Published On: Fri, Jun 30th, 2017

One of America’s Best Communities in Educating Youth to Read at Grade Level

Living up to the idiom once an All-America City, still an All-America City, Delray Beach made history recently by becoming the only municipality in the state to be honored with this prestigious award three times.

That feat was accomplished by one city employee, a few nonprofit organization members, school officials and community leaders – some who traveled to Denver earlier this month to compete in the 2017 All-America City Awards, which are given by the National Civic League.

Delray Beach also landed the designation in 1993 and 2001.

Getting there though was not easy. It took some hard work. This year’s All-America City competition recognized communities that have engaged residents in innovative, inclusive and effective efforts to advance childhood literacy.

Much credit should go to Janet Meeks, the City’s education coordinator, who has been championing the cause for children from low-income families for many years. Very few public servants are as passionate about children’s issues at least publicly – as Meeks, who has been with the city for close to 30 years.

She was part of the four-member delegation that represented the City at the competition in Denver. They told the story of the ongoing collaborative efforts over the last five years to prepare children for kindergarten, reduce chronic absenteeism and increase participation in summer reading programs.

Last school year, slightly more than one half of all third graders in Palm Beach County met Florida’s standards in reading. Forty eight percent of those same students were reading well below grade level and were retained.

This year’s results were recently released and the number of third graders who earned a Level 3 or above in English inched slightly by 2 percentage points to 54 percent. Still, that was 4 percentage points lower than the statewide average of 58 percent.

While there has been some hoopla over the city winning the award, it is important that the record be set straight: only a few people deserve to revel.

Among the few is the education coordinator, who many people know as the engine behind many of the city-sanctioned youth initiatives or as the city worker who always reports on educational and youth programs. But what many do not know, she has been battered and bruised over the years for our local youth.

In the early years of the International Baccalaureate program at Atlantic High school, she wormed her way to the table to make sure the college preparatory program would allow our students to earn the IB diploma and continue their studies at a four-year university, just as it was sold to the parents.

When the school district moved Atlantic High School from Seacrest Boulevard to West Atlantic Avenue, Meeks was tasked with doing a lot of the dirty work and, at times, was the one who got cursed out from disappointed parents.

And as a board member, she made sure deserving graduating students at Atlantic High school received scholarships for college through the Dare to be Great Foundation.

Time and time again, she donated her own money to support local youth causes.

So it is only logical that she bask in the glory as some, who ridiculed her as she applied for the award, have now jumped on the band wagon to share the limelight.

I find it interesting that when the City got word that it was a finalist and was invited to the conference in Denver, one of her bosses told her to “go raise your own money” after she asked about funds to prepare for  the event.

One prominent public figure recently referred to the recognition as a “touchy feely” award.

None-the-less, 53 communities across the country vied for this “touchy feely” award and only 15 were selected in the super bowl of community service recognitions.

While the award does not carry a monetary prize, it offers bragging rights of the good work being done in our community to address one or more of the challenges that can undermine early literacy. It also often brings in more tourism, new business and even better bond ratings.

It is only fitting that the City sponsors a reception to recognize the leader and her team for their accomplishment. I say their accomplishment because the community has been there through the reading initiatives and the money used to prepare and pay the application fee came from donations to the Delray Reads program.

As a reporter and an editor who has covered this City for 30 years and a community servant who has volunteered with youth for as many years, I owe it to the residents to know the truth. After all, if I do not set the record straight, who else will?

  1. Ron Allen can be reached at crallen@delraybeachtribune.com or 561-665-0151.

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