Money magazine recently described Tampa as an "urban gem" and ranked it best large city in the Southeastern United States. Affordable house prices and low unemployment rates were two criteria used to explain this distinction as well as Tampa's growing infrastructure, extensive network of beaches and unbridled ambition.
None of this was a surprise to me. Tampa is home and I consider it one of the finest cities in America. I am pleased that it is getting the positive recognition it deserves. However, it is important that while acknowledging our successes we not ignore the challenges that still affect too many of our fellow citizens.
Tampa struggles with problems like poverty, homelessness and income mobility. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2013 Hillsborough County ranked fourth out of Florida's 67 counties for people living in poverty. In 2012, Hillsborough had the highest rate of homelessness in the nation, according to a report compiled by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and a recent Harvard University study ranked Hillsborough County 98th out of the 100 largest counties when it comes to income mobility for poor families.
These are frightening statistics, but I fundamentally believe quality education can provide the antidote to each of these problems. However, when I talk about education, I think it is important that we consider it holistically.
Quality education encompasses more than just academics and a school day that runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Quality education needs to include health and wellness learning, character development, community service projects and a school day that mirrors parents' work schedules.
Students, especially those in challenged communities, need to understand the value and practicality of their efforts and must have a safe space to continue their development once classes end. They need results-driven programming and access to comprehensive after-school programs.
The organization that I work for, After-School All-Stars, provides free after-school programs designed to keep students safe and to help them build skill sets that allow them to succeed in school and life. We offer a curriculum that balances academics, health and fitness and enrichment learning, and we operate from 3 to 6 p.m. five days a week.
After-School All-Stars recently launched its first chapter in Tampa at Memorial Middle School in Seminole Heights. Ninety-five percent of Memorial's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and close to a third of the student body has been absent more than 10 percent of the school year and/or has been suspended at least once.
Despite these challenges, the school is filled with potential and is led by a dedicated group of teachers and administrators. We are eager to work with the Memorial Middle School team on creating a more holistic educational environment for its students. Together we can reduce the truancy and suspension rates at the school and improve overall academic performance.
After-school programs have a well-documented record of success at improving student attendance, performance and behavior. More difficult to quantify but just as important, after-school programs also improve the cultures of the schools they operate in. I recently spoke to a teacher at Memorial Middle School who feels that she has more credibility with her students than she did before the program started. She also told me a wonderful story about a student of hers who regularly attends class just so he can go to our after-school program later in the day.
After-school programs can't provide solutions to all the challenges facing communities in Tampa, but they can help many of the city's most-at-risk students obtain a fun and positive educational experience. After-School All-Stars is already hard at work with the city of Tampa, Hillsborough County School District and philanthropic partners like the New York Life Foundation to ensure everyone in Tampa can say with certainty that they live in the best large city in the Southeastern United States.
Michael Brown is executive director of After-School All-Stars Tampa.