Voices of Florida. Made possible through the generous support of the Gidel Family Foundation.

Gerald Cox: Street Smarts

Gerald Cox is on the front lines of dealing with the fallout from Florida’s failure to invest in education. As a high school teacher and coach with 40 years experience, he has made it his mission to work with students struggling at the bottom of the class. And while he gives his all every day, searching for ways to connect with kids, he worries about the future.

“At the current time, we are raising a ‘throw-away’ generation,” warns Cox, who has taught math at Pensacola High School for 25 years. “I say that because too many children don't see a positive future for themselves. With cutbacks to education, rising tuition costs and the lack of jobs in this area, there are not many positive futures out there for them.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Cox believes that Florida’s legislators short-changed the state’s youth when they slashed funding for education and programs that benefit children this past session. Of all 50 states, proportionate to the wealth and size of the population, Florida invests less than anyone in its children.

What might seem surprising, however, considering that Cox teaches 11th and 12th grade students, is where he believes money absolutely must be spent. “They’ve got to do a better job of protecting education, especially early education,” Cox says.

While teachers at all levels need more support, the time to invest in children is when they are young and have their whole education ahead of them, Cox says. Trying to remediate in the later years is far more difficult and likely to close off doors to their future.

“It’s heart-rendering to have these kids who come to you in high school who can’t add, subtract, multiply or divide, because to get here they passed [other classes],” Cox says.

The story doesn’t end when the students leave school. Their lifetime potential has been compromised, says Cox, who holds down a second job teaching at Collegiate High School at Pensacola State College, where adults who didn’t make it through school can earn their high school diploma.

Cox is worried not only for the sake of his students, but for the sake of the state of Florida. Selling out the future of Florida’s children in the interest of today’s bottom line is short-sighted, and the long-term implications are just plain scary. “You can’t cut anymore. You cut and cut and cut until there’s nothing left,” he says. “I have two grandkids. One is 3 years old, and one is 7. I want them to have the opportunity to do what they want to do.”

What troubles him most is that while he and his wife Rebecca, also a teacher, have devoted their life to helping kids, state leaders do not seem to value the next generation very highly. “There’s a lack of respect for certain segments of the population, children in particular. You can add the elderly and middle class to that, but the children are what really scares me,” he says. “It’s a group that can’t speak for itself… Their voice is not being heard.”

As budgets grow even tighter, he fears that average and below-average students will be left behind. “Average people deserve a chance to be successful. It’s not all for the IB (International Baccalaureate) or Honors students. The other people, the average people, make up the majority of society,” he says. “Sure there are going to be kids who become nuclear engineers, but how many of those are there, really?

“The average person is going to become a teacher, work in a grocery store, manage a Wendy’s. These are just average working people, and all they want is a chance to provide for their family and their children.” Today’s children deserve the same prospects for the future of past generations, says Cox, 62. “When we were told in school, we could do anything we wanted to with our lives, we could believe it because the opportunities were there for us to succeed in our life goals. We could dream and have a chance for those dreams to come through,” he says. “I don't see that anywhere as much with current students.”

About the Author: KiKi Bochi is the managing editor of Broward Family Life magazine and an award-winning journalist. She wrote this article for the Children’s Movement of Florida.