Traditionally, the annual celebration of Black History Month is a time for Floridians to look back on the progress made in the half-century since the Civil Rights Act became law. But it is also an opportunity to look ahead, and nowhere is the future of African-Americans in our state being shaped more clearly than in the area of education.
There are many reasons for hope where education is concerned not just for African-Americans, but for other minority groups as well. Florida schools have made tremendous strides over the last year, and while we celebrate Black History Month we should recognize those gains as we build a state of excellence for students of all races.
Floridas graduation rate, high school grades and performance on the Nations Report Card have all shown improvement, thanks to a focus on early literacy, high standards for students in all grades, and greater use of school choice. All these numbers point to two inescapable facts: Florida's African-American students lead the nation in closing the achievement gap, and all of Florida's students are learning more than ever.
Our states overall graduation rate soared to new heights in 2013, reaching 75.6 percent a 5 percent increase since the 2010-2011 school year. For African-American students over that period, the graduation rate rose even more: 6 percentage points.
The Nations Report Card provides another reason to celebrate African-American students success during Black History Month. This is a nationwide assessment of fourth- and eighth-graders on various subjects, meant to evaluate the condition and progress of our nations educational system. Last year, Florida was the only state to narrow the achievement gap in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math between white and African-American students. African-American fourth-grade math performance has increased by 13 points in Florida since 2003, compared to only 8 points nationally. And in fourth-grade reading, African-American students have improved by more than half a grade level.
Florida certainly has proven to be a leader in the field of academics. Yet this great progress doesnt mean the work is done. We must take the next step to focus on preparing students to succeed after high school, not just on making sure they graduate.
I am convinced that the future for Floridas African-American students is growing brighter every day. As a former teacher in the Duval County school system, I have had the rare opportunity to see these students thriving in the classroom and on the graduation stage. It is one thing to read that Floridas students are learning more and that our graduation rates are improving, but I have seen it in action. These students inspire me, and their progress gives me hope, both as a teacher and as an African-American woman.
Recently, I attended the 6th Annual Dr. Martin L. King Jr. oratorical contest at UNF, hosted by Alpha Phi Alpha Inc., a historically African-American fraternity of which Dr. King was a member. The contest invited male high school juniors and seniors from across the state to give prepared speeches on what they see as the major civil rights issue facing todays African-American youth. Nearly all of them cited quality education as critical to ensuring all children have the ability to achieve their dreams. Each of the young men who participated was incredible and inspiring, and I could not agree with them more.
Raising academic standards, developing new tests that meet todays challenges, and simplifying our method of school evaluation will help our teachers and students continue this journey toward high-quality education for all children. In honor of achievements past and present, lets continue to raise the bar high and look forward to the day when the racial achievement gap is a mere relic of the past. I thank my fellow Duval County educators for waking up every day with the commitment to make that dream a reality -- a dream also shared by Dr. King.
Apryl Shackelford was the 2013 Duval County Teacher of the Year. A former high school dropout, she overcame adversity to graduate high school and then earned both her bachelors and masters degrees. She is now working on her doctoral study in education and works as a specialist with Duval County Public Schools Parent Academy