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)

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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.

Joplin High School: A Living Symbol of the Community’s Values

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gaves remarks and introduced Vice President Joe Biden at the Joplin High School Homecoming and Ribbon Cutting ceremony, in Joplin, Missouri, on Oct. 3, 2014. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gives remarks and introduces Vice President Joe Biden at the Joplin High School Homecoming and Ribbon Cutting ceremony, in Joplin, Missouri, Oct. 3, 2014. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

The tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011 lasted 32 minutes and caused damage for 13 miles. At its widest point, the path of the tornado stretched a full mile. The EF5 Tornado — the most destructive on the Enhanced Fujita Scale — left a city nearly destroyed. More than 15,000 vehicles were carried away, nearly 7,000 homes were completely destroyed, and 161 people lost their lives.

The destruction of Joplin High School took place just minutes after a graduation ceremony for seniors. The ceremony was held off campus, at Missouri Southern State University. When the tornado hit, around 150 people were still in the arena, and Dr. Kerry Sachetta, the high school principal, led those individuals into the basement. But others were already on the road or back in their homes. The tornado claimed the lives of seven students (including one of the graduates) and one high school staff member.

In the months following the tornado, Secretary Arne Duncan joined then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to tour the city and the destroyed high school, and last week, Duncan returned to Joplin with Vice President Joe Biden for the dedication of the new state-of-the-art Joplin High School/Franklin Technology Center.

Secretaries Duncan and Napolitano and FEMA Deputy Administrator Serino visit Joplin, Mo., to learn about recovery efforts from the May 2011 tornado. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Secretaries Duncan and Napolitano and FEMA Deputy Administrator Serino visited Joplin in Sept., 2011. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Referring to his previous visit three years ago, Secretary Duncan spoke of how he left inspired and full of hope, and that he is not surprised at Joplin’s dramatic recovery. “In that one day [in 2011], I had some sense of the fiber and character of this community,” he said.

“It would have been much easier to build a high school that just built upon what was here in the past. This community decided that the children of Joplin deserved something much better. So they built a high school not for yesterday, not for today, but for tomorrow. In blending vocational education and college education, [and] making sure we’re not tracking children into one path or another, but giving them the option to develop for college and for careers.”

Going forward, many of Joplin’s graduates will enter college with two years of college credit under their belt, saving students and their families thousands of dollars in tuition.

“This is a vision of what high schools all across America should be doing and can be doing.”

The new Joplin High School/Franklin Technology Center isn’t just a new building, but a new vision of education for the community’s students. The opening also marked the launch of the Career Path curriculum. Students attending JHS/FTC can choose one of five Career Paths, which are developed and implemented by school, community, and business representatives, centered on core foundational knowledge and skills, plus the soft skills employers demand from their employees.

“But as powerful and as inspiring as this high school is,” Duncan said during the dedication homecoming. “For me, the building is simply a living symbol, a physical manifestation, of this community’s values.”

Cameron Brenchley is a Senior Digital Strategist for the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House.

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/.

Where To Find Help With Your Federal Student Loans

findhelp

You received a federal student loan and now it’s time to repay it. If you’re like most student loan borrowers, you may find the repayment process a little overwhelming. But you have an important resource—your student loan servicer—to help you navigate the repayment process.

What is a loan servicer?

loan servicer handles the billing and other services on your federal student loans. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) assigns your loan to a servicer, and the servicer assists you with repayment and any questions you may have about your federal student loan.

What’s so important about my loan servicer?

There are several reasons why your loan servicer is important, including the fact that you’ll make your loan payments to your servicer.

Your servicer will help you:

How do I get contact information for my loan servicer?

To view information about all of your federal student loans including contact information for your loan servicer, log in to “My Federal Student Aid.” You’ll need your Federal Student Aid PIN, so make sure you have that handy. Once you’re logged in, select “Your Federal Student Loan Summary” to view your loan information. Note: If you have multiple federal student loans you may have more than one loan servicer, be sure to select each loan to see information specific to that loan.

Remember that your loan servicer will help you throughout the loan repayment process, so keep in touch with them, especially if your financial circumstances change.

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

Ensuring Equal Access to Educational Resources for All Students

All of our students deserve equal access to educational resources like academic and extracurricular programs, strong teaching, facilities, technology, and instructional materials, no matter their race, color, or national origin.

That’s why my office, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, released new guidance this week to educators to ensure that all students have equal access to the school resources that they not only deserve, but are their right under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Our most recent Civil Rights Data Collection shows that only two out of three Latino high school students and three out of five of black high school students attend schools that offer the full range of math and science courses, defined by OCR as Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics. Since the start of this Administration, OCR has received more than 260 complaints related to resource equity. OCR has also initiated 33 investigations of states, school districts and schools. Here are two recent examples from our investigations to ensure that students of color could access the educational resources that are their right:

  • In a New Hampshire school district, black and Latino students were disproportionately under-enrolled in the district’s Advanced Placement courses. In an agreement with OCR, the district committed to consider increasing the numbers and types of courses offered and adding more teachers qualified to teach higher-level courses, among other remedies.
  • Earlier this year, in a California school district, OCR found that during the 2010-11 school year, black students in grades 3-6 were more than 4.5 times less likely than their white peers to be identified for the Gifted and Talented (GATE) program. To rectify this, the district agreed to revise GATE criteria and enrollment practices to eliminate barriers to equal access.

We released this guidance to give schools, school districts, and states detailed information on how OCR investigates resource disparities and to set a clear framework for educators on how to comply with the fundamental principle that all students, no matter their race, color, or national origin, deserve equal access to a high-quality education.

In remarks announcing the new guidance, Secretary Arne Duncan described numerous inequities in access to strong teaching, rigorous coursework, and quality facilities. “These facts, and this reality, compels us to act,” he said. “We cannot simply wring our hands and admire the problem.”

This guidance is just one part of President Obama’s larger commitment to equity, including the recently announced Excellent Educators for All initiative. It also builds on recommendations from the Equity and Excellence Commission’s 2012 “For Each and Every Child” report.

We released this guidance to end the tired practice of offering students of color less than we offer other students and to make sure that all of our students have access to the education they deserve.

Across the Department, my colleagues are also working to provide opportunities for students of color. The Department has recently announced grants to support underrepresented students in gifted and talented programs, to develop and evaluate new approaches that can expand college access, to help at-risk high school students prepare for college, and to boost college and career readiness for historically underserved students.

To view OCR’s fact sheet on resource equity in English, click here, and to view it in Spanish, click here. To view the press release, click here.

Catherine E. Lhamon is Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Avoid These 4 Mistakes I Made With My Student Loans

10.3-4-mistakes

It’s been tough for me to come to terms with, but, unfortunately for me, I am not in college anymore. In fact, this spring marked three years since I graduated from college and went into repayment on my student loans. I know, not the most exciting thing in the world, but important. So while I don’t claim to be a student loan expert, I have learned a lot of lessons along the way, mostly through trial and error. In hopes that you won’t make the same mistakes I did, here are some things I wish I had known when I was graduating and getting ready to start repaying my student loans:

1. I should have kept track of what I was borrowing

Let’s be real. When you take out student loans to help pay for college, it’s easy to forget that the money will eventually have to be paid back … with interest. The money just doesn’t seem real when you’re in college, and I didn’t do a good job of keeping track of what I was borrowing and how it was building up. When it was time to start repaying my loans, I was quite overwhelmed. I had different types of loans and different interest rates. When I did eventually see my loan balance, I was pretty shocked.

You can avoid this problem. Had I known there was a super easy way to keep track of how much I’d borrowed in federal student loans, I would have been much better off. You can view all your federal student loans in one place by going to StudentAid.gov/login.

2. I should have made interest payments while I was still in school

If you’re anything like me, you probably consumed your fair share of instant noodles while trying to survive on a college student’s budget. Trust me, I get it. But one thing I really regret when it comes to my student loans was not paying interest while I was in school or during my grace period. Like I said, I was far from rich, but when I was in college, I did have a work-study job and waited tables on the side. I probably could have spared a few dollars each month to pay down some student loan interest. Remember, student loans are borrowed money that you have to repay with interest and more importantly, that interest may capitalize, or be added to your total balance. My advice: Even though you don’t have to, do yourself a favor and consider paying at least some of your student loan interest while you’re in school. It will save you money in the long run.

3. I should have kept my loan servicer in the loop

If you’re getting ready to graduate or have graduated recently and haven’t heard from your loan servicer, make sure you check that your loan servicer has up-to-date contact info for you. When I graduated and moved into my first big-girl apartment, I forgot to change my address with my loan servicer. I found out that all of my student loan correspondence was going to my mom’s address. I hadn’t even thought to update my loan servicer with my new contact information. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Keep your servicer informed of address, email, and phone changes.

4. I should have figured out what my monthly loan payments were going to be BEFORE I went into repayment

By the time my grace period was over, I had a decent idea of how much I had borrowed in total, but I had no idea what my monthly payments would be. I thought I was fine. I had started my new job and been paying rent and other bills for about six months. Then my grace period ended, and I got my first bill from my loan servicer. It was definitely an expense I hadn’t fully taken into account.

Don’t make the same mistake. Federal Student Aid has an awesome repayment estimator that allows you to pull in your federal student loan information and compare what your monthly payments would be under the different repayment plans that are offered. That way, you can choose the right repayment plan, know how much you can expect to pay monthly, and budget accordingly … unlike me.

I’ll be the first to admit that this whole process can be a little overwhelming, especially when you’re new at it. But just remember, your loan servicer is there to help you. If you need advice or have questions about your student loans, don’t hesitate to contact your loan servicer. Their assistance is FREE!

Nicole Callahan is a digital engagement strategist at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

Progress on Education Is Helping Fuel Our Economy’s Growth

The progress that America is seeing in our nation’s education system—record-high high school graduation rates, improved student achievement and more young people going to college—is helping to fuel an economy that is stronger now than when President Obama took office during the Great Recession. The President delivered that message Thursday in a speech, fittingly, on a college campus—Northwestern University, outside of Chicago—and he encouraged continued commitment toward building an economy that works for every American and an education system that supports every student.

“We have to lead the world in education once again,” Obama said.

High School Graduation Rate Chart

Here’s more of what the President had to say about education, and how it’s a cornerstone of the “new foundation” for America’s 21st century economy:

America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free. We sent a generation to college. We cultivated the most educated workforce in the world. But it didn’t take long for other countries to look at our policies and caught on to the secret of our success. So they set out to educate their kids too, so they could out-compete our kids. We have to lead the world in education once again.

That’s why we launched a Race to the Top in our schools, trained thousands of math and science teachers, supported states that raised standards for learning. Today, teachers in 48 states and D.C. are teaching our kids the knowledge and skills they need to compete and win in the global economy. Working with parents and educators, we’ve turned around some of the country’s lowest-performing schools. We’re on our way to connecting 99 percent of students to high-speed Internet, and making sure every child, at every seat, has the best technology for learning. 

Look, let’s face it: Some of these changes are hard. Sometimes they cause controversy. And we have a long way to go. But public education in America is actually improving. Last year, our elementary and middle school students had the highest math and reading scores on record. The dropout rates for Latinos and African Americans are down. The high school graduation rate — the high school graduation rate is up. It’s now above 80 percent for the first time in history. We’ve invested in more than 700 community colleges — which are so often gateways to the middle class — and we’re connecting them with employers to train high school graduates for good jobs in fast-growing fields like high-tech manufacturing and energy and IT and cybersecurity.

Here in Chicago, [Mayor Rahm Emanuel] just announced that the city will pay community college tuition for more striving high school graduates. We’ve helped more students afford college with grants and tax credits and loans. And today, more young people are graduating than ever before. We’ve sent more veterans to college on the Post-9/11 GI Bill — including several veterans here at Northwestern — and a few of them are in this hall today, and we thank them for their service.

After celebrating the progress that America’s schools, colleges and universities are making, the President then set goals to further strengthen education as a pillar of the U.S. economy, starting with our youngest learners:

If we make high-quality preschool available to every child, not only will we give our kids a safe place to learn and grow while their parents go to work; we’ll give them the start that they need to succeed in school, and earn higher wages, and form more stable families of their own. In fact, today, I’m setting a new goal:  By the end of this decade, let’s enroll 6 million children in high-quality preschool. That is an achievable goal that we know will make our workforce stronger.

If we redesign our high schools, we’ll graduate more kids with the real-world skills that lead directly to a good job in the new economy. If we invest more in job training and apprenticeships, we’ll help more workers fill more good jobs that are coming back to this country. If we make it easier for students to pay off their college loans, we’ll help a whole lot of young people breathe easier and feel freer to take the jobs they really want. So look, let’s do this — let’s keep reforming our education system to make sure young people at every level have a shot at success, just like folks at Northwestern do. 

You can read the President’s complete remarks on whitehouse.gov, and on ed.gov/progress  you can read about progress that America’s educators are making for students—and our country’s economy.

Innovation in Higher Education through First in the World

Innovation in higher education is key to ensuring that our nation’s colleges and universities continue to serve our nation’s students. As part of an ambitious plan to increase value and affordability in higher education, President Obama called for the First in the World (FITW) grant program to fund innovative practices at colleges and universities.

Yesterday, ED awarded $75 million in grants to 24 colleges and universities across the country to fund innovative thinking that comes from educators working every day to ensure successful outcomes for students.

All FITW projects focus on improving college success among low-income, first-generation, and underserved students. The winning projects represent diverse and exciting approaches to improving student success. Topics addressed by FITW grantees include strengthening the critical transitions from high school to college, improving remediation, and ensuring the accessibility of instructional technology for students with disabilities.

Our nation’s colleges and universities recognize the need for innovation in order to serve students more effectively and with greater efficiency. The large number of applications — more than 500 — for FITW show that there is interest in innovation and the development of supporting evidence. The efforts at the 24 colleges and universities that received grants hold enormous promise, and will help increase momentum in the field toward implementing and testing many of the other innovative ideas that emerged during this grant competition.

Here are just a few examples of how FITW grants will benefit students:

  • Southern New Hampshire University will be completely rethinking remediation by developing an online, competency-based remediation tool. It will identify gaps in students’ knowledge and provide targeted, relevant, and engaging modules to help students master competencies as they are progressing through college-level material.
  • Hampton University will launch an array of integrated supports for its students, including both technological tools and new ways of organizing on-campus programming. New online programming, using Khan Academy lectures and trainings in a technical computing program called MATLAB, will be combined with redesigned math courses in the emporium model and near-peer and faculty mentoring.
  • South Dakota State University will implement an innovative approach to ensuring a smooth transition to college. To serve its American Indian and low-income students better, the university will work with partners, including Black Hills State University and Oglala Lakota College. Their program incorporates experience on the college campus for high school students and allows them to participate in employment or undergraduate research to help pay for their education.
  • Gateway Community College in Kentucky will reshape programs for their students to provide a more flexible path to graduation. They are seeking to accelerate completion rates, using approaches such as redesigned remediation programs. Further, they are reevaluating their pedagogy and incorporating technology on campus to engage and support their students.
  • Bay Path College in Massachusetts is a two-year institution that will develop an online experience for adult students that allows for flexibility, self-pacing, and social networking. The college will incorporate learning analytics to support a wide array of services, including personalized learning and wraparound coaching.
  • University of Southern California will implement and evaluate a game-based tool that gives high school students an understanding of the college search and financing processes for use in mentoring programs.

In addition to providing resources to implement these innovative programs, FITW grants will also support robust evaluation of these practices. We expect this research to add to the growing body of defensible evidence that will guide future investments in higher education and lead to more effective practices and policies intended to support students and increase college completion rates. In addition to helping students become more informed about college, we also want to help ensure that institutions are better prepared to serve them once they arrive.

President Obama has encouraged every student to pursue postsecondary education. By investing in innovation, colleges and universities are finding new ways to increase the quality, affordability, and value of higher education.

James T. Minor is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education.

Innovating for Success: The 2014 National HBCU Week Conference

“Over the next few years, I believe Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) will in many respects become more essential, not less so, to meeting our nation’s educational and economic goals,” Secretary Arne Duncan told those gathered at the 2014 National HBCU Week Conference in Washington, D.C.

The Secretary affirmed the necessity and vitality of HBCUs, and pledged to help ensure that all 105 of these unique and historic American institutions continue to thrive.

The annual conference is a forum for HBCU presidents, administrators, students, and stakeholders to meet directly with federal and private sector representatives to discuss strategies for sustained impact in preparing new generations of leaders. This year’s conference – HBCUs: Innovators for Future Success – focused on the community’s efforts to remain at the forefront of educational advancement.

“We, as the current leaders of the black college community, like our predecessors, recognize the great tasks ahead of us. And, like our predecessors, we recognize that not only the future of African-American success, but the future of American and global success, rest on the innovation cultivated at or by black colleges,” said George Cooper, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs.

Duncan used his keynote address to applaud the remarkable legacy of HBCUs and to reject the notion that HBCUs are no longer necessary in the 21st century.

“[HBCUs] still have an outsize role in preparing students to meet urgent national priorities in STEM fields, in filling teaching jobs, and in uplifting boys and men of color,” said Duncan.

He also noted the critical roles that HBCUs play in extending the reach of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative and President Obama’s North Star education goal of again having the world’s highest proportion college graduates. And, he highlighted some of the HBCUs that are leading the way.

“At Hampton University I saw its cutting-edge Proton Therapy Institute for treating cancer. President Harvey’s vision there is remarkable. At Morgan State, under President Wilson’s outstanding leadership, the university formed a groundbreaking partnership with the Universities Space Research Association. Morgan State landed a $28 million contract—its biggest federal contract in history—to develop critical expertise on climate issues and atmospheric science,” Duncan said.

“It’s imperative that we start uplifting boys and men of color, as President Obama is seeking to do. And here again, HBCUs can help show the way,” he added. “I know HBCUs can pioneer innovation and international education.”

After the Secretary’s keynote remarks, he was joined by Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, director of the Peace Corps, and Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation of Community and National Service. The four updated the audience on a joint effort to encourage public service employers to inform their employees, volunteers and recent graduates about public service opportunities and student loan repayment options and tools – including the CFPB Public Service Toolkit to help teachers and other public servants tackle student debt.

Read the entire speech by Secretary Duncan and be sure follow the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities on Twitter: @WHI_HBCUs.

De’Rell Bonner is a special assistant and youth liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

Ask Arne: The Importance of Teacher Diversity

The importance of teacher diversity hits home for me as a former teacher in an urban school district. That is why I am currently a doctoral candidate studying education at Johns Hopkins University. It’s also one of the reasons I applied for an internship at the U.S. Department of Education.

I taught in a public college prep magnet high school in the District of Columbia for six years. I saw how few role models and mentors of color my students were able to find at school – and I was concerned about the impact that might have on their learning. I also wondered how our young people would gain the confidence and commitment they’d need to become leaders in their communities, when many of their school leaders did not reflect these students’ own experiences and backgrounds.

The administrators at my school were committed to having a diverse faculty, but there were many challenges. There was a small applicant pool of experienced, qualified teachers of color. Additionally, I observed that it was difficult to attract and retain educators of color in my high-needs district.

As I’ve done my doctoral research I’ve come to realize that my experience wasn’t unique. Nationwide, there’s a lack of minority teachers in the workforce, and the problem is particularly acute in urban school districts. I’ve come to realize that significant steps need to be taken to address this issue. Right now, it’s an unfortunate cycle: many promising students of color may not even consider teaching as a viable career choice because they haven’t seen many teachers that look like them.

As my research continues, I plan to focus on finding new ways to address this crisis. Here at the Department of Education, it is an issue that continues to garner the attention of senior leaders.

During a recent installment of “Ask Arne,” Secretary Duncan; David Johns, Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans; and Joiselle Cunningham, 2013 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, discussed the importance of teacher diversity.

Johns recalled his experiences teaching in an urban school, and described the role he was able to play in creating a positive school culture that handled discipline in an unbiased and constructive way, especially for young African-American boys. He noted that it’s not just important for African-American and Hispanic students to have teachers that share their experiences and culture—it is important for all students to learn from a diverse, committed, and passionate group of teachers.

One of America’s greatest strengths is its diversity. We need to do a better job of making sure our teacher workforce embodies those strengths and values.

Kristen Moore is an intern in the Office of the Secretary.