Byline: BRIDGET MURPHY
They are the next generation of voters, ready to cast their ballots when the time comes.
But in this Jacksonville mayoral election, the students in Karla Aponte's class at Stilwell Middle School will be political observers.
As a group of young people more than a year behind in school, in many ways their futures are tied to the future of the city.
Last year, a nonprofit's study found that if the greater Jacksonville area cut its dropout rate in half for one year, those graduates could earn a combined $48 million and spend another $36 million in an average year.
The Alliance for Excellent Education also found their contributions could spur the creation of 400 new jobs and account for $113 million more in home sales by the midpoint of their careers.
Until recently, Aponte's class was a catch-up program for students aiming to rejoin peers in their regular high school grade next year. But because the district is ending their program, they'll likely go to ninth grade next year.
The change comes after the state stopped letting students in a dropout prevention program earn a regular diploma, meaning districts could no longer count them in graduation numbers. School officials said canceling the program will put Aponte's students on track to earning a district diploma.
As students confronted the change, the Times-Union recently visited their classroom to get ideas about what they think the next mayor can do to improve their lives. Some of their ideas - such as keeping their program - aren't up to City Hall.
But the students also had suggestions about public safety, neighborhood improvements and jobs. Two days before school officials seized a loaded gun from a Stilwell student, members of Aponte's class advocated for metal detectors at their school.
They also talked about creating more of a police presence in neighborhoods, including by creating substations out of homes that haven't sold in the hard-hit real estate market. They liked the idea of more cameras in neighborhoods to catch criminals at work, lobbying for devices that captured still images instead of video cameras that constantly record.
Students said they wanted more after-school activities and training in areas that would have a real-life impact, like classes about computers and managing money. One young man said upgrading the road in front of his home would make a big difference in the neighborhood. Another said more should be done to create jobs for citizens with criminal records.
All nine students who participated in the civics discussion grew up in Jacksonville or have lived in the city for at least five years. None reported a police arrest, but four students said a family member is in jail or prison. Although five students said they feel safe walking at night near their home, six said they knew where to go if they wanted to buy drugs in their neighborhood. The students also spoke frankly about mistakes that left them behind in their education.
"We were more worried about what people thought about us than our grades," said 16-year-old Nicholas Pope.
"I was in sixth grade for three years," said 16-year-old Megan Futch, "... skipping and hanging with the wrong crowd."
She also talked about the determination it takes to make up work for more than one grade in a year.
"We're in here doing eighth- and ninth-grade work," she said.
"Not all students are bad. We might just have personal problems in our lives," said 15-year-old Keyon Watson. "We need programs to help us catch up."
All of Aponte's students said they plan to vote when they turn 18. But between now and then, the Stilwell students said they will be busy campaigning for their own success. They understand the dangers of dropping out of school.
"People like us need a diploma to be successful in life," said Watson, "and become someone that can help others just like us. …