Without much fanfare, Citrus County gained a school.

The Pace Center for Girls opened its 21st Florida location on Jan. 7, in a building at the Roger Weaver Educational Complex in Lecanto (also home to Lecanto Elementary, Middle and High schools, as well as the Renaissance and CREST alternative schools). It serves girls in grades 6 through 12 who have been involved with the juvenile justice system or who may be headed down that path.

"Right now, we are about 85 to 90 percent staffed. We have a teacher position and a therapist position that we’re recruiting for" said Pace Citrus executive director Sheila Jordan on Wednesday. "Once we’re fully staffed, we’re be able to serve 50 girls."

Fifteen are enrolled so far, but with support from the community and school district, Jordan expects that to grow quickly.

"We’re proud of the work that’s come from community referrals, people who learned about Pace or who know it by reputation from other parts of the state," she continued. "We’re really grateful for our community partners and especially our partnership with the school district — it’s been phenomenal. We’ve had an incredibly great opening couple of weeks."

Jordan is also beginning the work of building a founding board by introducing local stakeholders to the Pace model. "As a new center, I have an opportunity to engage our first, founding, board members," Jordan said. Each Pace center has its own board.

Founded in 1985, Pace is now recognized as a national model for reducing recidivism and improving school success, employment and self-sufficiency among girls by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Children's Defense Fund, National Mental Health Association, National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Pace’s model relies on “a balanced emphasis on academics and social services,” according to the organization’s website. That includes a maximum class size of 14 students per instructor, bi-weekly counseling appointments, and a year-round school calendar. Classrooms are also cellphone-free — students' phones are locked up in the office during the school day.

"Our girls are in school over the summer, and the summer time at Pace is key because that’s when girls get opportunities to catch up," Jordan explained. "There's time for some remediation that may not be able to be done during the school year."

“It helps teachers be able to help students individually, as well as teach the class a lot easier because we are half the size of a mainstream school classroom, which can be large and overwhelming,” said Rachel, a ninth-grade Pace Citrus student, of the smaller class sizes.

Teachers are also academic advisers and meet pupils bi-weekly to ensure they stay on track and meet their goals.

Those goals are another important component of the Pace strategy. Girls, with the help of their counselor and adviser, set academic and personal goals, and there are incentives to meet them. The academic adviser plays a significant role “so that the students are always aware of their grades and academic goals,” community coordinator Tiarra Alexander said Wednesday.

Anyone can refer a girl to Pace; most of the Citrus referrals so far have come from the district’s public schools and girls who self-refer, Alexander said.

Rachel and Rayna, a Pace Citrus eighth-grade student, led a tour of the campus Wednesday morning.

Everyone’s favorite class, Rayna said, is probably Spirited Girls — “Pace’s answer to an elective,” according to Alexander.

“They talk about all things female in here — dating, sexual health, physical health,” she explained.

“It’s a safe place where we speak to each other openly and try to help each other through different problems,” Rachel added.

Girls choose Pace — and they must choose it; they cannot be court-ordered or legally forced to attend.

“I'm not really good in big settings in classrooms, I have anxiety and stuff,” Rayna said. "This is a lot more comfortable — everyone’s really comfortable with each other and everybody’s nice to each other. It’s like a whole family. It’s very accepting here.”

“I struggled in working in a regular mainstream school environment because I have high-functioning autism, and a form of attention deficit hyperactive disorder,” Rachel said. “So the combination makes it difficult. I have a unique learning style that I have to balance with struggling to focus. ... Here at Pace I don’t have to worry about that. I’m allowed to draw, the teachers work with you one on one, the classrooms aren’t large, the lessons are easy to understand and follow — I really like it here.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Carly Zervis at carly.zervis@chronicleonline.com or 352-564-2925.

(1) comment

GaryM

This is a fantastic program. As a board member of Covenant Children's Home, I can see us working together in the future.

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