PACE Center gives girls a way out PACE Center for GirlsProviding a Way Out for Girls in Need
By Karen Shorette
Nestled in a small, unassuming complex behind the hustle and bustle of Apalachee Parkway is one of Tallahassee’s best-kept secrets – the Tallahassee PACE Center for Girls. The school has been helping troubled 12- to 18-year-olds turn their lives around since 1994.
“I love this school,” said Anne (not her real name), a PACE student who previously lived a life of continual physical and emotional abuse at home. “It’s the best school in Tallahassee. Even though my mom left when I was 4, I still feel loved here. We’re all like family.”
Anne, who was referred to PACE when she was in the sixth grade, is one of 57 girls currently attending school at the center. With her father on drugs and her mother long gone, she eventually became overwhelmed and no longer could focus on schoolwork. The PACE staff helped her work through her problems, and she was able to return to her regular school about 15 months later.
Because her family situation hadn’t changed, however, it wasn’t long before Anne once again found herself in dire straits. Thinking she should stay home to care for her brothers and sisters, Anne dropped out of school. She was able to manage for a while by sneaking drug money from her father to pay the monthly bills, but when she discovered that her father had physically abused her younger brother, she realized things were beyond her control.
That’s when Anne once again turned to PACE for help. She has been attending classes there since December, and although she is two years behind in her schoolwork, she said she is confident that with the help of PACE, she will be able to graduate on schedule.
PACE – which stands for “Practical, Academic, Cultural Education” – was founded in Jacksonville in 1985 to prevent juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, and welfare dependency. A social worker started the nonprofit organization when she began taking girls who had gotten into trouble to a church building rather than allowing them to be detained in the same facility that housed troubled boys.
Jackie Wilson, a former CEO of the Tallahassee Builders Association and now a partner in Business Edge Consulting, was instrumental in bringing PACE to Tallahassee 12 years ago. Wilson said a friend who oversaw funding for state programs became aware of PACE and immediately thought of her as the right person to get the school up and running in Tallahassee because of her previous work with organizations such as Refuge House, a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Wilson facilitated the initial meetings with the Jacksonville founder, worked with judges and politicians to garner support, and helped create the board of directors, serving as its chairwoman until this past year.
“I’m real interested in programs that help women and children,” Wilson said, “because there are more programs to help men and boys but not many for women. I’ve known girls who had problems and ended up dropping out of school, and once they’ve done that, they usually don’t go back. But the PACE program provides an opportunity for them to get back up to grade level and hopefully graduate with their class.”
According to Jacquelyn Ledbetter, special projects manager for the Tallahassee PACE Center for Girls and herself a former PACE student, all of the girls who are referred to PACE have experienced some type of emotional problem or abusive situation that made it difficult for them to perform well academically or socially in their regular environments. Some have been in trouble with the law, others may have been in an abusive situation and unable to cope (such as Anne), and still others simply could have had difficulty coping with normal teen issues and, as a result, were acting out in school or at home. Referrals are made any number of ways: Some girls are referred by the juvenile justice system, some by friends or family, and others choose to self-refer.
Do You Ever Wonder?
Do you ever wonder why the sky is blue
Or why the grass is green
Or perhaps why the world is round
Or why wind can’t be seen
Do you ever wonder about the defenseless girls
Getting raped and abused every day
Do you ever stop to realize
They might have something important to say
Do you ever wonder about the hate in this world
And the number of people getting hurt
How many times can you say for yourself
That you have ever been treated like dirt
Do you ever wonder about the motherless children
And how they feel inside
The pain of hate, guilt, and loneliness
The perfect ingredients for suicide
Do you ever wonder about the foster kids
Who never know where they will go
Who haven’t anywhere stable
To settle down and grow
Do you ever wonder about the teens having sex
And how often it’s misused
How they seemingly don’t understand
That soon after comes the blues
Do you ever wonder about the slower kids
And how their life seems shadowed
Or how often they feel alone
All insignificant and overpowered
Yes, sometimes I do wonder
What this world is coming to
Which is why this poem was written
’Cause a change starts with you.
– Written by PACE Center Student
Regular school isn’t currently an option for these girls primarily because they are unable to control their emotions around other students or, as was the case with Anne, they drop out, fall behind in their studies and need extra help to catch up with their schoolwork and to deal with their situation. At PACE, each girl’s academic program is tailored specifically for her. Every classroom has a teacher, but each girl could be working on a completely different assignment from the others. Another benefit of PACE is that, in addition to academics, the girls and/or their families receive ongoing counseling as needed – something not available in a typical school setting.
The 17-member Tallahassee staff includes social workers and certified teachers who receive more in-depth, specialized training once they’ve been hired.
“We ensure that all potential staff members have a heart for helping the girls, an understanding of what kind of students they are teaching, and compatibility with this type of environment,” Ledbetter said.
With a staff-to-student ratio of 6-to-1 in the Tallahassee facility, staff members are able to provide each girl with individual attention. Class assignments are based on each student’s level of progress, allowing each to work at her own pace. Once a student is placed in the program, she typically stays anywhere from 10 to 15 months before transitioning back to her regular school. If the student is close to finishing high school when she is referred to the center, she may actually end up graduating from PACE.
“Last year, we had 27 girls graduate from the center,” Ledbetter said, “one with honors.”
Ledbetter said the Tallahassee center’s success rate is higher than 90 percent, which means that 90 percent of the girls who attend the facility have managed to straighten out their lives enough to stay out of the juvenile justice system. The key to that success is in recognizing that girls need different types of intervention than do boys.
“Girls don’t respond well to the boot-camp style of discipline and reform,” Ledbetter said. “Until PACE was established, girls in the juvenile justice system were being treated the same as boys and were being held in the same facilities. We’ve learned that girls have very different needs.”
Another major factor in the center’s success, according to Ledbetter, is that the program is strictly voluntary. Each student must agree to actively participate in the program, so if a girl is attending PACE, it’s because she truly wants to make a positive change in her life.
“We’ve helped 700 girls become successful in the last 12 years,” Ledbetter said. “But success is defined differently for each individual. For some of these girls, success is simply delaying having babies until after they graduate high school.”
In addition to typical school subjects such as math and English, PACE provides special classes and activities designed to help the girls discover their strengths and realize their own potential and self-worth.
“My favorite class is Spirited Girls,” Anne said, “because it helps a lot with problems. We get to talk about our feelings, and we learn about different careers and all kinds of practical skills for everyday living.”
The students recently participated in a cathartic activity called “My House,” a metaphor for the way each girl perceives herself as an individual. The idea was to write personal thoughts in each section of the house. For example, in the attic they would place secrets and regrets they were unwilling to share with others; the front door represented opportunities in their lives; the chimney was where they blew their smoke and released all of their bad habits. Exercises such as these help the girls become aware of their feelings and thoughts and also provide a healing opportunity for those who are less likely to talk about their problems.
Another important aspect of the program is community service. The students have several opportunities and events to choose from throughout the year. Some of them recently partnered with students from Florida State University and, as a part of Girls in Motion, traveled to Gretchen Everhart School to teach the students there how to “step” dance.
Numerous incentives and rewards are built into the PACE program, such as ice cream and pizza parties. The girls also can earn points for good behavior, which they apply toward their “point cards.” Once they’ve accumulated enough points, they can visit the center’s Point Store, where they can purchase various items.
There now are 19 PACE centers throughout the state that have served more than 15,000 at-risk girls. The Tallahassee facility is funded by several different agencies, including the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the Leon County School Board, the Leon County Commission, the City of Tallahassee, the United Way, and other local foundations and private donors. As with many nonprofit organizations, however, there are needs that cannot be completely funded. Some of the items currently on the center’s wish list include sports equipment, musical instruments, filing cabinets, tickets to community events, vanity products, calculators and books.
Wilson, who remains involved with PACE, said there always are volunteer opportunities available. Last year she organized the annual fundraising golf tournament. Anne, the student mentioned earlier, was selected to represent PACE at that tournament.
“It was so much fun,” she said, “and I even got to have my picture taken with (Florida State University football coach) Bobby Bowden.”
For more information or to find out how you can make a difference, please call (850) 921-9280.