Educators rave about alternative approach to earning diploma, landing jobs

Students are referred to program through school guidance counselors, free of charge

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As students in Northeast Florida round out their first few weeks back in school, educators are raving about a different approach to earning a diploma, called Eckerd Connects Workforce Development.

The free program is open to students who are out of traditional school.

In June, 19-year-old Jazmi’n Simmons accomplished something she never imagined would happen. She graduated as valedictorian in her class at Eckerd Connects Workforce Development. It’s a major turnaround from where she started.

Simmons said prior to transitioning into the program from Duval County Public Schools, school was a struggle made worse by the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everything that I faced, with the doubt and struggling in school, I’m very proud of myself,” Simmons said. “I never would have thought that I could push myself so much.”

Jazmi’n Simmons, 19, graduated as valedictorian in her class at Eckerd Connects Workforce Development in June. (WJXT)

Eckerd Connects, which is partnered with Career Source Northeast Florida, is open to students who are 16 to 24 years old, and out of traditional school. The reasons they might be out of school vary.

Program advisers say many of the students have experienced challenges and hardships, which can affect their education. These hardships include poverty, low income, pregnancy, etc. The students are often referred to the program through their school guidance counselors.

Cedria Halyard, the program’s workforce development specialist, pairs students with local businesses to get hands-on job training. She said it’s gratifying to see these students grow.

Cedria Halyard is the workforce development specialist for Eckerd Connects Workforce Development. (WJXT)

“At Eckerd, we really believe everyone deserves an opportunity to succeed,” Halyard said. “You can see from the point when they started with us, to the ending point. You can really see a big difference, you can see their confidence go up. You can also see that they just feel more sure about themselves.”

Simmons said her plans now are to go to college to become an ultrasound technician. As more students take this same leap of faith, she shares her message of encouragement for them.

“Don’t give up, regardless of whatever situation you’re in,” Simmons said. “I could do it, you can do it, too. Many more people can do it, and I feel like you’ve got this.”

Students can apply right now online or even meet in person. The program is located inside the Jessie Ball duPont Center at 40 East Adams St. To learn more, visit

About the Author:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.