Student Voices of Military-Connected Children Inspire Guidance from Secretary Duncan

Students talk with Secretary Duncan at the Department of Education

Students from MD, VA, and DC explain the challenges of having parents in the military to Secretary Duncan and Patty Shinseki.

The men and women serving in our Armed Forces make incredible sacrifices in service to our country. And so do their family members. Through multiple deployments and frequent moves, the spouses and children of service members live in constant transition.

In April—the Month of the Military Child–Secretary Duncan released a letter to school superintendents providing guidance on meeting the unique challenges faced by military-connected students.

During their K-12 education, these children move from six to nine times, and Duncan’s letter calls for school districts across the country to plan smooth transitions for them.

The letter provides additional guidance for school districts and schools (read the letter here), but what the letter fails to mention is what inspired the letter in the first place.

Earlier in April, Secretary Duncan, along with Mrs. Patty Shinseki, and Department of Defense Education Activity Director Marilee Fitzgerald, conducted a Student Voices roundtable with 21 children of service members who attend high schools in the DC area.

The discussion was part of Secretary Duncan’s Student Voices Series, which regularly engages students and increases connections between ED policies and student needs.  The students’ descriptions of their educational experiences were thoughtful and poignant, often revealing heartfelt and persuasive arguments for why we need to do more to assist school personnel in understanding the needs of 1.2 million military-connected children.

The students spoke candidly about their challenges. Many talked about the hardships one experiences when moving to new schools, including transferring course credits.  For several students, when their credits did not transfer, they could not progress through high school with their peers, and in several instances, they were not identified as “graduating seniors” at their new schools, despite the fact that they would have been “seniors” at their prior schools.

One student talked about her challenge of communicating with a deployed parent during school hours because of a “no cell phone” policy, and another explained her frustration that her high school wouldn’t be live streaming graduation so that her deployed father could watch the ceremony.

The conversation during this meeting helped Secretary Duncan understand how children are affected by policy, and contributed to the letter’s urging  schools to take immediate steps to provide assistance, including adopting and/or implementing the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children.

The Secretary’s Student Voices sessions are designed for the Secretary and his senior staff to listen and learn from young Americans. But they also have an impact on policy, and in this case produced almost immediate action.  That’s one powerful example of why listening to student voices matters, and the Secretary looks forward to more such conversations,

Samuel Ryan is the co-lead for outreach to students in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Secretaries Duncan and Solis Meet with DREAMers

Secretaries Hilda Solis and Arne Duncan meet with students during one of Duncan's regular "Student Voices" sessions. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

“Opportunity.”

A powerful concept packed into a single word.

This was the word one young person chose to describe what education means to him when asked by Secretary Duncan and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis as part of a reoccurring Student Voices meeting at ED headquarters. The frank conversation between the Secretaries and the group of young advocates largely revolved around the obstacles undocumented youth face while living in the United States, particularly limited access to higher education.

Several of the students discussed how difficult it was to be a “DREAMer”—a label derived from the “DREAM Act” that the students use to describe undocumented young people who have lived in the U.S. from a very young age.  The students explained their frustration and disappointment that they cannot fulfill their dreams of a college degree once they graduate high school, good grades and hard work are rendered invalid the day they learn they can’t apply to colleges or scholarships without having a social security number.

With estimates of approximately 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduating from American high schools annually and no viable pathway to legal status, this is not an isolated problem.

DREAMers’ obstacles to higher education are myriad. Even if accepted, most colleges and universities require undocumented students to pay non-resident or out-of-state tuition – a prohibitive cost. They get no access to federal financial aid (this includes Work Study and Pell Grants) and their chances for scholarships are narrow at best.

“I got in to a top school,” said one now non-student with tears welling up in his eyes. “But I deferred because I don’t have a way of paying for it. I can’t apply for financial aid, so Work Study is out.”

Victor George Sánchez Jr., President of the United States Student Association, speaks with the Secretaries during the "Student Voices" session. Official Department of Education Photo by Leslie Williams.

There is irony in the fact that the U.S. has an abudance of undocumented students who are extremely motivated, informed, who earn excellent grades, and who have developed marketable skills.

And yet, we are turning away promising nation-builders in droves.

As teachers, we work tirelessly to prepare our students for their next steps in life – documented or undocumented. It’s as if these fearless young people are on a starting block and we rally them to bound forward enthusiastically with all the promises of a college education and the hopes of a solid career.

“Ready!…Set!…” But instead of yelling “Go!” we ask them to take one step back because, while they did every single thing we asked of them over their school career (and they did it well), it’s still not enough.

I ask myself why we spend so much energy on creating more hoops for talented young DREAMers to jump through. Why not spend it finding ways for them to connect with opportunities they worked so hard to glean?

Claire Jellinek is a 9th-12th grade social studies teacher at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque, NM and a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

Technology Can Revolutionize Education for College Students with Disabilities

Student Voices Discussion

Secretary Duncan listens to students from Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.) and Project Eye-to-Eye based in New York State (Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood).

Having a disability should not stop any student from pursuing higher education. And through a unique program in Montgomery County, Md., high school students are proving that a disability is not an obstacle to a college education.

Several students from Project Eye-to-Eye recently visited ED as part of the Secretary’s monthly Student Voices series, where they joined Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Alexa Posny, to discuss college equity and accessibility for students with disabilities.

During the meeting, the discussion kept coming back to inclusion in K-12 schools. Research shows that when students with disabilities attend the same courses as their peers, they will have a better chance of attending college.

At the college level, issues in educating students with disabilities are often different from those affecting K-12 education, and the instructional climate is changing. Taken together, these trends call for a systematic method of accommodating diverse learning needs at the postsecondary level, even though the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not apply to higher education.

“With reasonable accommodations, I have succeeded in college,” said Isaiah Walker a senior at Columbia University, who wants to continue higher education and pursue a law degree. “At times, it was as simple as having extended time to complete an exam or having the option to utilize assistive technology devices to take class lectures,” he said.

In many cases, providing an effective assistive technology tool is considered a reasonable accommodation. “As a student who has a visual impairment, providing screen magnification software has provided me access to my school’s library services and to computers for reading, writing, and research—skills that I am using throughout my college career,” another student shared.

In order to access and use technology tools effectively in college, students with disabilities must be adequately prepared in high school. A common theme voiced from all students sitting around the Secretary’s conference table—many with iPads and smartphones—is that teachers and professors need to be trained and encouraged to allow the use of technology, especially for students with diverse needs.

Technology is seen by students as a tool for inclusion. By helping them communicate with their peers and organize their thoughts, they are better equipped to enter the 21st century work environment. In order to compete on a global level, “Our nation needs to take a leadership role; we need a technological revolution,” Duncan remarked.

Sam Ryan, Associate for Regional and Youth Outreach.

Since the Student Voices meeting, ED has released a report from the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities. The report sets forth recommendations for the effective use of AIM at the postsecondary level. Click here to read the report.

Rural and Tribal Youth Discuss Education Through Their Eyes

“I’d like to find a better way to help the people, not just cure the pain, but heal their lives.”
-Adam Strong, 20
YouthBuild Hazard (Jackson, KY)

Last week Secretary Arne Duncan’s conference room was filled with a unique crowd of delegates from YouthBuild USA Rural and Tribal Initiative.  The conversation between Secretary Duncan and the students was part of an ongoing Student Voices series where Duncan meets with students from around the country. This particular meeting focused on learning from rural and tribal youth about their experience and how ED’s policies can better help them achieve their potential.

(Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover)

YouthBuild USA, is a program where low-income students rebuild their lives and communities by getting their high school diploma or GED, while working full time.

The student’s spoke of dreams, challenged by sobering realities. Students told Arne about their difficulties with transportation, finding money and information to continue their education, their family demands and personal struggles. They were happy to come to Washington D.C. so that the Secretary could “hear our stories.”

These youth want to build their ability to make a difference for themselves and for those they care about.

Adam Strong, Graduate of YouthBuild Hazard in Jackson, KY, told of growing up in a community where prescription drug addiction runs rampant.

Adam’s response?  He will pursue a degree in pharmacy at North Shore Technical College to help doctors become more aware of the severe consequences of the over prescription of drugs.

“It’s OK for people to take pain medicine,” Adam said. “Just not every day.” He explained to Secretary Duncan that “education not only gives me the tools necessary to accomplish these goals but has helped me articulate my own vision of the world and how it should be.”

(Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover)

Arne leaned forward to really listen to these young people. He asked questions and answered them freely. “This is informal,” he said, “tell me what you have on your minds.”

“What about if we go to college and then there are no jobs?” asked Reva Little Moon from Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

“That’s a little tough today, but it’s about learning to see things long term,” said Arne. “You have to look over the horizon. We’re working on a lot of things here to make things better.”

These youth leaders are creating thoughtful solutions, despite the challenges they face. They came to Washington to express their concerns and to spell out their triumphs. They were heard.

Check our rural engagement or YouthBuild for ways to get involved.

Samuel Ryan is a Program Specialist at the U.S. Department of Education. 

Arne Duncan Carves Out Regular Time to Listen to Students

Arne Duncan Carves Out Regular Time to Listen to StudentsAbout a week ago, a group of students walked proudly down the halls of the US Department of Education to represent their schools, communities, and the countless youth across this nation who want more of a voice in the national education conversation.

In the February 25 meeting, participants discussed how to best engage students like themselves in education policy, what it means to have a quality education, and how to bridge resource gaps.

One leader—Stephanie—described why she almost dropped out of school:  because she didn’t feel as though anyone was looking out for her.  When Arne asked why she stayed in school, she described wanting to push herself to graduate despite her obstacles.  The following day, Stephanie spoke at the National Youth Summit and provided her peers with an example of one who could have fallen through the cracks but who wouldn’t let it happen.

These ten students did far more than have a discussion at the Department; they widened a space for students to have a voice in education. Each month now, different student populations will engage with Arne Duncan on issues facing them. After the February discussion and the National Youth Summit, many of the adults attending commented on the power of the students’ words and experiences, acknowledging that it is important to create spaces for them in our national conversation about their need to have opportunities for a world-class education.

Read a blog post about the Voices in Action National Youth Summit.