved only after the Supreme Court was finally able to enforce desegregation in Florida that fall.
The student, a senior who would attend Howard University to study journalism after graduation, had little clue that — more than 50 years later — he would still be fighting the racial injustices he was suffering.
James Lawrence is now the president of the local group GNV4ALL and one of the leaders coordinating the renovation work on the early learning center next to Metcalfe Elementary School in east Gainesville.
“I hoped that by the time I retired, this would’ve changed, but now in 2023, I don’t think this change has happened,” Lawrence said.
In January, the Alachua County Commission approved a one-time $350,000 grant for the Gainesville Empowerment Zone Family Learning Center, matching state funding for the project that hopes to increase access to education for racial minority groups.
The center will be located in an 8,800-square-foot building on the Metcalfe Elementary School campus. Renovations on the building are expected to be completed in time for the center to open in June.
The center will be accepting children as young as 6 weeks old, while also offering services for their families and providing job opportunities for members of the community. Its main goal is to give Black students an equal opportunity to succeed through early intervention.
“It’s not that nothing has been done, but not enough is being done to close this gap,” Lawrence said. “We want to call community attention to this issue.”
While reading levels among Alachua County third-grade students reach the same 52% passing rate as the state, there is a large gap when it comes to Black students in the area. In the county, only 25% of Black students are scoring a 3 or higher in their English and Language Arts exams.
The center is looking to solve this issue through better academic opportunities and by fulfilling the basic needs of community members, which often get in the way of children’s education.
Rebekah Reneke, former executive director at Holy Trinity Preschool, has been consulting with GNV4ALL for the past two years to build a curriculum for the program.
“We’re not just working with the children, but we are also working with the families,” Reneke said. “We will be offering benefits for employees as well. Our goal is to better the community.”
In the long term, if the center is successful at preparing children for statewide exams, it may bring more federal and state investment into Alachua County and other Gainesville public schools.
“The education of our children has been a core vision and goal of the County Commission over the years,” said Mark Sexton, the communications and legislative affairs director for Alachua County. “Projects like this open doors to more state and national funding, so they are important for the county.”
The learning center will work off two main curriculums for academic and social aspects of education: HighScope and Pyramid Model, respectively.
Reneke will be training staff members on both curriculums as she works with GNV4ALL to hire employees in the coming months. All hires are independent of Metcalfe Elementary School, even though the early learning center will be operating on its campus.
To enroll a child in the program, parents must meet eligibility requirements.
“The children have to be eligible for assistance from the Early Learning Coalition of Alachua County,” Lawrence said.
To check for Early Learning Coalition of Alachua County eligibility, parents can visit the website and fill out an eligibility application through the parent portal. An instructional video on how to fill out the application can be found on the website’s home page.
An individual meets Early Learning Coalition eligibility if “parent or guardian of individuals ages birth to 12 residing in Florida. They must be working or participating in educational activities such as attending college or trade school at least 20 hours a week. Gross income must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level for family size,” according to the website.
Parents in the area say they are eager to see what the learning center will bring to the community.
“I think that having a place like that for children is very important for the neighborhood, so I’m glad they’re doing it,” said Atoria Johnson, an east Gainesville resident, as she held hands with her 6-year-old daughter, Imani.
This sentiment was echoed at an event organized by GNV4ALL at Santa Fe College on Jan. 24. The event was organized to spread the word about the center, which is scheduled for completion by June.
“I had a representative go (to the event) for me,” Lawrence said, “and people were coming up to him after and asking lots of questions about the early learning center.”
A large portion of the public is still unaware of the project, so GNV4ALL is organizing public service campaigns to reach parents in need of the services the learning center will offer.
“We will be canvassing the community soon,” said Sally Williams, head of the education department at GNV4ALL. “We will be pre-screening people who are interested in the program to see if they qualify. We are not turning people down. We will try our best to direct those who don’t qualify to programs that better serve their conditions.”
As of now, members of the group are planning to canvas the community on Feb. 18, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., and again in early- to mid-March. For more information on the canvasing, the public can reach out to GNV4ALL via social media. The group is on Instagram and Twitter under the handle @gnv4all and on Facebook under the name Gainesville For All.
With the efforts put forth by GNV4ALL and through community education, Lawrence said he hopes to help close the education gap between Black and white students. His dedication has led him to travel 80 miles three times a week from Live Oak — where he and his wife live — to Gainesville to run this project.
“We have to do something about it,” Lawrence said. “We have to do something to change the system, and if we can, hopefully, this will be replicated all over the county, the state, and even the country.”