Written by Deirdre Conner
Jacksonville Public Education Fund
To passersby, it might have seemed like any other free Tuesday night at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. Families and visitors strolled the halls looking at exhibitions and activities.
But inside the ONE in THREE: Let’s Solve Our Dropout Crisis exhibition, a momentous event was unfolding. Brandon Rothenberg, a student featured in the exhibit, was seeing it for the first time.
Many who have seen the exhibit stop at Brandon’s story for a long time, caught by his striking photograph but lingering as they wonder what he must be doing right now. That’s because Brandon currently attends school in the Duval County Pre-Trial Detention Center.
Brandon has been in jail since he was 15, awaiting a resolution to the armed robbery he was charged with as an adult. He will be 18 in December.
You can read more about Brandon’s story here. But here’s some background on why a current jail inmate was chosen to be a part of this exhibit, which aims to rally community support for education:
Through a nomination process conducted by our organization, Brandon was one of 20 students chosen for the exhibit. He was nominated by officers at the Duval County Jail because of his impeccable conduct and dedication to improving his life through education, as well as his role conducting tours of the jail for at-risk youth. In our interview, we found Brandon to be exceptionally mature and deeply grateful for the chance to encourage other youth not to make the same mistakes he has made. Brandon has changed greatly since he entered the jail two years ago, and that comes through dramatically in the exhibit.
Today, he is an A/B honor roll student and a role model for other inmates. At the exhibit, many who view Brandon’s story are inspired by his quest for internal change, while also reflecting on what factors could have prevented him from entering the justice system in the first place.
It seemed at first an impossibility that Brandon would ever have the chance to visit the exhibit and see first-hand the impact he was having on others. But thanks to his dedicated attorney, Jennifer Espenship, and the support of JPEF and the Cummer, Judge Adrian Soud granted a special transport order allowing Brandon to visit the exhibit for a few hours to share his story with at-risk youth, meet the other ONE in THREE featured students and give his family a few fleeting hugs.
As Brandon spoke last night to a group of young teenagers who are part of the Communities in Schools TEAM UP program, he implored them to prioritize their education. WJXT Channel 4’s Vickie Pierre covered the visit – check out the video here.
“Education is the key to success,” he said. “I wish I had realized that earlier.”
Later, he was asked: What has been the best part of all this?
“Being here with you right now,” he said.
Most of the time, people who don’t know his story look at his shackles and see him as a danger to society. For Brandon, the way strangers saw him changed for just one night.
But for those who those who have been affected by his story of determination and redemption, that perception is changed forever.