As I transitioned to the Department of Education from my prior life as a college president, I experienced a concern I had every time I changed positions: I worried that I would lose some of the most important aspects of my prior job. For example, when I moved from private law practice into a professorship at a law school, I was concerned that I would forget what “real” lawyers did and what “real” clients needed — key information for helping to prepare law students to become quality lawyers. As I now increasingly focus on higher education policy in DC, I do not want to lose sight of why that policy matters.
The question is simple: How can I stay connected with students while in Washington, linking theory to practice? Little did I realize at first that right here in the windows, walls and halls of the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) Department of Education Building, there is a constant reminder of those who depend on our success.
Even before one enters either side of the LBJ building, there are photographs on the outside windows of diverse students of all ages — students learning in classrooms and labs, participating in athletics, and experiencing graduation.
These photographic images, installed in 2008, are repeated on the elevator doors, and on each floor there are photographs of students as one exits the elevators. I know I’m headed in the right direction each day because I see students playing cello. And, at the end of halls on many floors, there are historic, black and white photographs of students and schools; the image of young dancers at the ballet bar on the 6th floor is particularly compelling.
But, the halls have more than photographs. Starting on the first floor, there is original student art from grades pre-K through professional art school. There are works, which hang anew each year, created by students who received Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. This exhibit, now in its ninth year, represents a collaboration among The Alliance for Young Artists and Writers and the U.S. Department of Education.
Every two to three months, other student groups display their art on the Maryland Ave. side of the first floor. Since its inception in 2004, this program has included works from the Native American Student Art Competition, Duke Ellington School for the Arts, the Military Child Education Coalition and the National PTA Reflections Exhibition, among many others. Each exhibit is also accompanied by a public event, with the student artists and their families in attendance, with an added bonus of student performances. The popularity of these temporary exhibits is evidenced by the fact that the exhibit space is booked through 2015!
And, then, there is student art on each of the floors — watercolors and collages and acrylics from all parts of the country and from all age groups. And, schools with vibrant art programs create important engagement for their students.
Even if we are not explicitly paying attention to the art on the walls every day, the student works inform, to use Tony Hiss’ phrase, our experience of place and space.
One of the comments in the Student Art Exhibit Guest Book in the lobby, made by an ED employee about a recent exhibit, expresses gratitude for the experience: “Thank you for bringing such joy and beauty into the Department.” I would add to that this thought: “And thank you for reminding us of the people served by the important work we do.”
Karen Gross is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary