Maria Jacobs knows what it’s like to have adults who recognize how hard it is to be a teenager — and who are eager to help them earn a high school diploma and map a successful path to adulthood.
She looks forward to doing just that as director of the new Escambia County campus of Acceleration Academies.
“When I was young, I faced a lot of adversity and overcame that adversity by having support from people who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” says Jacobs, a longtime public school educator in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. “My vision for Escambia County is that we will help build a generation of future leaders who will give back to their community.”
The latest in a network of Acceleration Academies across the United States, Escambia County Acceleration Academies is set to open in mid-August in Pensacola. Jacobs will lead a team of educators and advocates who assist students — who call themselves “graduation candidates” — to follow a personalized, non-traditional path to completing high school.
Many of the young learners will come to the academy after not finding success in traditional learning environments. At ECAA, they will receive ample support not only in making academic progress but also in overcoming emotional and social barriers to success.
As a teenager, Jacobs faced some of those barriers herself. The biracial child of a single mother, Jacobs endured confrontational situations and racist bullying at school. Her mother had to work several jobs and wasn’t able to be at home with her two children as much as she would have liked. Recognizing that her options were limited due to having stopped at high school, “she really pushed education” for her daughter and son.
As high school went on, Jacobs was devoting little energy to her studies — until her principal gave her the job of helping in a class for special needs students every morning.
“My principal was my saving grace,” she says. “He knew if I didn’t get to school — and find a purpose — I wouldn’t graduate.”
That experience not only helped Jacobs re-engage with her studies, but enabled her to visualize her career path. “I said, ‘I want to be a teacher,’ ” she recalls. “I realized I had a gift and I wanted to work with kids.”
Jacobs went on to earn her bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, the latest — in educational leadership — from the University of West Florida.
When her children were young, Jacobs and her husband had trouble finding quality preschools for them. “My husband said, ‘Start your own,’ And I did.” The preschool began with seven children in 2001, and eventually grew into a chain of 4 locations in three Kentucky counties. With help from her husband, she ran the network for 12 years.
Maria Jacobs and Family.
In 2015, Jacobs and her family moved to the Florida Panhandle, where she has worked as a special educator, behavior coach, program facilitator and ESE liaison in the public schools. She says her focus is on building and reinforcing positive habits and attitudes in her students — a practice she will continue at Escambia County Acceleration Academies.
“You want to praise the positive, ” she says.
“Often,” she says, “we as educators recognize that we need to teach more than academics. Learning environments should be engaging and equipped with the appropriate tools to meet a variety of needs. It is our goal to help the graduation candidates to be successful students, people and members of the community.”
“My vision in education is to create that safe space,” she says. “I want them to feel safe and take ownership so they can achieve their greatest potential.”
Like many communities, Escambia County has struggled with troubling dropout rates, social, economic and racial divisions — and the challenge of providing enough employment opportunities to keep young people from moving away to build their families and careers.
In addition to helping graduation candidates to master high school academics, ECAA will help them build the skills needed in college, trade school, military service and the workforce.
“The opportunities are there and the building blocks are in place. The mission is to educate and develop the necessary skills to bridge those gaps,” Jacobs says. “If we can set some foundations, we’re going to see the impact in our community.”