PITTSBURGH- The U.S. Department of Education’s “Education and the Economy” back-to-school bus tour got off to a rousing start with a brassy welcome at the tour’s first stop, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s arrival at the school, for a discussion with Pittsburgh Superintendent Linda Lane and other officials about labor-management collaboration, was announced by the blue and gray-clad Perry Traditional Academy marching band, which flanked the school’s entrance along with an energetic team of drummers, horn players and cheerleaders.
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Secretary Duncan presented principal Jennifer Mikula with a signed basketball bearing the U.S. Department of Education seal, and then headed to the school’s gym for a panel discussion with Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), Lane, Mikula, co-principal Shana Nelson, Nina Esposito, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, and Robert “Bob” Nelkin, president of the United Way, Allegheny County.
Secretary Duncan complimented Pittsburgh’s commitment in the face of the many forces that can stifle student achievement, saying, “This is a battle against poverty, social failure, and unemployment.”
He praised Pittsburgh’s collaborative approach, including the leadership of the school board, the union, and management, singling out teachers for particular praise. “There’s nothing more important than great teachers,” Duncan said. “I know how hard this work is, and what you guys are doing collectively is absolutely a model for the country.”
Secretary Duncan challenged the larger Pittsburgh community to join the collaboration to improve the local education system, and tied Pittsburgh’s success to that of the country. “You can’t have a great city without a great public school system,” he said. “Families will suffer, and communities will see a tremendous negative impact. This is in everyone’s best interest – it can’t just be the work of the school system and the unions. A quality education system and a strong, growing, vibrant economy are inextricably linked. If we do this well, we put our country back on the path to prosperity.”
Turning to speak directly to the marching band of 9th-12th graders, Secretary Duncan stressed the importance of education for their future success, and the opportunities it would provide, including Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship program administered by the Pittsburgh Foundation that helps Pittsburgh public school students plan, prepare, and pay for an education beyond high school.
“Every single one of you has to graduate from high school and then you have to think about what the next step on your education journey is. With Pittsburgh Promise – if you work hard, you get good grades, there’s going to be an opportunity for you,” Duncan said.
The panel discussion covered a range of issues, including how to address resource disparities created by local funding for public schools, how to take advantage of schools’ capacity to serve as community hubs during hours outside of the school day, the importance of early childhood education, and Secretary Duncan’s call to recruit 1 million volunteer mentors and tutors in the nation’s lowest performing schools.
Secretary Duncan stressed that his high expectations extend to his own role, and that of the Department of Education. “We’re trying to learn how to become a better partner,” he told the audience. “Please hold me accountable, and my team. We think there’s a lot that’s broken with the No Child Left Behind Act, and we’re trying to provide communities with relief, flexibility, and accountability. If we can be a better partner, it will speed up change, and it’s always local educators and stakeholders who know what communities need.”
Secretary Duncan closed with a tongue-in-cheek offer to the marching band: “I hope you’re thinking about college now – you guys are fantastic! I want to take you on the road with me. If your teachers will let me, I’ll put you on the bus with me until Friday – I’ll write a note for you!”