Community Colleges: Helping the U.S. Become “First in the World”

About three-quarters of college students in this country attend a community college or public university. President Obama understands the crucial role that community colleges play in helping students and our nation skill up for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. That’s why, in a recent speech on the economy, he called them “gateways to the middle class” – and it’s also why they’re a key part of his ambitious plan to improve higher education in America.

I recently had an opportunity to visit LaGuardia Community College in Long Island, New York where I was able to deliver some exciting news. During my visit, I announced that LaGuardia is among the 24 winners of our new $75 million First in the World (FITW) grant program, designed to fund innovation in higher education in ways that help keep the quality of a college education up, and the costs of a college education within reach, so more students of every background can fulfill their dreams of getting a degree.

As this award made clear, community colleges are often at the forefront of innovation. They also promote the dual goals of academics and career readiness. To learn more about how LaGuardia and countless other community colleges across the country support students, I sat down with a group of them to hear their stories.

Hassan Hasibul, a former cab driver and alumnus of LaGuardia’s Tech Internship Placement Program, explained how he learned to thrive in the workplace and gained new skills – skills that got him noticed. “My internship site hired me, and even gave me a portion of their stock,” he said.

One of the most exciting innovations at LaGuardia, which the FITW grant will support, is the development of an integrated set of tools to increase and enhance student success, including the use of ePortfolios, learning analytics, and outcome assessments. With the extra funding, LaGuardia will help students navigate their educational and career goals as they transfer to other institutions or join the workforce.

Faculty and staff aren’t the only ones helping students make academic and career decisions. Students are also helping other students plot out their courses and career trajectories. Jenny Perez shared her experience in helping her peers. “Even if they aren’t planning on transferring, I help them open their mind about the possibilities in their future,” she said.

For Enes “Malik” Akdemir, who came to the U.S. at age 18, without money or relatives, the LaGuardia faculty and students have become a huge, supportive family. After a year and a half in intense English immersion classes, he discovered his passion for aeronautics.

During a school tour, he stopped to admire a vintage picture of a plane flying over Manhattan. Pointing to the flight deck, I said, “Someday, you’ll be right there.”

“Someday,” he agreed.

Stories like those of Hassan, Jenny and Malik offer a glimpse of the great work happening every day in these incubators of innovation. They also serve as reminders of the clear role that community colleges play in ensuring that. America’s more than 1,100 community colleges are playing a major role in helping to ensure that our higher education system is once again, first in the world. And, every step of progress brings us closer to reaching our North Star Goal – to reclaim our place as the nation with the world’s highest proportion of college graduates.

Ted Mitchell is Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

Boulder Valley School District Shines in Solar-Powered Learning

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Imagine a gymnasium filled with children eagerly raising their hands during a school-wide event when asked the question, “How is electricity at your school produced?” In many of the schools in Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), with our annual 300-plus days of Colorado sunshine, the answer to that question is an enthusiastic “SOLAR POWER!”

We were delighted to showcase our solar program during the 2014 Green Strides Best Practices Tour which visited BVSD Sept 17. Approximately 8 percent of our district-wide energy needs are met by solar, with panels on 28 of our 55 schools. By taking advantage of community partnerships, grants and bond money, we’ve been able to install solar power in schools across the district.

(Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The growing dome greenhouse at Columbine Elementary. (Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The Renew Our Schools Program, for example, helped support the installation of solar panels at Arapahoe Ridge High School and kick-started the creation of a Green Team, who we heard from on the first stop of the tour. This team led efforts to green the school, including competing in BVSD’s Energy Challenge, an effort to conserve energy through behavioral change among building occupants. While the solar panels help raise awareness about alternative energy and give students data to manipulate, student-led conservation measures, such as educating the school community about ways to save energy, auditing the school’s usage and taking follow up action on the findings, lead to even greater energy savings.

Additionally, a bond program in 2006 funded the solar panels and other green features at LEED Platinum Casey Middle School, which was also part of the tour. The solar panels double as cover for bike parking, offering shade and weather protection to the many students who bike to school year-round as part of the Alternative Transportation Program. Teachers at Casey incorporate live data from the Green Touch Screen and hosted Energy Days in which students learned about solar energy and baked cookies using a solar oven, among other interactive lessons. The sun not only provides clean electricity, but floods the school with natural daylight by design, so students and staff can be at their most productive.

During the tour’s stop at Columbine Elementary, before visiting the community supported gardens and growing dome greenhouse, we headed to the rooftop to see the roughly 100kW photovoltaic system. The system is part of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) BVSD signed with Solar City in June 2011. The 14 schools in the agreement have large-scale systems that provide an additional 1.4 MW of solar power for the district and 15 to 30 percent of each school’s electricity. All the schools in the PPA have websites showing live data from the solar panels and real-time energy consumption. These schools are using materials provided by the National Energy Education Development Project and Solar  City for lessons about renewable energy and efficiency, providing standards-based real life examples of sustainability, math and science.

The Sustainability Management System has guided this work, and the District has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and has significantly reduced our environmental footprint. However, we see the real value from our sustainability efforts in educating our students and using these opportunities to prepare our students to be engaged environmental stewards and successful, life-long learners.

Dr. Ghita Carroll is Sustainability Coordinator at the Boulder Valley School District.

Promoting Safe and Supportive Schools

Cross-posted from the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs blog.

Last week, Secretary Duncan joined representatives from education and juvenile justice organizations at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Summit on School Discipline and Climate. There, he spoke about the importance of comprehensively supporting our students – and not just when it comes to raising test scores. Our schools should first, and foremost, be safe places to learn and our students should feel secure and valued.

We’d all agree that acting out in school is both disrespectful and disruptive, but should a minor infraction like tardiness or a dress code violation earn a student suspension or expulsion? For some kids, that’s exactly what happens, thanks to zero-tolerance disciplinary policies in place in school districts across the country. What’s even more troubling, too often these removals from school begin a road to academic failure and even later involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Under a promising effort called the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, the Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services, in partnership with philanthropies, are helping to foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments while keeping students in school. As part of the initiative, on Oct. 6 and 7 we held a National Leadership Summit on School Climate and Discipline that brought together teams of educators and justice system professionals from 20 states and the District of Columbia to discuss how to improve school disciplinary practice and reduce student entry into the juvenile justice system. The summit provided the opportunity for states and local jurisdictions to develop strategies and begin taking steps toward disciplinary and juvenile justice reform. We also announced $4.3 million in grant awards to support activities designed to keep kids in school and out of court.

Kids should be held responsible for their behavior, but there are better alternatives to the harsh disciplinary methods being used in too many districts. By working with schools and justice system professionals, I believe we can find ways to keep our kids in school and on the path to learning and success.

Karol Mason is Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Join Secretary Duncan for a Connected Educator Month Twitter Chat

Mark your calendars and join Secretary Duncan this week on Twitter during Connected Educator Month.

Duncan and educators across the country will have a discussion about the importance of connected learning and the newly announced Future Ready Pledge this Tuesday, Oct. 14 from 7-8 pm ET. Use the hashtag #ce14 to join the discussion. And be sure to follow @ArneDuncan and @usedgov. (If you aren’t able to join, the conversation will be archived here.)

Connected Educator Month offers a range of engaging online professional development activities for educators at all levels.

Originally developed by ED and our partners, Connected Educator Month focuses on reaching and encouraging educators to try out and explore national and global, online learning opportunities. Its goal is not only to provide access to unique professional development opportunities, but to also to show how educators can stay connected and learn with each other.

In the brief video below, Richard Culatta, Director of the Office of Educational Technology, highlights the value of connecting with other teachers to share ideas and best practices and invites teachers to bring a friend or colleague to the conversations happening during Connected Educator Month.

This year’s Twitter chat with Secretary Duncan will focus on the importance of being a connected educator and Future Ready.

Connected learning opportunities provide teachers with a support network and the opportunity to engage in discussions around teaching and learning. These opportunities will help further initiatives like Teach to Lead, which emphasizes the importance of providing opportunities for teachers to lead from the classroom and involving teachers in the development of policies that affect their work.

Tuesday’s conversation will also focus on the newly announced Future Ready Initiative. At its heart is the Future Ready District Pledge, which establishes a framework for districts to achieve the goals laid out in President Obama’s ConnectED Initiative. In particular, the pledge emphasizes the value of providing personalized professional learning opportunities that empower educators to use technology effectively to improve student learning.

How to Choose the Best Federal Student Loan Repayment Plan

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If you have federal student loans, it’s important that you understand your loan repayment options. For example, did you know that you have the option to choose a repayment plan? That’s right. While your loan servicer (the company that handles the billing and other services on your federal education loan) will automatically place your loan on the Standard Repayment Plan, you CAN choose another plan.

The Department of Education offers several traditional and income-driven repayment plans with different payment options. So, make sure to take the time to understand these options and find the plan that works best for you.

Generally, our repayment plans offer three types of payments:

  • Fixed Payments: Our Standard Repayment Plan and Extended Repayment Plan offer payments that remain the same amount for the life of the loan.
  • Graduated Payments: Our Graduated Repayment Plan and Extended-Graduated Plan offer payments that start out low and gradually increase every two years.
  • Income-Driven Payments: Our three income-driven repayment plans offer payments that are calculated based on your income.

Choosing a repayment plan can feel overwhelming. Don’t worry—there are several resources available to help you understand the repayments plans, determine your eligibility for each plan, and make the right decision for you.

  • Use our online Repayment Estimator to find out which plans you may be eligible for and to estimate how much you would pay under each plan. (If you log-in, the Repayment Estimator will use your actual loan balance to estimate your eligibility and payment information.)
  • Get detailed information about each repayment plan on our website.
  • Watch our Repayment: What to Expect video to get a high-level overview of the repayment plans.
  • Check out our Repayment Plans infographic for an easy-to-understand visual that will give you some key points to keep in mind as you are choosing a repayment plan.
  • Read our Repay Your Federal Student Loans fact sheet for additional information on loan repayment and the repayment plans.
  • Contact your loan servicer to discuss your options and choose a federal student loan repayment plan that’s best for you.

Remember, the repayment plans discussed here are for federal loans only. If you have private loans, check with your lender about available repayment options.

For more information on federal student loan repayment plans, visit Studentaid.ed.gov/repay-loans.

Tara Marini is a communication analyst at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

An Invitation to Commit to Lead

When I was honored to be named Nebraska teacher of the year in 2007, almost in the same breath folks said, “Congratulations – when are you leaving the classroom?” Unfortunately, we have built into the American teaching culture this perverse disincentive that only seems to listen to and honor educators who move farthest away from those who need us most – our students.

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Teach to Lead seeks to flip that by allowing teachers to lead from the classroom. We know that the many of the best ideas come from teachers – in fact, the solutions to today’s educational challenges will not be solved without the involvement of classroom teachers in the development as well as the implementation of innovative educational ideas.

Teach to Lead was developed by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to advance student success by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership – in other words, to make sure that teachers were involved in the development and implementation of education transformation.

One of the components of Teach to Lead is our virtual community, Commit to Lead. Commit to Lead is for those who have a seed of an idea, those who are developing their ideas, and those who are deep in implementation. It’s for classroom teachers, administrators, system leaders, advocacy groups – all those who are working to include teacher leadership in their decision making. The platform is a place to discuss and learn from others who may have already been down your path – or who want to learn from your success!

Commit to Lead is easy to use. After you join the community, you can post your own idea (just 300 words or less) and interact with others who comment. Or you can join and then peruse the ideas posted by others, offering your suggestions and giving a “thumbs up” by voting for those ideas that you find most compelling.

Christina from Willamsport, Pennsylvania, has submitted the most talked about idea so far:

“Principals, central office admin, consultants, and state ed departments would be required to teach just one prep or class for a 3-6 month period at least once every two years. The teacher in which they are ‘subbing’ for would then be released during that time to participate in some of the leadership responsibilities of the person assuming their role as teacher. Or they could use their release time to coach a colleague (or new teacher).

An easy idea to implement? Not really. Worthy of discussion? Absolutely! To be done right, this wouldn’t just be a simple schedule change, but a real culture shift that exemplifies the importance of being as close to the classroom as possible. I’ve often heard teachers say that some policies would never happen if administrators had to live by their own rules. I also know many teachers that don’t understand the heavy burdens and isolation faced by many in traditional leadership positions. A change of this magnitude would be great if it was done thoughtfully and with the best interests of students at the forefront.

Commit to Lead isn’t just about posting your own ideas. It’s also about sharing your “teacher wisdom” with colleagues across the country. Meeting the needs of her English Language Learners is what prompted Donna from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to reach out to colleagues through Commit to Lead:

I would like to start a discussion of ways to foster accurate academic participation for ELLs (or other student populations). Currently, I use scaffolds such as posted and practiced academic sentence frames to assist students when reporting out ideas after “Think-Write-Pair-Share.” I would like to collaborate with others to broaden my strategies and increase student use of academic language and structures.

Maybe you are just the person Donna is looking for to help fill her teacher toolbox! The best ideas are stolen or borrowed from other teachers – maybe even you!

Deidra from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, saw a problem in her teaching community and stepped up with a solution:

All teachers benefit from collaborative interaction, so I am starting a collaborative learning group among the CTE [Career & Technical Education] teachers I work with at my high school. Because our planning times do not coincide, I am using Google classroom to share professional readings with my colleagues, opening up discussion threads, and encouraging them to post articles and reading suggestions as well.

I’ve been reading The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein and she advises, “…the next step in American education reform may be to focus … more on classroom-up interventions that replicate the practices of the best [teachers].” Christina, Donna, and Deidra – and so many other teachers like them – are doing just that: leading from their classrooms!

Commit to Lead is just a beginning and we know this work isn’t easy, but it won’t be done correctly unless professional educators are key players.

We invite you to be part of the dialogue by joining us at http://teachtolead.ideascale.com/. Do you have more questions? Please email me at info@teachtolead.org and let me know how I can help!

Maddie Fennell is Literacy Coach at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska and a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow working on Teach to Lead.

How to Make Student Loan Payments Based on Your Income

income-driven

Maybe you’re just getting out of school and you got a letter from your student loan servicer about repayment, or maybe you read on a blog or in the newspaper about an income-driven repayment plan. Maybe you’re not really sure what they are, how they work, or what they could mean for you. Let me give you the fundamentals.

First, let me explain the naming. “Income-driven repayment” is an umbrella term for three different repayment plans available to those with federal student loans:

  • The Income-Based Repayment Plan
  • The Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan
  • The Income-Contingent Repayment Plan

Notice how the names of all three plans reference “income” or “earnings”? Well, that’s because, under these plans, your payment amount is based on how much money you make. To really understand the differences between income-driven and “traditional” repayment plans, you must understand how your payment amount is calculated under each type of repayment plan.

How Monthly Payments Are Calculated

“Traditional” repayment plans are those such as the Standard and Extended Repayment plans. These traditionalists take three variables—the interest rate, principal balance, and repayment period—and determine the least amount of money that you can pay each month to pay the loan off by the end of the repayment period (usually 10-25 years, but sometimes as much as 30 years). This means that borrowing more, having a higher interest rate, or having a shorter repayment period will increase your monthly payment (and vice versa). Those three variables are all the traditional repayment plans care about—they don’t care if you can afford that payment, they just want your loan to be paid off within a specific time frame.

Income-driven repayment plans take these variables and stand them on their heads. These plans say, “you’ll pay what you can afford: a percentage of your ‘discretionary income’” (hint: that’s something less than your total income). Depending on the plan, that may be 10%, 15%, or something else. What you ultimately pay depends on the plan you choose and when you borrowed, but in all cases, it should be something you can afford. Sometimes, it can be as low as $0 per month.

Student Loan Forgiveness and the Income-Driven Repayment Plans

Because your payment under the income-driven repayment plans is not calculated to ensure that your loan is paid off within a specific time frame, the plans have another special feature: loan forgiveness. These plans do have a repayment period—20 or 25 years. However, it’s not the point at which your loan must be paid off; instead, it serves as a counter toward loan forgiveness. Under these plans, if your loan is not repaid in full at the end of your repayment period—20 or 25 years—then the remaining balance will be forgiven. Let me be clear: this is not to say that everyone who selects an income-driven repayment plan will receive forgiveness. You may end up paying your loan off in full before you’re eligible for some forgiveness. Because your payment is based on your income, your payment changes when your income rises (or falls). Your income is the “x” factor, and we don’t know what will happen to it in the future. Under these plans, then, you may pay your loan off in full, or not, but the income-driven repayment plans are happy either way.

What else affects whether you will receive loan forgiveness? Well, it’s those familiar variables of loan balance and interest rate. Remember, interest accrues each day on whatever your principal balance is. The income-driven repayment plans do not change this fact. So, even though your payment isn’t related to how much interest is accruing, that interest still accrues and must still be paid before you can pay down the principal balance on your loan. Ultimately, because your payment is less than it would be under another plan and may even be less than the amount of interest that accrues on your loan, then you will pay down your principal balance more slowly and increase the likelihood of receiving loan forgiveness. This also means that your loan will cost you more over time. Does this mean that you shouldn’t choose an income-driven repayment plan? Of course not! But, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t explain that there was some sort of cost to receiving this benefit.

Disclaimers

To be a good bureaucrat, I need to give you a few disclaimers before I wrap this up:

  • If you receive loan forgiveness under an Income-Driven Repayment Plan, it may be considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service.
  • The Income-Based and Pay As You Earn Repayment plans both have an eligibility criteria that tests to see whether you “need” to enter the plan—this test checks how much federal student loan debt you have relative to your income.
  • There are loan-based eligibility criteria that I didn’t even mention, but know that these plans are only available for federal student loans—loans made under the Direct Loan and Federal Family Education Loan Programs, to be specific.
  • If you are married, how you file your federal income tax return matters; sometimes it matters a lot.

How to Apply

In closing, let me give you some actionable steps that you can take:

  • Use the Repayment Estimator to model your eligibility and payment amount for an income-driven repayment plan.
  • If you have still questions, call your loan servicer and discuss whether one of these plans is a good fit for you.
  • Apply online at StudentLoans.gov. Because this stuff is complicated, check the box that allows your loan servicer to put you on the income-driven repayment plan with the lowest monthly payment amount.

The English language was not marred through the use of acronyms in this blog post. Ian Foss has worked for the Department of Education since 2010, and, thanks to the Income-Based Repayment Plan, has been able to eat more than just ramen noodles since he finished school.

Engaging Families, Ensuring Education Success: A Back-to-School Tour with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics

In Springdale, Arkansas, the Hispanic population grew by more than 150 percent between 2000 and 2011, largely driven by the arrival of mostly Hispanic immigrants. The school district’s public school population is now 44 percent Hispanic, and its English Learner population is also 44 percent of students. The city has done a remarkable job of embracing their newest community members and ensuring that all students and families are supported.

As part of ED’s Back-to-School Bus Tour, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH) visited Springdale to learn about the city’s community integration efforts. For the visit, WHIEEH collaborated with the Cisneros Center for New Americans, an organization that works to accelerate the integration of new Americans into American society. One stop was at an early childhood center where newly enrolled families pose for portraits that are placed in the classroom, to help ease the child’s transition and alleviate separation anxiety. Coffee sessions between new and veteran parents help familiarize families with the center and the community.

Another stop included the Turnbow Elementary School family literacy program where parents attend English language classes and scheduled PAC or “Parent and Child” time, in which parents join their children in class. They also learn about other subjects, including safety and financial assistance, from community partners such as the police and fire departments and local banks.

A mother described the program’s impact on her and her daughter: “When I signed up for this program, I saw my daughter with a huge smile, so I know it really mattered to her that I was in it,” she said.

At the Language Academy at Har-Ber High School, newly arrived students write their aspirations on classroom walls. These not only remind students to work hard, but they also provide instructors with daily reminders of their own role in helping all students reach their full potential.

The Academy has served to support integration into the larger community.

“The Language Academy helped me communicate with other people,” one student said. “At first, I didn’t know the basics …and now I’m in a regular class. I know all the things that the teacher tells me, and how they teach me and help me so much.”

A town hall for leaders from throughout the community provided context for the school district’s work. Superintendent Jim Rollins provided an overview of the district’s comprehensive efforts and a panel of experts discussed best practices on immigrant integration.

“Education is the great equalizer – quality education is accessible to immigrant families in Springdale,” said Professor William Schwab, University of Arkansas.

Throughout the tour, it was evident that efforts to break down language barriers and motivate students to succeed in and out of the classroom are making a difference.

Springdale’s family engagement and integration vision and efforts were recognized in a Race to the Top-District grant award in 2013. The program helps localities develop plans to personalize and improve student learning, increase educational opportunities, and provide resources that lead to a high-quality learning experience.

The program has enabled Springdale to provide 100 additional preschool slots to the community’s children and draw up plans to expand their family literacy program to each of their 30 schools.

The commitment to immigrant integration through family engagement is in the soul of the Springdale community. Superintendent Rollins put it best: “Those are the kind of things that can happen when you embrace children and help them find their true potential and promise.”

Emmanuel Caudillo is a Special Advisor for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Making the Finances of Green Schools Work in Minnesota

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Safeguarding the environment for future generations is a laudable goal, but when you’re managing a fast-growing school district’s bottom line, you need to also know that trying to do this makes financial sense. In the Waconia Public School system we’ve learned that going green can be the fiscally prudent path. Providing safe, healthy and sustainable learning spaces does not have to be an expensive choice, but it does require collaboration, creative problem solving, and a shared vision to do what is right for students, staff, community and the planet.

At Waconia Public Schools, we approach resource conservation, environmental education, and wellness with innovative and cost-effective solutions. Our Director of Finance and Operations worked with our school board to approve a financing plan that allows us to use conservation cost savings, energy rebates and other incentives to pay for additional environmental and energy conservation improvements. The Waconia School District qualified for $46,000 in energy rebates, and we’re saving an estimated $117,000 in utility and operations costs annually as a direct result of these improvements. Our district also saves over 1.2 million gallons of water, nearly one million kilowatt hours of electricity, and over 17,000 therms of gas annually.

Waconia Public Schools approaches resource conservation, environmental education, and wellness with innovative and cost-effective solutions. (Photo credit: Waconia Public Schools)

Waconia Public Schools approaches resource conservation, environmental education, and wellness with innovative and cost-effective solutions. (Photo credit: Waconia Public Schools)

The success of our conservation initiatives relies not only on smart financing, but on sophisticated monitoring equipment, on careful analysis of resource use, and on always keeping an open mind about lower environmental impact solutions. Our district began by getting a handle on its resource use through auditing, analyzing, and monitoring usage among all of its facilities. We work closely with environmental engineers at B3 Benchmarking to improve conservation and efficient use of resources. We identify opportunities to save money on utility costs by re-tuning existing equipment and installing resource-efficient equipment.

We also actively engage in partnerships to create efficiency in scale and help secure alternative funding. For example, we recently partnered with the City of Waconia and Carver County to secure a grant from the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources to install a water reuse system to capture untreated storm water and reduce pollutants entering Burandt Lake adjacent to Bayview Elementary. This project combined with other water quality initiatives will result in Burandt Lake being “delisted” from the State Impaired Waters list within 5 years. The collected water is also used to irrigate our nearby athletic fields.

Our most recent collaborative project is with Minnesota Department of Commerce, Xcel Energy, JJR Power, and Innovative Power Systems to install solar panels on our high school gymnasium. These solar panels will produce 50,000 kilowatt-hours of energy – or about 5% of total annual energy usage at Waconia High School – without costing the district a dime for their installation. JJR Power will provide the capital to install the system. It is financed through a combination of the “Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program,” Federal tax credit, MACRS depreciation and the execution of a 15-year Power Purchase Agreement.

These are just a few of the partnerships that are helping Waconia Public Schools to develop, improve and sustain programs that reduce environmental impact, promote health, and equip students with a solid foundation of environmental literacy. At Waconia, it’s about being good stewards of all our resources, both financial and environmental. For a school district wishing to save money, environmental conservation simply makes fiscal sense.

Richard Scott is Director of Grants & Development at Waconia Public Schools.

All Big Things Start Small

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Recently I was at Edgewood School in Prior Lake, Minn., where preschoolers were sitting on tiny tree stumps in an outdoor classroom custom-made just for them. They loved their little chairs and were completely engaged in the morning meeting with their teacher. Seeing these littlest ones learning so effectively in nature got me thinking about how one small initiative can grow into something much bigger.

Preschool students at Edgewood School have the option to enroll in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools’ nature-based preschool. (Photo credit: Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools)

Preschool students at Edgewood School have the option to enroll in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools’ nature-based preschool. (Photo credit: Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools)

The Environmental Education (EE) programs at Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools started out in just this way: one small effort at one school. Yet this year we found ourselves showcasing our districtwide EE programs during the recent Green Strides Best Practices Tour of Five Hawks and Jeffers Pond Elementary.

On any given day in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools, you will find teachers and students outside, certainly for recreational activities – but also for science, math, reading, even art. Environmental Education is embedded into nearly all curricular areas, districtwide.

Visitors often ask, “How did you make this happen in all of your schools?” The answer is, we started small. Five Hawks Elementary set the stage for EE programming with teachers who are passionate about helping students build critical thinking skills, fostering a love for the environment and getting students outdoors.

One of the first things they did was plan an annual Outdoor Learning Festival, where students do hands-on activities, taking water samples, studying leaf structure and entomology, and much more.

The success of that program got a lot of attention and led staff, parents and school board members to embed environmental education into our district’s Strategic Plan, which will guide the expansion of our environmental focus.

Now EE also takes place through Community Education classes and student clubs in grades 3-12. Yes, students choose to be part of EE outside of the school day! Students will tell you it’s “cool” to be in these clubs. In fact, students have to apply to be in the programs because there is so much interest. At the high school level, students can even earn a varsity letter for their participation in the EcoTeam club.

Today all six of our elementary schools host an Outdoor Learning Festival each year, like the one we showcased on the Green Strides Tour. But beyond the Festivals, EE is truly “embedded” into our curriculum throughout the school day, every day. We have become the first district-wide E-STEM schools in the state of Minnesota.

Throughout all of this, our Strategic Plan has been our guide. We are grateful to the many innovative teachers who have made E-STEM a reality and for the students who are such enthusiastic learners. On the days I witness programs like the one at Edgewood, I am reminded that all big things start out small.

Dr. Sue Ann Gruver is the Superintendent of Schools for Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools in Minnesota

Student Loan Forgiveness (and Other Ways the Government Can Help You Repay Your Loans)

forgiveness

Have you heard or read about student loan forgiveness? Are you wondering what it is or if it is really possible? Perhaps you already know a little about it and you want to find out if you qualify. Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll provide answers these questions and tell you where you can go to learn more.

What is loan forgiveness?

Loan forgiveness is the cancellation of all or some portion of your federal student loan balance. Yes, that’s right—cancellation of your loan balance. If your loan is forgiven, you are no longer required to repay that loan.

Is it really possible to have your student loans forgiven?

Yes. However, there are very specific eligibility requirements for each situation in which you can apply for loan forgiveness. If you think you may qualify, it’s definitely worth investigating.

How do I get my loans forgiven?

There are a number of situations under which you can have your federal student loan balance forgiven, and we’ve provided a few in this post. You will, however, want to research your options at StudentAid.gov/repay and contact your loan servicer for any questions you may have about student loan forgiveness.

A couple examples of situations in which your federal student loans may be forgiven include:

  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness: If you teach full-time for five complete and consecutive academic years in certain elementary and secondary schools and educational service agencies that serve low-income families, and meet other qualifications, you may be eligible for forgiveness of up to a combined total of $17,500 on certain federal student loans. For details about this program, see Teacher Loan Forgiveness.
  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): If you work full-time in certain public service jobs you may qualify for forgiveness of the remaining balance of your Direct Loans after you’ve made 120 qualifying payments on those loans—that’s usually about 10 years of payments. Serving in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps is considered qualifying employment. To benefit from PSLF, you should enroll in a repayment plan that bases your monthly payment on your income. Learn more about income driven repayment plans. For loan repayment and borrower eligibility requirements, see Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

There are additional situations that allow you to apply for cancellation of your federal student loans. For example, if you are totally and permanently disabled, a member of the U.S. armed forces (serving in area of hostilities), a member of the Peace Corps, or a law enforcement or corrections officer, you may be eligible for cancellation of a portion of your federal student loan. Learn more about how you may qualify for loan forgiveness and contact your loan servicer with questions.

Are there other ways in which I can get help repaying my loans?

There are additional government programs that provide student loan repayment assistance for individuals who provide certain types of service. A couple examples include:

  • Military Service: In acknowledgement of your service to our country, there are special benefits and repayment options for your student loans available from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Defense. Learn about federal student loan benefits for members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
  • AmeriCorps: The Segal AmeriCorps Education Award is a post-service benefit received by participants who complete a term of national service in an approved AmeriCorps program—AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps NCCC, or AmeriCorps State and National. An AmeriCorps member serving in a full-time term of national service is required to complete the service within 12 months. Upon successful completion of the service, members are eligible to receive a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award which can be used to pay educational costs at eligible postsecondary institutions, as well as to repay qualified student loans. 

Remember, there are resources available to help you repay your loans. In addition to loan forgiveness and other benefit programs, you also have other options (including repayment plans that are based on your income) if you find yourself in a situation where you’re having trouble making your loan payments. Be sure to discuss your options with your loan servicer.

Lisa Rhodes is a writer at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

2014 Scholastic Art and Writing Award Winners Featured at ED: They Gave Their Inspiring Voices and Visions

Each September brings a special day at the U.S. Department of Education: a day when the marble halls and foyers of the agency’s headquarters fill with excited crowds of students, teachers, families, local and visiting officials, and passionate supporters of the arts.

This year was no exception: on Friday, Sept. 19, winners of the 2014 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards were honored for their accomplishments. The Department sponsored the opening of two exhibits, one of awardees from around the country and one of Portland, Ore., awardees, with a total of 80 works of art. Among the honorees were the five newly chosen National Student Poets.

The day began with two workshops — one in the visual arts for the teachers of student winners, and one in poetry for the student winners.

Nancy D. Hoover, art director of the Girls’ School of Austin, had traveled to the Nation’s Capital to honor her student Alabel Chapin, who won a Gold Award for her piece Wearing Her Heart on Her Sleeve. In eighth grade when she made this painting based on a photograph she took, Chapin was inspired, said Hoover, by a third-grade schoolmate named Pippa. When asked why Pippa’s expression is so sassy, Hoover said she had an attitude, perfectly captured in this painting, because she did not want to be photographed in her nightgown. According to Chapin, who was in rehearsal at the Austin Ballet the day of the opening, “Most of the time I don’t like to paint traditional or pretty images. It feels more human to paint people with imperfections.”

Wearing Her Heart on Her Sleeve

Also in attendance were Melvin Butler and Terri Jenkins of Stone Branch School of Art in Rockville, Md., to honor Butler’s student Juneau Kim, the winner of a Gold medal in Comic Art for Kicking Craters. Butler says he asks students to develop a character, story and sketch to show how to express tension, conflict and issues, and how to resolve them using comic style. Juneau, who was also at the opening, explained his work, “In art,” he said, “it’s hard thinking of an idea and way harder getting your idea on paper. … Art-making can be tedious, which is how my character feels on his lonely planet. … But once you get ideas and draw them out, everything starts to come together. … This is how my character felt when he realized he was not alone.”

Kicking Craters

Acclaimed poet Glenis Redmond, along with the five National Student Poets, led a workshop on writing poetry. She spoke to the level of sensitivity all artists have and how it can be transferred to both their visual art and poetry. “When you see blue,” she said, “you don’t just see blue, you see turquoise, teal, and cobalt.” Redmond taught the students about praise poems, which allow authors to explore themselves through positive connections with their present and past. After facilitating a word-play brainstorm, she showed the class the interesting self-description combinations that can be created. The students then composed their own praise poems.

Nyanna Johnson from Dayton, Ohio, offered her praise poem:

poem

Johnson said she’d been moved by the artistic energy of the other students and Redmond.

In the inspiring company of the Scholastic Art & Writing Award winners, Jamienne Studley, ED’s deputy under secretary of education, reflected that, “Creative thought matters.  It matters in peace negotiations, in science labs, in city hall, just as it does on stage or in the art studio.” Reminding the audience that these students practice critical thinking, understanding other perspectives, communication and problem solving, she addressed the students, saying, “Your art and poetry are examples of the highest form of each one of these. Today, you, right here, are the artists and poets who are expanding horizons for your generation.”

Virginia McEnerney, executive director of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, further acclaimed the students’ work, “What I often hear from judges of the Scholastic Awards is that your work gives them hope for the future of the arts. … [and] the track record of these awards would indicate that you are on a very good path to taking us, as a country, into the future with creativity and innovation, the core of our success.” Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, concluded, saying, “Arts education is not something different or separate from education; arts education is a … critical part of education.”

Click here to see additional photos from the exhibit opening.

All photos are by Tony Hitchcock.

Jackye Zimmermann is director of ED’s Student Art Exhibit Program.

The Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public place that honors their work as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann at 202-401-0762 or at jacquelyn.zimmermann@ed.gov/.