Miami -- images of sun, sea and city of vice -- right? Well, if you're lucky enough to be a student here (or on exchange from London as I am!), then for the most part you're probably assumed to be living a hedonistic lifestyle (and you probably wouldn't be totally off the mark either!) While the reputation for frat parties, tailgating and South Beach weekends is all true, that's not all Miami students are choosing to spend their time. Rather, some of the student body are channelling their school spirit outside the community by actively combatting the Florida education system that is arguably failing its high school students.
At present, statistics from McKinsey & Company reveal that 8% of students growing up in low income communities graduate college before the age of 24 compared to 80% of students coming from high income communities. Furthermore, with figures showing that on average students eligible for free/reduced lunch are approximately two years of learning behind the average ineligible student, there is an urgent need to invest in the quality of young people's education. This is particularly so in the era of post-budget cuts on Florida's education due to the Great Recession which have continued to have a debilitating effect on its students.
Despite these shocking figures, University of Miami students are committed to combatting the education system one project at a time in contrast to its reputation as a party university. One such project is Kids and Culture of which I currently volunteer for. Kids and Culture work with 8th graders in Miami-Dade County to promote the idea that college is attainable for any person, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic status. Through interactive workshops and campus visits that run every Friday to the University of Miami, the goal is to motivate and engage previously indifferent teenagers by showing that college is an attainable goal.
Caroline Levens, President of Kids and Culture, agrees: 'Kids and Culture is important to South Florida's students because it gives them an opportunity to see what higher education is like in reality. Many young students see college as out of their reach. By bringing them to campus, showing them all a college education has to offer and providing them with resources of how they can get to college, it makes the path to college more manageable. The Campus Visit definitely sparks a goal for many students, and the first step to attaining anything is having an end result in mind'.
Kids and Culture is but one of the many projects on campus dedicated to educational reform. The University of Miami chapter of Students For Education Reform (S.F.E.R) is a national organization devoted to closing the gap in educational achievement between low-income and high-income students in America. The organization's focus is on empowering college students as stake holders in changing education policy at the state and local level and connecting them with tools to advocate for change. At current present, S.F.E.R at the University of Miami is partnering with the Future Educators Association to advocate for specific education reform related policies in Florida. S.F.E.R raises awareness of the achievement gap through campaigns on campus, as well as organizing events such as speakers, film screenings, discussions and information sessions.
Therefore, without a good support network and misunderstanding of financing a college education that is vital to break out from a cycle of poverty, college students and their projects on campus are instrumental in demanding change in a system that currently fails millions of students.
Mischael Cetoute, President of S.F.E.R concurs, 'We as a nation love the idea of education; however, in practice we have shown education little more than a flirtatious glance from time to time. I'm consistently inspired by the image of a society where we invest more in the quality of a child's education than their local prison. Education reform is personal for me. As a black male I am often the subject of the mind boggling statistics we all have become far too familiar with. I have seen first-hand in my community the disastrous effects of low expectations and the infinite potential for progress. For me education is not some lofty ideal reserved for scholarly debate or a mere talking point for political exploitation, it is the difference between life and death'.
Despite this bleak reality, significant progress appears to have been made towards legislation in the education sphere. State Senator Dwight M. Bullard has played a vast role in ensuring that the House and Senate worked together on a budget including an increase in funding for education and a pay raise for classrooms and state workers during the fiscal year of 2013-4. Furthermore, the 2013-14 General Appropriations Act increased K-12 public school funding by $1.2 billion including a minimum of $480 million in salary increases for instructional personnel based on performance.
But the struggle for equity may prove far from over. As Senator Dwight Bullard effectively highlighted in a visit to University of Monday this week: 'we are putting a band aid to a larger problem; why are we applying that principle to education?'