The PACE Center for Girls was awarded $1.4 million and plans to open a new center at 5400 Pinehurst Drive in Spring Hill in January 2018.
Gail Armstrong, Executive Director of the Pasco County PACE Center answers some questions about the program in this article.
What is PACE?
PACE is a prevention, diversion and early intervention program, designed specifically for girls in middle and high school. It’s recognized as one of the most effective programs in the country for keeping girls out of the juvenile justice system. Sponsored by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, and other state funding, PACE aims to help girls with various risk factors to succeed academically while meeting their individual needs.
Gail Armstrong is the Executive Director of the Pasco County PACE Center. Ms. Armstrong spoke to The Hernando Sun recently, describing how PACE came to be and how it has grown. She explained that PACE began in a church basement in Jacksonville and more than thirty years later, it has grown to 19 centers throughout the state. Hernando County’s program will mark the 20th center in Florida. Because of the success of the program, national expansion into Georgia and New York are possible soon.
PACE is a free, voluntary program for girls in middle or high school, ages 11-18. Because of its voluntary mission, no one can be mandated to attend PACE, even while in the Juvenile Justice system. Most of the girls come from district schools, attend PACE from 18-21 months, and then return to their former school.
“We partner with the district schools because these are girls that are usually going back to the schools,” said Armstrong. PACE does not collect or publish statistics for graduation rates, because the girls who graduate high school are doing so as a member of their district school.
When a girl is at PACE, she completes all graduation requirements. She is then transitioned to her zoned school to participate in their graduation procedures and ceremonies.
“They’re walking with the cohort group that never thought they would see that girl walking with them,” Armstrong stated.
Risk factors of PACE girls
As part of the Juvenile Justice contract, PACE is focused on keeping girls out of the Juvenile Justice system. When a girl is recommended to PACE, her current academic status is evaluated. If she is extremely behind academically, she may be required to ‘catch up’ at the district school before attending PACE so their academic needs can be met.
Exceptional Students can also attend PACE if the program can meet the requirements of the student’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.
The risk factor portrait of the Pasco PACE center is “pretty similar” to other centers, according to Gail Armstrong. The incidences of family instability and conflict, early sexual activity and victimization (of the student) are high. “Almost all of our girls have been victims of some type of trauma, often repeated trauma. Some of them … have witnessed a lot of trauma,” Armstrong explained.
PACE shines a light on the “why” of the student’s actions, rather than the focusing on the action alone. Ms. Armstrong added that “No girl is sitting in her bedroom at age three, thinking ‘I want to grow up to use substances and do things in the community that are not okay.’ ”
According to PACE’s 2015 statistics, of 118 students, 40% thought about suicide, and 24% actually attempted suicide. Armstrong said, “I don’t think it’s right that any child in that age range [11-18] should even think of that as an option.”
So what are the options?
The atmosphere at PACE is noticeably different. At the Pasco Center, wood-like floors and a departure from institutional colors and rigidly structured classrooms provide a warmer learning environment. In the science classroom, students painted over the whiteboard with chalkboard paint, and enjoy using old-fashioned chalk. A mural of a beach scene is the backdrop for a reading area. Painted above the lockers: “PACE values all girls and young women, believe each one deserves an opportunity to find her voice, achieve her potential and celebrate a life defined by responsibility, dignity, serenity and grace.”
There is a “Boutique” for girls in need of clothing, and food available to take home in times of shortage.
Academics at PACE are analogous to the school district, ensuring that all requirements for testing and advancement through graduation are met. The unique part of PACE is that there are counselors readily available to address non-academic needs. Girls are required to meet with their counselors once every two weeks. The requirement changes according to need; some girls may meet with counselors daily when in a time of crisis. The counseling area is private, yet accessible and quiet.
“Our counselors are intrinsically involved in our program, so counselors are serving breakfast… they’re there at dismissal and at entry, so you’re going to see a counselor at minimum three to four times a day,” said Armstrong.
How does the school district coordinate with PACE educators on a student’s progress?
“A strong relationship with the school district is essential to the academic success of the girls. The Center will have an Academic Coordinator who will provide Academic Oversight, and act as the primary liaison with the District,” stated Armstrong. She gave an example where grades are entered directly into the School district records system by the Academic Coordinator, or submitted to a data entry specialist within the district for them to enter. Report Cards are generated through the School District Report Card system.
Regarding testing, such as the FCAT, she said, “Girls are required to sit for the same testing as the district, results which are reported directly to the District by the State. PACE also administers other tests per Department of Juvenile Justice contract and PACE policy and shares those results with the district.”
Further illustrating the near-integration with district schools, Armstrong said, “Most locations also have a School District Guidance Counselor on site at least once per week who assists in academic planning for each student, and an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) consultation specialist who develops/updates IEPs, and meets weekly, and as needed with PACE Academic Staff for input and updates of the same as well as having the required IEP meeting with families.”
When a student is ready to return to her regular district school, her final grades and/or grades in progress are provided to the District Data Entry person and/or forwarded to her assigned/zoned school.
What happens if the student does not complete the program?
“Since the program is voluntary, we do have girls leave before we feel they are ready. Regardless of the reason”, Armstrong said, “ We hold a transition meeting with the girl, the family and usually someone from the school district … We want to make sure that for whatever the reason for a girl leaving PACE, planned or otherwise, she is aware of her options and we want to send her on to a positive placement. Girls who leave early are still eligible for transition services as long as they were with us more than 30 days.”
Does the student count as a Full Time Equivalent or full time student (FTE) for the district?
Armstrong explains, “Each PACE Center has a contract with their school district. They all look a little different but essentially a percentage of the FTE pulled down is shared by the district with PACE.”
What happens after graduation?
Armstrong tells a story of Senator Wilton Simpson who visited some years ago, and was so intrigued by the program, that he requested six month followups from some of the students he met. Those students are still in contact with the Senator a few years after their graduation.
PACE and graduates keep in touch with each other. At several times during the interview, Ms. Armstrong and two current students, Angel and Bailey, spoke about former students and their current lives, college and careers.
For more information: https://www.pacecenter.org