Congress Announces Bipartisan Proposal to Expand Early Ed Access

Secretary Arne Duncan joined members of Congress, business and military leaders, law enforcement officials, educators and parents last week, to voice support for a landmark early learning bill. Introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), and Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), the Strong Start for America’s Children Act would improve and expand high-quality early learning opportunities for children from birth to age five.

Earlier this year, President Obama proposed a new partnership with states that would provide universal, high-quality, full-day preschool for 4-year olds from low- and moderate-income families. The new bill, if signed into law, will accelerate the progress that states already are making to implement high-quality preschool programs and ensure that these programs are accessible to children who need them the most.

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Meredith Bajgier is a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Education

Rural Education is Being Rewritten

Duncan at speech

Secretary Arne Duncan gave remarks at the Rural Education National Forum, hosted by Battelle for Kids and the Ohio Department of Education.

One in five Americans live, work, and learn in rural communities. Yet rural places sometimes seem to play a far smaller role in conversations about improving education – a situation that must change, Secretary Arne Duncan said in a major address at the Rural Education National Forum on October 31 in Ohio.

Among “real and urgent” challenges to world-class rural education are shrinking tax bases, limited AP course access, and a lack of great special education, English-Language Learners (ELL), and STEM teachers.

But the Secretary also recognized the tremendous potential of rural communities to make transformational change and to achieve results.

“I reject the idea that rural districts are too isolated to pioneer innovation and propel powerful partnerships,” said Duncan to an audience of 350. “I reject the narrative that says rural America cannot provide a rich and rigorous curriculum, or compete for attention or funding.”

Duncan Shoots Hoops

During Duncan’s rural stops he took time to shoot hoops with students at Dunbar High School in Dayton, Ohio.

To promote local progress, the Department continues to make key investments in rural communities through its Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Investing in Innovation (i3) competitions.

The Secretary provided several telling examples of rural communities that have made positive and powerful changes using federal dollars. With a $40 million Race to the Top District award, the Green River Educational Cooperative provided personalized learning to nearly 60,000 students in 22 rural districts. The Niswonger Foundation, based in Tennessee, and eMINTS, in Missouri, used i3 as a catalyst to expand high-quality professional development for teachers and to increase access to college-credit courses for rural high school students.

“Our progress over the last four years, and the outstanding examples of innovation and capacity-building that I see here today, tells me that the narrative of rural education is being rewritten, even as we speak,” said Duncan.

The Rural Education National Forum was part of a two-day Department visit to rural communities, where the Secretary spoke to members of the FFA, participated in early learning forums, and visited with school and student leaders.

Read the Secretary’s speech to the Rural Education National Forum here.

Meredith Bajgier is a Public Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Department of Education

School Garden Plants Sense of Community

At Cherry Hill Alternative High School in Cherry Hill, N.J., great educations are made with soil, seeds, and sunshine.

The school, which serves 44 students, is devoted to “academic rigor, character education, career exploration and workplace readiness,” according to its vision statement. In 2010, Cherry Hill Alternative High School had established internships and financial literacy programs to support this vision. Students were required to complete service hours, which, up until then, had happened off campus.

This ideal sowed a new seed.  Planted three years ago, the community garden initially functioned as an on-site alternative to the school’s service learning requirement. Because the high school is housed in the same building as Cherry Hill Public School District administrative offices, students sometimes felt that they lacked ownership of their environment.

The garden at Cherry Hill Alternative High School

At Cherry Hill Alternative High School in Cherry Hill, N.J., great educations are made with soil, seeds, and sunshine.

“We wanted to build a sense of pride in our school campus,” said Dr. Neil Burti, Cherry Hill’s Principal. Today, 12 students now tend the garden: school pride grows alongside lettuce, onions, tomato, kale, and cucumbers.

Since its first harvest the garden has blossomed into more than a school beautification project. Although the school originally planned to donate its produce to the local food bank, FDA regulations caused it to till the soil in a different direction.

Today, the high school intends to partner with Spring Hills Cherry Hill, a nearby nursing home and assisted living community with a garden of its own.

The garden also has become essential to the high school’s science curriculum, which explores biology alongside environmental education and sustainability.

When speaking at the Green School National Network Conference in Denver, Secretary Duncan said that “green schools and environmental literacy… complement the goals of providing a well-rounded education for the 21st century, of modernizing schools at reduced costs, and of accelerating learning.”

Paul Arno, a science teacher at Cherry Hill Alternative school, uses the garden extensively as a classroom. For example, in one lesson, students are asked to sketch factors in the ecosystem.

“They get the picture along with the words,” said Arno. “Students can know it on one level, but when they see it [in action], they really start to get it.”

The garden is part of Cherry Hill Township’s sustainability effort to raise student awareness of environmental issues, according to Arno. By facilitating science lessons such as “Looking Toward the Future” and offering work in the garden, the school fosters a community based on social responsibility, respect for the environment, and hands-on learning.

Through a recent grant provided by the Cherry Hill Education Foundation, the school purchased a composter. Along with the garden’s rain barrel, it helps students learn firsthand the essential components of fully sustainable food sources.

“The garden makes it real to them,” said Arno.

Meredith Bajgier is a public affairs specialist in ED’s Philadelphia regional office.