Let’s Do This Work Together: The Importance of Parents in Today’s Schools

“I ask you to hear my remarks not as information, nor as argument, but as a call to action.” Secretary Arne Duncan, National Convention of the Parent Teacher Association, Austin, Texas, June 20, 2014

Secretary Arne Duncan spoke these words today during the National Convention of the Parent Teacher Association, when he addressed a crowd of about 1,200 parents, teachers, and students gathered in Austin, Texas. The Secretary outlined the changes needed to improve public education and talked about the need to challenge and prepare students for their future, taking questions and sharing his vision for moving education forward.

The Secretary shared stories of his experience as a parent and the state of education nationally. He urged parents to work together to create the types of schools that will meet the needs of future careers by advocating for the advancement of the teaching profession, as well as college- and career-ready standards, preschool for all, and college affordability.

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Secretary Arne Duncan chats with Teacher Ambassador Fellows JoLisa Hoover (left) and José Rodriguez (right) at the National PTA Conference. (Photo credit: Karen Stratman/U.S. Department of Education)

As I listened, I thought of all the volunteers that have come through my classroom and of my own young niece and nephews and the paths that lay ahead of them as they begin school. As a teacher, PTA member, and proud aunt of preschool and public school children, I share Secretary Duncan’s call to action to improve education and his invitation to work together.

My mother was my class’s “room mom” throughout my elementary school experience and both my parents actively supported schools throughout the time they had kids in public schools. My mom and dad still volunteer and support my classroom, and they’re also involved in their grandchildren’s school lives. They have always been models for me regarding the importance of service to others and have demonstrated how to be involved and supportive without becoming “helicopter parents.”

Parent volunteers have been a lifeline for me and have enriched my classroom more than they will ever know. Every time a parent volunteers to take a task that saves a teacher time, he or she enables that teacher to be a better educator. Parents have raised money to fill in budget gaps and have routinely provided items not in the budget. I am so thankful for parents that have dutifully read e-mails, checked homework, attended parent conferences, and kept their children reading through the summer, all to support their child and their school.

Parents, you are important learning partners and teachers are so thankful for all you do!

Yet parents have another valuable role, and that is in making their voices heard regarding education policy. I am so thankful that my parents taught me how to be my own best advocate and demonstrated for me the importance of speaking up. During his speech, Secretary Duncan urged parents to use their collective voice to support ideas to build schools that will meet the needs of the next generation.

So, what exactly can parents do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be a voice for higher expectations;
  • Be a voice for elevating the teaching profession; and
  • Be a voice for the kinds of changes our schools must make to truly prepare our young people for the future they will face.

Improving schools is an important job and one that teachers, parents, and policymakers should do together.

JoLisa Hoover is a 2008 and 2014 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow and educator in Leander, Texas.

Interning at ED’s International Affairs Office Provides Worldly Perspective

My belief that a failing education system is one of the biggest problems faced by many societies is what compelled me to pursue an internship at the Department of Education. Working in the international affairs office (IAO) has offered me the perfect opportunity to combine my two passions: international affairs and education policy.

I have learned more about improving access to a quality education and that education can be an effective tool in eradicating poverty, advancing gender equality, ensuring healthy lives, supporting environmental sustainability, promoting good governance, and enhancing peace and security.

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Gaining valuable experiences as an intern. From left to right: Noel Schroeder of Women Thrive Worldwide; Allison Anderson of the Center for Universal Education; Meredy Talbot-Zorn of Save the Children; Rebecca Nasuti, Intern at ED’s IAO; Beckey Miller of ED’s IAO; and Laura Henderson of Women Thrive Worldwide (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Engaging with numerous organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Organization of American States (OAS), and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) has provided me with a substantial body of knowledge.

As an intern, I am exposed to the multifaceted ways ED engages with the international community to improve education.

During my first couple weeks, I was able to meet the Chinese Vice Minister of Education and his delegation during a meeting to discuss issues such as student exchanges, K-12 policy development, and higher education collaboration. I also met representatives from the Center for Universal Education, Save the Children, and Women Thrive Worldwide to discuss post-2015 education goals and targets to enhance equitable education for all.

I’ve seen the IAO’s involvement with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department, and the Peace Corps, and I have worked on updating and developing new content for the APEC Education Wiki that spans decades of cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. I believe education initiatives within APEC are particularly important and timely, as President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” stresses the significance of enhanced partnerships and diplomatic ties in the region. I am so humbled by this experience and I feel as though I’ve already become a more globalized citizen — and this is only the beginning.

Even though I have grown up during a time where Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and smart phones are the norm, I’ve never questioned that we are more interconnected today than ever before.  But accepting how inextricably tied we are to each other can be daunting. I can confidently say that interning in the IAO has already strengthened my ties to the world outside of Peachtree Corners, Georgia.

After graduation, I plan to apply for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant in the Asia-Pacific region so I can utilize the skills I am acquiring during my internship within the framework of a totally new education system.

In the long-term, I plan to be a lifelong international nomad in hopes that I can continue to learn about the people and cultures with whom we share this earth. In a society running toward innovation and advancement, there is no telling where we will be decades from now. To quote Secretary Duncan, “expanding educational attainment everywhere is the best way to grow the economic pie for all.”

Wherever we go from here, we’re going together as an interconnected network of nations. I’m excited to see what’s to come.

Rebecca Nasuti is an intern in the International Affairs Office at the U.S. Department of Education.

Recognizing the Importance of Summer Learning Day

Today we join hundreds of communities and programs across the country in celebrating National Summer Learning Day, a recognized national advocacy day to spread awareness about the importance of summer learning to our nation’s youth—specifically, in helping close the achievement gap and supporting healthy development.

Summer learning is everywhere; it’s happening in cities and towns all across the country. Today in Fayetteville, NC, the local university is opening its doors to local youth to learn about its College Readiness Summer Institute and how they can participate. In Louisville, KY, Mayor Greg Fischer joined other prominent local figures to kick off Every 1 Learns, a citywide summer learning effort designed to provide access to academic support and meaningful work experience for Louisville youth.

Find more summer learning opportunities across the country on our interactive Summer Learning Day Map.

Last month, I blogged on HomeRoom about how families can keep their teens learning and preparing for college and careers this summer. A few weeks later, First Lady Michelle Obama joined students in San Antonio to highlight her college access initiative Reach Higher. She is supporting President Obama’s “North Star” goal of returning the U.S. to being the leader in college graduates by 2020. One of the core solutions in achieving that goal is summer learning. The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) is excited to partner with the First Lady in helping teens “Reach Higher” all summer long and beyond.

Today it is a true honor to share the stage with the First Lady at the U.S. Department of Education to celebrate National Summer Learning Day. Bringing together high school students and education leaders from across the country, our event highlights the critical role summer learning plays in preparing young people for successful college entry and completion.

The First Lady and other guests will see and hear from young people about the incredible things they learned last summer, like how to write a personal statement,  teach and mentor younger youth, dance, cook healthy meals, apply for financial aid, and even dissect a sheep brain.

The 100 youth joining us today have the opportunity of a lifetime to participate in exemplary programs, and we hope to extend that opportunity to all young people who need and want that experience. Across the country, we’re beginning to see school districts partner with institutions of higher education and other nonprofits to offer rigorous coursework, counseling, and meaningful work experience for young people in the summer, and it’s changing lives.

There’s great reason to believe that summer learning opportunities can increase college access and completion among first generation college students. We’re thrilled that Mrs. Obama has taken notice of the importance of summer learning, and we’re honored to work with her on such an important issue for our nation’s youth.

Sarah Pitcock is CEO of the National Summer Learning Association.

5 Key Takeaways from #edcampusa

The energy at the end of the day was infectious.  To hear Emily Davis from the U.S. Department of Education speak with such passion about what had occurred at ED that day was both encouraging and inspiring.  In lieu of the traditional Edcamp smackdown to wrap up the day, 100 educators from around the nation discussed the day’s impact of the first ever EdCamp USA. In reflecting on my time at the department on June 6, and having co-facilitated four sessions throughout the day,  I left with the following five main takeaways:

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At the first EdCamp USA. Pictured, from left to right, Joe Mazza, Innovation Leadership Manager at PennGSE; U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Tom Murray, State and District Digital Learning Policy & Advocacy Director for the Alliance for Excellent Education (Photo courtesy Tom Murray)

Innovation Leadership Manager at PennGSE

1. Relationships and Culture Matter at ALL Levels - Throughout each of the four sessions I was a part of and regardless if we were discussing digital leadership, being connected, or a tool such as Voxer, educators continuously shared how relationships and school culture are a difference maker.  Personally, how will I foster relationships with those at the ED, those in Congress and the Senate, State Departments of Ed, so that we can collectively work to provide students with the access they need and staff with the professional learning needed to effectively shift instructional pedagogy?  What tools can we use to form bonds with other educators both near and far?  How can I encourage other educators to do the same?

2. Connected Educators are My Educational Family - Prior to being connected with educators around the world on Twitter, I felt like a man on an educational island.  The role of the principal was one that was often professionally lonely and challenging.  After becoming connected on Twitter with some of education’s best and brightest, I became encouraged, inspired, and professionally challenged to be better for kids.  Over time these relationships have fostered incredible friendships.  Being able to spend quality time with educators I may see only a few times a year reminds me that these high quality relationships are not just part of my professional learning network, but my educational family.  A special thank you to Joe Mazza, Steven Anderson, Adam Bellow, Susan Bearden, Katrina Stevens, Tom Whitby, Erin Klein, Bob Dillon, Jerry Switak, Patrick Larkin and Kristen Swanson, who were all at #edcampusa, for this reminder and for pushing me to be better for the kids we serve, all while having an incredible amount of fun in the process.

3.  It’s not about the technology; It’s about the learning - During session 4, Joe Mazza (@joe_mazza) and I co-facilitated a session entitled, “From DM to Voxer”.  In using this tool, we reached out to and received feedback from about 15 educators across the world (including Australia) regarding how the use of such tools can connect educators to help problem solve, form relationships, discuss topics and trends, etc.  Although it could appear that such a session would be tool focused, it’s about the end game; the learning and connecting that come from its use that’s ultimately most important.

4. Personalized PD is Essential - Session after session, the topic of high quality professional development was discussed or brought up by someone in each group.  Simply put, the traditional, top-down, one-size fits all approach to PD is outdated and a waste of time.  It must be replaced with a model that is meaningful, engaging and relevant, where teacher voice is an important part of the process and owership is shared by all.  There is little arugment to the fact that professional development is a key to moving our students to higher levels of achievement.

5. We have a Leadership Crisis Upon Us - Similar to professional development, many identified issues throughout the day, seem to come back to one key area; the need for high-octane educational leaders who create environments that promote risk-taking and innovation in their schools, who focus on the whole child not just state test scores, and who are models for the staff and students they serve.

Like any professional learning experience, what matters most is what happens from this point forward.  So I will personally and publically commit to the following:

  • Continue to work to develop high quality relationships with those in State Departments and Districts across the nation.

  • Remain connected with educators from around the world and engage with them.  I commit to continuing to share my learning, push the thinking of others, allow my own points of view to be challenged, and to help others get connected and see the value in learning alongside others.

  • Continue to keep my focus on the learning, and not on devices, tools, and the latest tech fad.

  • Continue to work with state leaders in my new role as the State and District Digital Learning Director, helping them transform professional learning at their levels, so that educators are engaged and the time is well spent.

  • Find ways to cultivate leaders around our nation.  Our children need incredible educational leaders serving them at all levels.

I want to commend Secretary Arne Duncan, Director of the Office of Educational Technology Richard Culatta, and Teacher Ambassador Emily Davis, all from the US Department of Education, for their work to make the first EdCamp at the Department a huge success.  The kids of our nation will benefit from this opportunity.  Thank you.

To those that I learned alongside of at the ED, what is it that you’ll publicly commit to as well?  Leave a comment in the section below.  Don’t let this past Friday be just another day day of PD.  Let it be a difference maker for those that we serve.

We can do this!

Tom Murray is the State and District Digital Learning Policy & Advocacy Director for the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C.

Past Presidential Scholars Reflect on the Program’s 50th Anniversary

The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program was established by executive order of the President fifty years ago this month. The program recognizes and honors some of our nation’s most distinguished graduating high school seniors and was expanded in 1979 to recognize students who demonstrate exceptional talent in the visual, creative, and performing arts.

Each year, 141 students are named as Presidential Scholars, one of the nation’s highest honors for high school students.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the program, ED has collected reflections from past winners, who explain how the program influenced their life and career.

Cornelia A. Clark, Class of 1968

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The first class of Presidential Scholars in 1964. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Presidential Scholars Alumni Association)

In 1968, as a then-resident of Atlanta, Georgia, I was honored to be named a Presidential Scholar from Georgia.  That June, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the assassinations of both Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy coincided with the Poor People’s Campaign and the construction of Resurrection City. This was when I visited the Supreme Court, Congress, and the White House for the first time and got a close-up political view of a country in the midst of crisis at home and abroad. President Lyndon B. Johnson told our class of scholars that we represented the best and brightest hope for the future of the world, and that we must live the rest of our lives in a way that would honor the recognition we received.

I have carried that challenge with me throughout my career. Each time I have accomplished something meaningful in my personal or professional life, President Johnson’s words have come back to me, especially during the time from September 1, 2010 — August 31, 2012, when I served as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. I believe that that achievement, as well as many others, came in part because of the encouragement I received in 1968.

For me, the distinction as Presidential Scholar was life changing. Each year now I locate at least one new scholar who resides near me and tell her why I hope it will be for her as well.

Cornelia A. Clark is a former Justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court

Sankar Swaminathan, Class of 1975

Many years later, when I look back at having been a Presidential Scholar, I still see the long hair and dated clothes that we were wearing. It was 1975, and Washington D.C. and the nation were still in turmoil from the effects of Watergate. Despite the politics of that summer, being invited to the White House was a great honor for all of us. I think the students and their parents were somewhat awed by being guests at the State Department and visiting the Rose Garden. But I also remember that it was a lot of fun.

What does it mean to have been a Presidential Scholar? Few people know what it represents, but when they see it in your CV, many ask about it. I tell them, with a little embarrassment, that it is given to two high school students chosen from every state, to honor scholastic and personal achievement.

At the time, as a seventeen year old, I was very grateful for the award and activities of those few days. I remember my fellow Scholars as excited to be there, and despite having received this prestigious award, being very down-to-earth and friendly. It inspired me to be worthy of being chosen to be among them, and to continue to try to meet such interesting, intellectually engaged and morally committed people. There really were a lot of idealists at that time. I hope that today’s awardees feel as fondly about the experience in forty years as I do today.

Sankar Swaminathan is a Don Merrill Rees Presidential Endowed Chair and Professor of Medicine and Chief of Infectious Diseases
at the Department of Medicine
at University of Utah School of Medicine

Christine Théberge Rafal, Class of 1984

Our local newspaper interviewed me about my selection as one of New Hampshire’s 1984 Presidential Scholars. An angry principal called me to the office for the first time in my life: “What? You never thought of yourself as an intellectual because your school doesn’t support intellectuals?”

“Well, morning announcements only ever mention my track performances, never my math meet scores, which are much better,” I replied.

My mother reported that the conversation made a difference for my younger brother and schoolmates in subsequent years, with the school making real efforts to acknowledge academic accomplishments.

Spending Recognition Week in alphabetical order by state, I made lifelong friendships with scholars from Nebraska and Nevada. The student from Nevada and I founded a little Presidential Scholar “posse”. We went to the same college together and stayed in touch over the summer, went to a movie as a group every Sunday night for all four years at college, and a couple of us even went to the same grad school! When a family friend from across the river in Maine was selected and didn’t want to go to Recognition Week, I persuaded him of the value.

Girls and women with ADHD, especially undiagnosed for years (decades) as mine was, often have low self-esteem, but having been a Presidential Scholar, whether anyone else knows it or not, has helped me emphasize my abilities instead.

Christine Théberge Rafal, is a Coordinator for Grants and Evaluation for Artists for Humanity, a non-profit that provides under-resourced youth with paid employment opportunities in the arts

Virgil Calejesan, Class of 1998

It’s an interesting exercise to think back 16 years ago. I find what I remember best are the people – particularly my fellow scholars and our leaders from prior award years that spirited us along from event to event.

I also viscerally recall a string of late nights, constantly amazed by my peers, trying to make connections at every unscheduled moment. I recall standing in line, though that too was quite fun given the company. I remember falling asleep wearing sunglasses at the Degas, At the Races in the Countryside exhibition and awakening to a museum-goer commenting “Pretty amazing, right?” What is amazing is how comfortable that couch was. Did they know I was asleep for the preceding 15 minutes?

If I could sum up National Recognition Week in a word, it would be “honored.” I still have a hard time believing that I deserved such an award, chosen on the basis of “outstanding scholarship, service, leadership, and creativity.” If I’ve learned anything in 16 years, it’s that those words are not achievements frozen in time, but rather a reflection of character. And if I am to accept that honor, then I must also accept the implicit responsibility to continue to deserve it.

That is what sticks with me to this day. And when I think of that museum-goer, maybe, in fact, they weren’t talking about Degas; maybe they somehow knew the impact the Presidential Scholar experience would have on me after all these years.

And they were right: It is truly amazing.

Virgil Calejesan is a designer living in Brooklyn, NY, who specializes in helping to create aerospace safety garments

Nigel Campbell, Class of 2004

(Nigel Campbell’s account is provided courtesy of the U.S. Presidential Scholars Alumni Association.)

Nigel Campbell began studying dance at age 12 at Creative Outlet Dance Theater of Brooklyn.  He attended The Julliard School and embarked on his professional dance career after graduation.  Here’s how he responds, in part, when asked what stands out the most in his memory about his National Recognition Week trip to Washington, D.C., after being named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts.

“Wow, it was an honor unlike any other,” he recalls.  “People – artists – work their entire lives to try to get to perform at the Kennedy Center.”

“And here I was at 17, performing a solo to a packed, sold-out audience with the President and the Secretary of Education and my entire family.  And a standing ovation. It was one of those really magical moments that you relive in your head throughout your life.  This was, by far, the most special moment of a week that was filled with a lot of really special moments.”

“Being recognized by the Presidential Scholars Program imbued me with a sense of confidence and a sense of my self-worth at a very early age. It really was the affirmation that I really could do this in a real way – that I could do all of the things that I’m doing now.”

Nigel Campbellis a member of Sweeden’s GoteborgsOperans Danskompani, the largest modern dance company in the Nordic region.

 

 

 

Parent and Community Engagement is Key Driver of School Transformation in Baltimore

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As part of its “Expanding Great Options” initiative, Baltimore City Public Schools has employed a holistic parent engagement strategy to turn around struggling schools. One principal built relationships with parents and students by shaking hands before and after school each day. Teachers sent out flyers, knocked on doors, and made phone calls to parents to discuss their children’s performance. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Cross-posted from the PROGRESS blog.

Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle School is located in an impoverished neighborhood of East Baltimore that struggles with high rates of gang violence and teen pregnancy. In 2010, based on its test scores, Commodore ranked 872 out of 875 schools in Maryland. It enrolled only 225 students, half of the building’s capacity. Four principals had come and gone during the previous five years.

In the past four years, however, the school’s results have improved measurably. Enrollment more than doubled, chronic absences dropped significantly, and the percentage of students proficient in reading and mathematics rose 20 percent. In 2012, the school’s mathematics performance exceeded the districtwide average.

In 2010, Baltimore City Public Schools chose Commodore to participate in its “Expanding Great Options” initiative. The city opened new schools, expanded the capacity of high-performing ones, closed the lowest performers, and began working to turn around struggling schools, all while making district-wide school choice available.

With intensive support underwritten by Race to the Top funding, the district was able to change school culture and dramatically accelerate learning outcomes using a variety of methods: parent engagement, community relationships, new leadership, extra support staff, a longer learning day, new technology, more staff mentoring, and professional development for teachers.

Marc Martin, who became Commodore’s new principal in 2010, tells the story of how his school integrated these methods into an effective school turnaround strategy. “We sent out flyers, made phone calls and knocked on doors to let families know we were here.”

Martin and his staff held focus groups, barbecues and ice cream socials with parents to hear their concerns and feedback, as well as inform them about changes they could expect to see at the school. “I started out every morning shaking kids’ hands and being available to families,” said Martin, knowing that building relationships must be a priority.

Parents have expressed their appreciation for the efforts of Commodore’s staff. “I get phone calls from Maurice’s teachers letting me know about something good my grandson did. I like those kinds of phone calls,” said Carolyn Baker, whose grandson, Maurice, is a third grader. “When I was sick and couldn’t get my grandson to school, he [Commodore staff member] would pick him up and bring him home.”

Commodore’s efforts are paying off. With 95 percent of parents now attending academic conferences and engaging in students’ progress, student achievement is trending upward. Mathematics proficiency has gone from 47 percent in 2010 to 62 percent in 2013, and reading proficiency has gone from 49 percent in 2010 to 72 percent in 2013. Citywide, reading proficiency is up by 20 percent and mathematics proficiency by 18 percent. Dropout rates are declining and high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates are on the rise. While there is still a long way to go, Baltimore City’s solid foundation, built on strong family and community engagement and school leadership, will continue to facilitate the district’s goal of continuous improvement.

Read the full story to learn more.

Students Compete in Healthy Lunch Cook-off at ED

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Students participate in the Cooking Up Change competition. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The school year is coming to an end, but the commitment to ensuring America’s students have meals that are healthy, delicious and affordable is a year-round effort.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education hosted the finalists of Cooking Up Change, a culinary competition sponsored by the Healthy Schools Campaign, a non-profit Chicago organization. Ten teams presented dishes for evaluation to a panel of judges from the fields of education, nutrition and government. The meals were required to be between 750-850 calories and needed to cost around one dollar per meal, showing the possibility of executing nutrition, taste, and low budgets.

White House Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy Sam Kass stopped by to commend the young chefs who had traveled across the country.

“I think there’s a real effort in undermining rolling back standards,” said Kass. “We need to make sure we’re putting kids and science first and let nutritionists determine standards, not politicians.”

During the event, Kass joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and wife Karen Duncan in voicing support for the Hunger-Free Kids Act. Since 2010, the law has held schools financially responsible for ramping up healthy meals, with quotas on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein while reducing fat, salt, and sugar – standards justified by the Institute of Medicine and the USDA. The aim of the Act is to stem the growing national obesity rate, as well as the billions of dollars spent annually on treating obesity-related conditions.

According to Secretary Duncan, the vast majority of schools are meeting or exceeding standards at a 90-95% rate. He said the USDA is providing flexibility to the remaining schools that need assistance in keeping up with requirements. Full rollbacks, however, would derail their progress.

“This event is a great reminder to us all why we’re here – sometimes what is missing is the kids,” Secretary Duncan said to the student chefs.

Read more about the Cooking up Change competition and to see a list of this year’s winners.

Max Luong is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

Learning by Doing: Hands-On Experiences Help Children Learn and Dream

I recently visited a great hands-on, experiential learning site for young children.  The IntelliZeum, the brainchild of Executive Director Blanca Enriquez, is a one-of-a-kind interactive learning environment, created in El Paso, Texas 10 years ago. This stimulating learning center provides enriching experiences for the lucky area Head Start children who visit twice each year.

There were so many things I liked about the IntelliZeum. Each specialized learning area within the IntelliZeum has different clothing, tools, and unique things to do.  Children may enter a “space center” where they dress in space suits. They may visit a pretend doctor’s office where they don white coats and stethoscopes.  When the children travel to the “Arctic room,” it’s freezing cold; in the “rainforest room,” it’s hot and muggy.  In the “electricity and water center” they discover how water makes power — and they learn about water conservation.

The IntelliZeum sets high expectations for what children can learn. And children learn about all kinds of things, from parts of the solar system, to types of dinosaurs, to names of tools used for building construction. Before each visit, children are prepared with vocabulary and background knowledge so they can get the most out of the experience. And after the visit, learning is reinforced in the classroom by incorporating the concepts and rich oral language into reading, math, science, technology, social studies, and fine arts activities.

The learning environments are sophisticated and designed to stretch children’s minds, encouraging them — even at age 3 and 4 — to start thinking about interesting and important future careers. I know children leave dreaming of becoming doctors, architects, engineers, pilots, or reporters.

Something else that I really liked was the intentional inclusion of children with disabilities. A child in a wheelchair can get inside the time capsule for traveling to the age of the dinosaurs. The underwater “ocean,” an area enclosed by three giant aquariums, is also handicapped accessible, so a child in a wheel chair can wheel right in while the other children scramble under one of the aquariums. But all the kids end up in the same place.

I wish engaging learning centers like the IntelliZeum could be available to all children. But parents can help their children engage in rich learning experiences — at home and during daily activities.

For example, instead of watching television, families can take a trip to the airport, visit a train station, or observe a construction site in the neighborhood and take advantage of teachable moments within these experiences. Even errands to the store can be turned into solid learning experiences by exposing children to vocabulary words, letting the children participate by picking out and weighing fruits and vegetables, taking photos with a parent’s smartphone of something they like, or talking to a person at the store. We need to get back to experiential learning that is real, exciting, and meaningful — and summer can be a great time to do that.

Libby Doggett is the deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Six Students Tell Stories About Their Educational Successes

What does success in education look like? And what makes it possible? Six students recently sat down at a youth panel on social and emotional learning to talk about the educators that made the biggest differences in their lives.

The students provided real examples of what Professors Kimberly Schonert-Reichl and Gil Noam presented in lectures at a recent conference in Minnesota sponsored by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, the National League of Cities, the U.S. Department of Education, and others.

The students’ stories illustrate the many ways that educators can play an important role in ensuring that young people succeed.

  • Rich Pennington is a recent college graduate. He talked about the difficulties he had to overcome when he was described as a stereotypical young black male. An employer who gave him a space to fail and two teachers who took time to really get to know him made it possible for him to succeed.
  • Brittany Eich describes herself as an introvert. She had teachers and family who challenged her, gave her options, and then asked her what she wanted to do.
  • Chava Gabrielle has trouble with time management. She found support from peers who were a little older, but they challenged and supported her.
  • David Kim is a college graduate. He had teachers who helped him develop the skill of expressing from the heart and not just from the mind. They showed him a technique that he is now sharing with others.
  • Gao Vue was told she had ADD, but her mother didn’t accept it. She talked about a father who was a negative influence, but taught her how to be strong.
  • Hannah Quartrom says she likes to take over and lead. Her mother was an example of how to solve problems and get through difficult situations.

Employers, teachers, family, and peers, everyone can play a role in helping students develop the social emotional skills they need to succeed.

Ken Bedell is a senior advisor in the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center at the U.S. Department of Education.

Real Equality in Education Remains Elusive

This op-ed originally appeared in the National Journal.

This year the nation will commemorate two historic actions taken to protect equal rightsthe 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that abolished state-sponsored segregation in public education — and the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

We are left with an important question: Has the promise of Brown and the Civil Rights Act been fulfilled?

Most people agree that despite progress made, educational equity and opportunity remains out of reach for many students from diverse language and cultural backgrounds. For example, of all students enrolled in low-performing schools, 42 percent are black and 33 percent are Latino. Furthermore, these students are much more likely to be taught by teachers with less experience than those leading classrooms in more affluent, mostly white school districts.

There is some good news. Communities that recognize the value of language and cultural diversity have contributed to the proliferation of dual-language programs in schools across the country. California, Illinois, and New York all offer students what’s known as the Seal of Bi-literacy, a distinction that appears on the diplomas and transcripts of students who have become proficient in two or more languages by high school graduation.Legislation that would create a similar student recognition is either pending or under consideration in 10 other states.

Boosting the number of students able to speak, read, and write in more than one language—what President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan sometimes refer to as “bi-literacy skills”—has become essential to America’s future economic prosperity and national security.

We also have more work to do. According to the Education Department’s latest Civil Rights Data Collection, information compiled from all 97,000 of the nation’s public schools, black students (57 percent), Latino students (67 percent), and English learners (65 percent) have less access than their white, English-speaking peers (71 percent) to the kinds of rigorous math and science courses needed for college and many careers.

The CRDC also provides other evidence of unequal opportunity. Students in the process of learning English represent 5 percent of the nation’s high school students but only 2 percent of those enrolled in advanced-placement courses. Among students already proficient in English, about 7 percent participate in gifted and talented programs at their schools. That figure is three and a half times larger than the paltry 2 percent of students in the process of learning English who participate in similar programs.

In a country where the share of students who come from households where languages other than English are spoken at home is expanding, one has to wonder how much untapped potential is being squandered. How many exceptional minds are insufficiently challenged each day?

A number of recent incidents have also served to remind us that we have much more to do to ensure supportive, inclusionary, and egalitarian environments for all our children. Recently a school principal in Texas made headlines when she described the act of speaking Spanish as “disruptive” and prohibited it at school. Although the principal’s contract was not renewed and the ban on speaking Spanish lifted, this incident had a chilling effect on students and the community. It opened old wounds left from a time when this kind of language oppression was common.

Sadly, in the past year alone Education Department staff has heard similar stories during visits to schools in California, Colorado, Illinois, and Nevada. Students, parents, and even Hispanic teachers have reported being prohibited from speaking Spanish in all settings, including parent-teacher conferences. The agency’s Office for Civil Rights has also investigated several complaints alleging that school districts discriminate on the basis of national origin by prohibiting, and sometimes punishing, students for speaking in their native language. In 2013, the division received almost 80 official complaints containing allegations of discrimination on the basis of national origin involving services for English-learner students and/or communication with parents of limited English proficiency.

In many of these cases, districts have not been able to show valid educational justifications for these actions. Ironically, the reason given by many school administrators and districts for prohibiting Spanish is what I see as the misguided notion that this promotes more rapid learning of the English language.

As a former bilingual-education teacher, principal, and district superintendent, I have a hard time conceptualizing any valid educational justification for barring languages other than English from schools, making it more difficult for parents and teachers to communicate or sending the message to students that speaking a second language is a bad thing. Instead, it seems clear that these sorts of actions leave students and parents feeling excluded. Devaluing other languages and cultures is not only harmful to student identity and self-confidence, but can also be disruptive to the learning process.

In this country, we have a civic duty and moral obligation to be vigilant and courageous in taking appropriate action when we witness cases of mistreatment and exclusion of any student. We must embrace the richness and diversity that is our cultural and linguistic heritage. And, as we collectively face increasing global economic and political interdependency, equipping more students with the skills to read, speak, and write in multiple languages represents not only an advantage but an essential part of our country’s security.

Only when schools consistently do both will we realize the promise of Brown and the broader civil-rights movement.

Libia S. Gil is the assistant deputy secretary in the Education Department’s Office of English Language Acquisition.

Lessons Learned: The Importance of Summer Experiential Learning

Last Friday, I found myself in an elementary school classroom engaging with students on the topic of summer learning. Studies demonstrate that there is a notable trend of learning loss when young people do not engage in educational opportunities during summer months; thus, summer programs and activities are paramount to preventing the “summer slide”.

As I worked with the students, a light went on in my head as to how I conduct my own academic journey. Learning through action, discovery, and self-exploration can be as valuable as classroom experiences. These instances of experiential learning give me the chance to take classroom theories and practice them. What better time to engage in experiential learning than during the months away from school!

Whether it is getting involved with an internship or simply a local service organization, I challenge all students—especially those in high school and college— to step out of their comfort zones and try something new:

  1. Start your search by determining if your school has a service program; my college has an “Applied Study Term” option that allows us to take a semester off from coursework to grow in the community. These programs are often paired with grant and scholarship opportunities to cover incidental costs. If you’re still in high school, reach out to local organizations, like a community center, a museum, a youth group, or even your own school or library.
  2. Once you’ve narrowed your interests, contact relevant organizations for an interview. I dare you to pick an organization based on the personal contribution you can make to it rather than its name or prestige. Being able to “own” your assignments will help you discover your passions.
  3. Now that you have found a niche, make sure to have fun and connect your experiences over the summer with classroom knowledge. Your mind grows brighter with every light bulb moment.

They always say that the most important lessons in life come from experiencing it; ironically, my lesson still happened in a classroom through my summer internship with ED, just 822 miles away from home.

Michael Lotspeich is an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach and a junior at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Supporting the Economy by Helping Student Loan Borrowers Manage Debt

Cross-posted from the Department of the Treasury ‘Treasury Notes’ blog.

In today’s global economy, a higher education is one of the most important investments students can make in their own futures.  But for too many lower and middle-income families​, this essential rung on the ladder to opportunity is slipping out of reach as tuition continues to rise, and more students than ever are relying on loans to pay for college.

As the President takes further steps today to make a college education more affordable, there are now more tools available to help students and families manage their debt.

The Obama Administration is working to make college more accessible and affordable.  As part of these efforts, the Treasury Department and the Department of Education teamed up with Intuit Inc. during the 2014 tax season to launch a pilot program to raise awareness about income-driven repayment plans with millions of tax filers. The pilot resulted in nearly 100,000 clicks by individuals taking action to visit the Department of Education’s Repayment Estimator website and evaluate their repayment options.

Users of Intuit’s TurboTax service were able to determine their eligibility for lower student loan payments based on their income by connecting to the Repayment Estimator. Income-driven repayment plans allow borrowers to fully repay their student debt on a sliding scale that adjusts monthly payments based on factors like changing income and growing families. These tools are helping lower and middle-income families pay their debts and avoid default.

The partnership helped spread the word about tools available to borrowers. Intuit’s research suggests that many of its TurboTax online customers have student loans and many may not be aware of Department of Education’s loan repayment options. Building on this collaboration, today the White House announced an expanded partnership with Intuit and a new partnership with H&R Block to reach even more individuals who could benefit from income-driven repayment options, both during tax season, and beyond.

President Obama has said, “Higher education can’t be a luxury — it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.” As part of our mission of promoting economic growth and job opportunities, the Treasury Department will continue to explore ways to help student borrowers responsibly manage their debt.

In addition to the Repayment Estimator, the Department of Education offers federal student loan borrowers several repayment options and loan counseling tools to help students and families make informed decisions on financing a college education.

Melissa Koide is the deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Consumer Policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.