ParentCamp Goes to Washington!

Engaging families in schools and learning is vital to ensuring that all our kids get a world-class education. Which is why we’re excited to announce the first-ever ParentCampUSA at the Department’s headquarters on October 26.

ParentCamp is a free “un-conference” that brings together parents, caregivers, community leaders, educators, and children to have conversations about how we can best support our students.

ParentCamp found its roots at Knapp Elementary in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, when parents and educators came together to build relationships and create an opportunity to share great ideas from the field. Since 2010, school communities around the world have used the EdCamp and ParentCamp models to host their own events.

ParentCamp is about growing relationships and strengthening partnerships. It is about sharing, learning and networking. The focus is on what we ALL can do to make tomorrow better than today for our children.

The Department’s October 26, 2015 event will serve as a demonstration of how this type of “un-conference” model can be used to successfully engage families and communities in schools.

In typical ParentCamp fashion, discussions will be led by attendees who come from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods, and who serve in a variety of roles in their educational community. To level the playing field, titles go out the window, and all voices are of equal value. Discussion leaders may begin the conversation and offer some initial resources, but it will be those in the room (and those following on social media) who will add the depth and much needed perspectives we need to improve outcomes for our nation’s children.

For those who cannot physically attend the October 26 event, there will be virtual options for participating and/or following along. In addition, the Department is planning regional ParentCamp events in cities across the country. We will share more on those proposed locations soon. If interested in hosting your own local ParentCamp simultaneously, you can find details on how to do so, on the main ParentCamp website, or by emailing ParentCamp founders Gwen Pescatore or Joe Mazza.

Find more details at the ParentCampUSA website.

Follow and connect on Twitter: #ParentCampUSA, @ParentCamp and @usedgov.

JUST ANNOUNCED: Where We’re Stopping on Our 6th Annual Back-to-School Bus Tour

A map of all locations that the tour will visit. See list in blog post.

We’re hitting the road for our sixth annual back-to-school bus tour, and earlier today we announced the eleven stops we’ll be making in seven states during the week of September 14. We’re really excited to be visiting the following locations:

  • Woodland Early Learning Center, Kansas City, Missouri
  • North High School, Des Moines, Iowa
  • Roosevelt Middle School, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
  • Williamsfield Community Unit School District, Williamsfield, Illinois
  • University of Illinois, Champaign, Illinois
  • Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
  • Crispus Attucks High School, Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Jeffersontown High Magnet Career Academy, Louisville, Kentucky
  • University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky
  • Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Here’s a look at a few of the places and people we’ll be visiting:

The theme of this year’s tour is “Ready for Success,” and during each stop we’ll be celebrating how states and local communities are working to increase access and opportunity from early learning to college.

Stay connected with this year’s tour by signing up for bus tour email updates, and follow the tour on social media with #ReadyForSuccess.

More info:

Another Step Forward Under the Student Aid Bill of Rights

Earlier this year, President Obama unveiled a Student Aid Bill of Rights to ensure strong consumer protections for student loan borrowers and issued a Presidential Memorandum to begin making those rights a reality. Last month, as part of that directive, the Department of Education announced a number of new steps we are taking to help Americans manage their student loan debt, including:

  • Protecting Social Security benefits of Borrowers with Disabilities who may qualify for a loan discharge or other repayment options.
  • Changing the debt collection process so that it is fairer, more transparent, and more reasonable.
  • Providing clarity on borrowers seeking a discharge in bankruptcy.

Today, as another step forward in implementing the Student Aid Bill of Rights directives, Federal Student Aid (FSA) released the recommendations from an interagency task force on best practices in performance based contracting to better ensure that servicers help borrowers make affordable monthly payments. As directed by the Presidential memorandum, the task force reviewed input from its members in July. Now that these recommendations (pdf) have been finalized, they will inform the upcoming process of recompeting our servicing contracts prior to the expiration of the existing contracts.

Even ahead of that process, FSA has been taking steps to improve borrower service as it continues the transformation of the nation’s student loan program following the President’s landmark student loan reform.  Many of these steps are in concert with the recommendations of the interagency task force. Key steps include:

  • Ongoing development of an enterprise complaint system to track and support complaint resolution across all aspects of aid delivery, including servicing.
  • Targeted email campaigns to borrowers regarding available repayment options,  including campaigns related to IDR enrollment.
  • Enhanced performance metrics and incentive-based pricing for Federal loan servicers to ensure consistency and accountability while creating additional incentives to focus on reduced delinquency and default, more effective borrower counseling and outreach, and enhanced customer satisfaction.
  • Development and implementation of a robust enterprise data warehouse and analytics capability to support research of the portfolio.
  • Designing and implementing a quarterly delinquency reduction compensation program to provide additional incentives for success in reducing delinquency in payments among our largest servicers’ portfolios with the greatest number of at risk borrowers.
  • Increased focus on military service members, including a match with DOD to proactively provide service members with SCRA benefits,
  • Enhanced loan counseling and the ability for borrowers to select their repayment plan based on their individual circumstances during exit counseling.
  • Enhanced communication with and tools for borrowers including repayment calculators, loan consolidation application, and online application for income-driven repayment.
  • A pilot to test different approaches for curing delinquent loans.

We are also working with our partners at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the CFPB to continually improve the federal student lending program. For example, we are working with Treasury and the CFPB on how to improve credit reporting for student loans. In addition, as highlighted in a recent CFPB blog, Education, Treasury and the CFPB continue to work together to ensure student loan borrowers are aware of and can access affordable monthly payments. For Federal student loans, FSA and its servicing contractors have been certifying and enrolling, on average, over 5,000 borrowers per day into IDR plans over the past year. Enrollment in IDR plans has increased more than 50% over the past year and is at an all-time high.

Helping Americans manage their student loan debt has been a core priority of this Administration. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll continue to carry out the steps the President laid out in March and to take additional action to make college more affordable and ease the burden of student loan debt.

New Orleans: An Unfinished Story

This piece was originally posted on the Huffington Post.

The story of rebirth in New Orleans’ schools since Hurricane Katrina is one of nationally historic significance – but as is true of the city’s recovery, it is a profoundly unfinished story.

As residents of the area know too well, the devastation of the hurricane wasn’t merely an accident of weather and geography. As others have observed, the abandonment of New Orleans’ people began not when they were calling for help from their rooftops, amid sudden national attention, but throughout decades leading up to that moment.

The same can be said for New Orleans’ schools. It is a painful understatement to say that students and families deserved better than what they had in 2005. Math and reading achievement at Orleans Parish public schools ranked second-to-last in the state. Barely half of high school students graduated on time. For low-income and minority students, prospects were particularly bleak.

After the flood subsided, the New Orleans community courageously set out to break with the past and build a set of schools worthy of the city’s children. They dedicated themselves to creating schools that honored the city’s rich traditions and history, and prepares every student for college and the careers of today’s world.

The story of change since then offers lessons that educators everywhere cannot afford to ignore. To the enormous credit of the city’s educators, families, students and leaders, New Orleans has made strides rarely seen in this country. Graduation rates are up 19 percentage points since the hurricane. The “failing schools” label is nearly gone. Expulsions are down nearly 14 percent, amid a new push for restorative justice practices – which aim to develop reflection, communication and empathy. And, as former Louisiana senator and New Orleans native Mary Landrieu noted in a recent commentary, “most importantly, African American students in New Orleans have gone from the lowest performing in the state in 2004 to 5 points above the state average for all African American students today.” New Orleanians should be proud of what they have accomplished.

As I’ve visited the city in recent years, I’ve seen the rebirth firsthand. Buildings damaged beyond repair have been replaced by bright, colorful, creative learning spaces. From chef’s kitchens and school gardens to Advanced Placement robotics courses, schools are making learning real for students.

Despite the massive, painful impact of the hurricane on families and educators, the community is making rebirth a reality.

Yet, as Senator Landrieu writes, we must not confuse progress with success. Similarly, my friend Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans, said the decade anniversary of Katrina must be a moment of taking stock, saying, “Give yourself some check marks and then, on the other side of the paper, say ‘Here are some things we really have to confront as a city.'”

Things like the fact that success is not equally shared for all children. Today, 18 percent of all youth aged 16-24 in New Orleans are neither working nor in school. That’s more than 26,000 young people. Only two other metropolitan areas – Memphis and Las Vegas – have higher percentages.

Educational opportunity has improved enormously, but is still not nearly consistent enough. And teachers have told me that, despite the years and the progress, they still contend with students’ trauma of disaster and dislocation.

What gives me enormous heart about what’s happening in New Orleans is the unflagging spirit of educators, families and leaders to continue to make changes to build the schools their students deserve.

Take, for example, Sabrina Pence, principal of Arthur Ashe Charter School. Ashe once had the lowest fourth-grade scores in the city. The school was under academic watch.

But Sabrina knew kids at Ashe could succeed. Today, the students at Ashe learn like never before. Sabrina implemented personalized learning projects, using technology to customize lessons for individual students and raise achievement for all. With computer-assisted instruction at work in their classrooms, teachers have information about student progress at their fingertips, so they can tailor future learning and assignments.

The hard work is starting to pay off: in 2012, the school boasted the Recovery School District’s highest eighth-grade math achievement. In 2013, Ashe had the District’s highest eighth-grade English achievement.

Likewise, in many schools, teachers are engaged as leaders working side-by-side with administrators, disseminating professional development resources to colleagues and even sharing bus routes.

Many teachers also are leading efforts in their schools to provide students with wraparound services, through partnerships with hospitals and nonprofit organizations. Responding to community feedback, education leaders are working to forge a common enrollment process to ensure that it becomes a more transparent and simpler experience for families in both charter and district schools, and the District and individual public charter schools are beginning to rethink discipline strategies.

These efforts, and many others, are needed to ensure that every student and family has access to strong schools.

As New Orleans’ schools and leaders move forward with innovative and exciting new models, they must not lose touch with the city’s communities and history. For every inspiring school leader that has emerged, there also are stories of teachers who were displaced after Hurricane Katrina; and thousands of teachers – more than half of whom were African-American – lost their jobs in the aftermath of the storm and amid the District’s restructuring.

It’s vital for the city’s educators to reflect the backgrounds of the students they teach, and it’s encouraging that the city’s teaching force is demonstrating diversity. It’s also critical for teachers and school leaders to forge strong connections with the community and to provide children with culturally responsive learning experiences that help them see how their education can prepare them to succeed in New Orleans and beyond.

As the people of New Orleans reflect on the last ten years, I join with them in remembering the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and in honoring the hard work that has made progress possible. Louisiana Superintendent John White got it right when he said the anniversary of the storm is not only about “how much New Orleans has improved life opportunity for its children, but also how much is left to be done.”

The promise of New Orleans is in the potential of its children and the indestructible spirit of the community. I thank everyone who supports and nurtures New Orleans’ rebirth, every day.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Don’t Pay for Student Loan Debt Relief

Have student loans? You’ve probably seen social media ads, received emails, or even opened a piece of mail from companies promising to reduce your monthly loan payments or cancel your loans.

But here’s the catch. These companies are doing something you can do yourself, but they’ll charge you a fee.

The U.S. Department of Education provides FREE assistance to help you:

  • Lower or cap your monthly loan payment;
  • Consolidate your federal loans;
  • See if you qualify for loan forgiveness;
  • Get advice on getting out of default

Help get the word out, and help protect your friends and family from student loan scams. Watch and share the video below, and visit studentaid.gov/repay to learn more.

There’s an app for that. Well, maybe.

Originally posted on Medium.com.

As increasingly more apps and digital tools for education become available, families and teachers are rightly asking how they can know if an app actually lives up to the claims made by its creators. The field of educational technology changes rapidly with apps launched daily; app creators often claim that their technologies are effective when there is no high-quality evidence to support these claims. Every app sounds world-changing in its app store description, but how do we know if an app really makes a difference for teaching and learning?

In the past, we’ve used traditional multi-year, one-shot research studies. These studies go something like this: one group of students gets to use the app (treatment group) while another group of students doesn’t (control group). Other variables are controlled for as best as possible. After a year or so, both groups of students are tested and compared. If the group that used the app did better on the assessment than the group that didn’t, we know with some degree of confidence that the app makes a difference. This traditional approach is appropriate in many circumstances, but just does not work well in the rapidly changing world of educational technology for a variety of reasons.

1) Takes too long
Waiting as long as two years to know whether or not an app helps students learn is simply too long — apps are often updated on a weekly or monthly basis as new features are added, bugs are fixed, and user feedback is implemented. The app measured at the start of a traditional multi-year study may be a completely different app by the time the study is finished, making the results of the study irrelevant.

2) Costs too much and can’t keep up
The complete development costs for many educational apps are a fraction of the cost for conducting traditional educational research studies. It wouldn’t be economically feasible for most app creators (or schools) to spend $250k (a low price tag for traditional educational research) to evaluate the effectiveness of an app that only cost a total of $50k to build. Even if cost was not an issue, there is also a logistical problem with applying traditional research methods to evaluating educational apps; traditional research methods simply can’t keep up with the ever increasing number of apps.

3) Not iterative
Traditional research approaches often make a single estimate of effectiveness; the treatment either worked or it didn’t. But apps aren’t static interventions. Apps are built iteratively — over time functionality is added or modified. A research approach that studies apps should also cycle with the design iterations of the app and show whether an app is improving over time. Similarly, snapshot data often doesn’t fully capture the context of an app’s implementation over a period of time.

4) Different purpose
Traditional research approaches are useful in demonstrating causal connections. Rapid cycle tech evaluations have a different purpose. Most school leaders, for example, don’t require absolute certainty that an app is the key factor for improving student achievement. Instead, they want to know if an app is likely to work with their students and teachers. If a tool’s use is limited to an after-school program, for example, the evaluation could be adjusted to meet this more targeted need in these cases. The collection of some evidence is better than no evidence and definitely better than an over-reliance on the opinions of a small group of peers or well-designed marketing materials.

The important questions to be asked of an app or tool are: does it work? with whom? and in what circumstances? Some tools work better with different populations; educators want to know if a study included students and schools similar to their own to know if the tool will likely work in their situations.

Why now?

There is a pressing need for low-cost, quick turnaround evaluations. Two years ago the President announced the ConnectED Initiative which called on public and private sectors alike to work together to improve internet connectivity to schools across the country. Today, thanks to wide bipartisan and cross-sector support, significant funding is becoming available to help schools close the connectivity gap. This includes a one-time $2 billion investment by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase wifi in classrooms, a yearly $1.5 billion increase in the FCC’s E-Rate program, and an additional $2 billion in private sector contributions.

As a result, over the next two years, we will go from having roughly 30% of schools connected to wifi in the classroom to having nearly all students in classrooms with high-speed wifi. This is a monumental step forward and has the potential to be one of the most transformative moments in American education. This new infrastructure has the potential to bring amazing real-world learning experiences to the classroom. It has the potential to close long-standing equity gaps that other approaches haven’t been able to address. It has the ability to personalize learning for all students and engage parents along the way. But our ability to realize this potential depends largely on the availability of effective apps that support this transformation. Over the next two years educators and parents will be making a huge number of decisions about which apps to use with kids. They need to make good decisions based on evidence, as opposed to relying on marketing hype or the buzz among a small group of peers, is critical.

And let’s be clear, this is bigger than just knowing whether apps improve student academic performance. Many apps claim to reduce teacher time spent on administrative tasks, for examples, or increase parent engagement, or encourage collaboration among students. These are equally important data points that parents and educators alike should know when choosing which apps to present to their students.

What are we doing about it?

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced a Request for Proposal (RFP) for Rapid-Cycle Technology Evaluations. We’re looking for innovative approaches to evaluating educational apps to assist schools and parents make evidence-based decisions when choosing which apps to use with their students.

The project is also intended to design evaluation tools and training materials to support the field in conducting rapid cycle technology evaluations. Evaluation tools may include templates for use in establishing clear expectations for all participants, protocols for best practices, applications (for developers or educators) to participate in study, surveys, checklists, or quality assurance materials. Training materials may include resources for pre-, during and post-study such as self-assessments for participating educators (to indicate readiness for study), technical training, resources for developers on working with schools, and how to interpret study results. While the evaluation of a specific tool is the focus of this work, building capacity among participants is an important expected outcome.

The product evaluations supported by this contract are meant to demonstrate whether certain types of studies — for examples, studies that look at effects on outcomes but do not try to explain the mechanism by which any effect occurred, and/or studies that use administrative data — can be conducted rapidly enough to meet the need of educators for information about effectiveness of technology in this fast-changing landscape. All of these factors are increasing the need to identify what’s working and what’s not more efficiently and more effectively.

This project will establish a standard for low-cost, quick turnaround evaluations of apps, and field test rapid-cycle evaluations. In addition to generating evidence on specific apps, the project will help develop protocols for conducting rapid cycle evaluations of apps that practitioners, developers, and researchers can use beyond the scope of this evaluation.

This work follows on the guide released on 2013, Expanding Evidence, which calls for smart change by presenting educators, policymakers, and funders with an expanded view of evidence approaches and sources of data that can help them with decision-making about learning resources.

To learn more, or to submit a proposal, go here.

We need to help schools and families make the best use of their resources — both time and money. School and family budgets aren’t likely to increase significantly and the total hours of the day remain the same. Technology has the power to support the transformation of teaching and learning, but only when we know what works. By employing rapid-cycle approaches to evaluating the effectiveness of educational apps, we can make choices about which apps we use based on evidence, not hype.

Richard Culatta and Katrina Stevens work in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

3 Important Financial Considerations for College Students

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The U.S. Department of Treasury recently released a report entitled “Opportunities to Improve the Financial Capability and Financial Well-being of Postsecondary Students.”  I read this report because I am an intern in the office of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education, and I am working on various projects related to financial literacy for college students. I actually found this report to be a worthwhile read as a college student embarking on the daunting journey of funding my college education and managing my money while in school.

Despite the heavy financial burden, most of us understand the necessity of a college degree. Report after report make evident that education is one of the most significant factors in upward economic mobility. Still, college students face not only education loans but also consumer debt. There are so many important decisions that college students have to make in support of the ultimate goal to become financially independent. And, as tuition, books, housing and more only rise, the dream of financial independence has only become more difficult, and stressful.

Although I am no expert in financial literacy and financial aid, learning about responsible borrowing, careful budgeting, and repaying loans on time has helped lower my financial stress. The following are some simple tips I’ve learned that can alleviate financial stress and help college students manage their money.

1. Borrow responsibly. 

Federal Student Aid offers resources to help students understand the borrowing process. 

First, know how to read the financial aid package your school offers you. Be sure you can differentiate among grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study offers. You can do this by talking to the staff at your school’s financial aid office. Next, talk to your parents or those contributing to your education. Review the financial aid offer from your school, and look at your family’s finances, to decide which aid to accept or turn down. This is important in calculating how much you need to borrow in order to afford your education. You do not need to accept the full amount of loan money that’s offered to you; and understanding that concept will leave you with less debt in the future.

2. Budget carefully.

Budgeting is vital to lowering stress. By adopting responsible budgeting habits, you’ll learn planning skills to help manage multiple priorities and prepare for the future. Healthy budgeting practices provide dual opportunities for money-saving and time-management techniques. Budgeting is a great financial foundation and can be a stepping-stone to handling greater financial responsibility, leaving lifelong benefits.

3. Repay on time.

Repayment is the final step of the student loan process and lasts long after you graduate. If you do your research, the repayment process can go a lot more smoothly.

One way to reduce your stress is to understand the different repayment plans. You might find that you meet the criteria for making payments based on your income. Use the Repayment Estimator to help you understand the different repayment plans and decide which one is best for you. Then contact your loan servicer to see how to apply for the plan that best fits your situation.

Another thing to be aware of is that there are certain loan forgiveness options, including one for those who work full-time in public service. Knowing who qualifies and how to apply can ease the stress you feel about your debt as well.

Lastly, know that forbearance and deferment (ways to postpone or reduce your payments) are options if special circumstances arise. Understanding what’s best for your situation and applying in a timely manner is something you need to be aware of and talk to your servicer about.

As the report says, “Postsecondary education is essential to the economic health of our nation and to the economic opportunity of many Americans,” and each of our personal financial decisions contributes to that!

Megan McCusker is a sophomore at Loyola University Maryland studying History and Spanish. She served an intern for U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid.

8 Things You Should Know About Federal Work-Study

22 1.19 work-studyIf you’re looking for another way to pay for college, Federal Work-Study may be a great option for you. Work-study is a way for students to earn money to pay for school through part-time on (and sometimes off) campus jobs. Work-study gives students an opportunity to gain valuable work experience while pursuing a college degree. However, not every school participates in the Federal Work-Study Program. Schools that do participate have a limited amount of funds they can award to students who are eligible. This is why it is so important for students to fill out the FAFSA as early as possible, as some schools award work-study funds on a first come, first served basis.
Here are 8 things you should know about the Federal Work-Study Program:

1. Being Awarded Federal Work-Study Does Not Guarantee You a Job

Accepting the federal work-study funds you’re offered is just the first step. In order to receive those funds, you need to earn them, which means you need to start by finding a work-study job. Some schools may match students to jobs, but most schools require the student to find, apply and interview for positions on their own, just like any other job. It is important that students who are interested in work-study or who have already been awarded work-study contact the financial aid office at their school to find out what positions are available, how to apply, and how the process works at their school.

2. Not All Work-Study Jobs are on Campus

The availability of work-study positions includes community service options with non-profit employers, which means some work-study jobs are available for off-campus work. An example might be reading or tutoring for elementary children at local public schools. If you are curious about securing a community service work-study position, contact the financial aid office or the student employment center at your school.

3. Work-Study Funds Are Not Applied Directly to Your Tuition

Unlike other types of financial aid, work-study earnings are not applied directly to your tuition and fees. Students who are awarded work-study receive the funds in a paycheck as they earn them, based on hours worked, just like a normal job. These earnings are meant to help with the day to day expenses that students have and are not meant to cover large costs like tuition and housing.

4. Work-Study Jobs May Be Limited

You may still be able to work on campus without work-study if your school does not have enough work-study funds to cover all on-campus student employees. Many campuses offer jobs for students with or without work-study. Check with the student employment office on your campus to find out what is available.

5. Federal Work-Study is not Guaranteed from Year to Year

There are several factors that can determine whether or not you receive work-study from year to year. These include your family income or financial need, whether you used the work-study funds that were offered to you in a prior year, or how much work-study funding your school receives that year. Contact your school for specific awarding criteria if you are interested in work-study. Typically, students who file the FAFSA early (in January/February prior to the academic year) and answer on the FAFSA that they are interested in Federal Work-Study will have a higher chance of being awarded funds from the program.

6. Pay May Vary

Work-study jobs vary in qualifications and responsibilities, so the pay will depend on the job that you are hired to do. Pay may also depend on your school’s policies and/or the minimum wage requirements in the state.

7. Work-study Earnings Are Removed From Your FAFSA Calculation for the Next Year

One of the benefits of earning income through a federal work-study position is that those earnings do not count against you when you complete the next year’s FAFSA. Be sure to answer the question regarding how much was earned through work-study on your FAFSA accurately. If you do not know the answer, you can contact the financial aid office at your school for help. Some schools will send you a notice in early spring regarding your earnings from the last calendar year to help you file your FAFSA.

8. Hours Worked May Vary

How many hours you work each week will depend on the type of job you get and your employer’s expectations. Most student employment positions, however, will work around your class schedule and only require between 10-20 hours/week, but again – that can vary!

Chandra Owen, Training Coordinator in the Office of Financial Aid at Michigan State University, Justin Chase Brown, Director of Scholarships & Financial Aid at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Karla Weber, Senior Advisor in the Office of Student Financial Aid at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

 

Unique Mentoring Program Helps Students Build Confidence and Learn Valuable Skills

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Student athletes from Urban Squash spoke with Secretary Duncan about how they can use sports for leadership development and academic success.

Recently, ED invited student athletes from Urban Squash to speak about how they can use sports for leadership development and academic success. The organization is a youth development program that combines the sport of squash with academics, mentoring, community service, and college placement for public school students in under-served communities.

Unanimously, the students expressed that being involved in the sport has made them more confident to speak up, taught them what it means to respect and help each other as a team and inspired them to make changes in their community. They also spoke about the difference it made to their academic and personal growth and how empowering it was to be part of something, “larger than ourselves.”The student athletes encouraged everyone – regardless of neighborhood or background – to get involved with community building opportunities inside and outside of school. These activities are not limited to sports teams. They identified programs in their neighborhoods geared to support youth such as non-profit organizations, community service, internships and even employment opportunities.

While most of these programs welcome students with open arms, the students acknowledged the challenge that often goes along with finding out about these opportunities. To promote accessibility and diversity in these programs, they recommended expanding outreach to a more diverse population.. As a sport that is still largely outside the mainstream, the issues of awareness and diversity are even more pressing in squash.

Ultimately, these afterschool associations serve as a cultural program to connect different students and inspire them to advance their goals. It also gives them a chance to learn from each other by working in a team with diverse backgrounds and interests. Program participants are committed to making the most out of these educational opportunities – both on and off the court – to better themselves and their communities. As one student explained, “We are student athletes but the student part comes first”Squash is an indoor racket sport played by more than 15 million people in 153 countries. Until recently, it was played almost exclusively at prep schools, elite colleges, and exclusive clubs in the United States. Thanks in large part to programs like Urban Squash the sport has become more popular in recent decades. Because of its strong link to top-tier educational institutions, it has become an effective after-school program “hook.”

Hannah Pomfret was a 2015 summer intern at the U.S. Department of Education.

Career Pathways: Breaking Down Barriers to Employment for Individuals with Disabilities

The strength of the American economy is inextricably linked to the strength of our workforce. As the U.S. economy continues to grow, employers report difficulty in finding workers with the specific skills and knowledge that they need. In order to maintain America’s competitive edge, it is critical that employers have access to highly skilled workers to meet the challenges of today’s labor market. With nearly one in five people in the United States identified as having a disability, individuals with disabilities comprise a large group of potential employees who, with the necessary skills and credentials, could help fill this unmet need and participate fully in the labor market and our society.

We know, however, that only about 20 percent of people with disabilities are participating in the labor force, and, that rate is significantly lower for those with only a high school diploma or less. For employed people with disabilities, data reveal that they are underrepresented in management and professional/technical jobs, and overrepresented in service, production, and transportation jobs.

Too often, however, our systems for preparing low-skilled individuals with disabilities with marketable and in-demand skills can be complex and difficult to navigate for students, job seekers, and employers. Career pathways can offer an efficient and customer-centered approach to training and education by integrating the necessary educational instruction, workforce development, and human and social services and supports that are linked to labor market trends and employer needs, leading to stackable credentials.

The State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Agency often serves as the primary vehicle in the workforce development system for assisting individuals with disabilities, particularly individuals with the most significant disabilities, to prepare for, obtain, retain, or advance in competitive integrated employment. As partners in the one-stop service delivery system established under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), State VR agencies are well-positioned to coordinate and collaborate with other entities, such as secondary and postsecondary educational institutions, workforce centers and other training providers, human and social service agencies, employers, and other community stakeholders, to develop workforce approaches that are effective in assisting individuals to attain knowledge and skills that can lead to employment in high-demand occupations.

Accordingly,we are pleased to announce a notice of final priority and notice inviting applications to establish model demonstration projects to develop and use career pathways to help individuals with disabilities, including youth with disabilities, acquire necessary marketable skills and recognized postsecondary credentials. We expect to award $3.5 million to State VR agencies, in partnerships with other entities, to develop and implement a collaborative model project demonstrating promising practices and strategies in the use of career pathways to improve the skills of individuals with disabilities, including youth with disabilities, and help them attain the credentials to succeed in our 21st century economy.

We know that the use of career pathways is an effective workforce development strategy that can provide individuals, particularly those with the greatest barriers to employment, with seamless transitions into postsecondary education and employment in careers that provide a family-sustaining wage. Take, for example, the three seniors with disabilities from North Bend High School in Oregon who, with the help of the school transition specialist, a VR counselor, and the local community college, completed a program for Certified Nursing Assistance I (C.N.A). Students were required to attend a total of 75 hours of class training and complete an additional 80 hours of clinical training after school and weekends at a local assisted living center. These students are now enrolled in the C.N.A. II class.

We believe this career pathways investment by the Department of Education, and similar investments by this Administration, will serve to improve the well being of individuals with disabilities, the families they support, the communities in which they live, and our economy.

Michael Yudin is Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and Johan Uvin is the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education

The Promise of Pell

Goucher College students work on a group project during a class at the Maryland Correctional Institute-Jessup on July 31, 2015

Goucher College students work on a group project during a class at the Maryland Correctional Institute-Jessup on July 31, 2015

A gallery of criminal justice experts, educators, and formerly incarcerated individuals gathered at a 2008 conference at SUNY Old Westbury to examine how access to higher education in prisons and for formerly incarcerated individuals could positively transform individual lives and communities. The conversations held at this conference revolved around the need to dedicate advocacy efforts towards eliminating barriers to higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated people. We were a lone wolf of sorts; a singular outlier in the field—at the time, no criminal justice reform organization exclusively addressed this issue. This conference was the first of its kind dedicated to expanding higher education access for the incarcerated.

We saw then, as we do now, that access to higher education must be the central element of any substantive effort to reform the criminal justice system, and to improve the lives of the individuals this system is intended to rehabilitate.

Our personal interest in the subject stems from the fact that each of us had a very different experience while incarcerated. Glenn Martin was incarcerated with the opportunity to earn a degree from the Niagara Consortium. He eagerly pursued this opportunity realizing that his in-prison education would grant him opportunities for a civically engaged life post-release. On the other hand, the facility where Vivian Nixon served her sentence lacked any postsecondary programs, thus squandering the potential of the women incarcerated within and creating additional barriers to successful reentry.

Education became a tool that Glenn could use to chip away at the barriers before him—his opportunities for employment and further postsecondary education were improved substantially. More than anything, though, having access to these classes empowered Glenn and allowed him to think critically about what had led him to prison and what he could do to ensure he never returned.

Both of us realized that to deprive anyone of access to higher education, when the circumstances themselves merited the highest kind of educational intervention, was to limit them from tapping into their full potential.

To adequately address these issues, we formed the Education from the Inside Out Coalition – currently led by the College and Community Fellowship, JustLeadershipUSA, and the Center for Community Alternatives. It is a national, non-partisan collaborative of organizations, individuals affected by the criminal justice system, advocates, and educators dedicated to increasing access to higher education.

Our initial efforts centered on restoring Federal Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals.

In 1994, as part of the Violent Crimes Control and Law Enforcement Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, students incarcerated in Federal and State prisons, of which there were approximately 23,000 at the time, lost the ability to access Pell Grants to fund higher education. A product of the era’s “tough on crime” mentality, this legislation reflected the misguided belief that only heavy-handed tactics could solve the period’s soaring crime rates. Research in the intervening decades has helped shatter the myth that education for the incarcerated doesn’t reduce crime. This research clearly demonstrates that access to higher education is actually a boon for public safety; it drives down recidivism rates, improves the lives of incarcerated students and returning citizens, and improves the lives of their families and communities.

On July 31st, Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Lynch, along with several Obama Administration officials and members of Congress, announced an initiative that will waive the ban on Pell Grant eligibility for individuals in select Federal and State penal institutions. We hope that this announcement will be a step towards ultimately reversing the ban.

Goucher College students participate in a lecture at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup on July 31, 2015

Goucher College students participate in a lecture at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup on July 31, 2015

When Senator Claiborne Pell created Pell Grants, he wanted to ensure that everyone would have access to higher education, especially those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. He was concerned with creating access for those who most needed education. Senator Pell saw education as a human right that could help lift up individuals, not a privilege that could be denied as a punitive measure.

While much work needs to be done to ensure that the full promise of Pell is fully restored, we are hopeful that the Obama Administration will continue to take steps towards making that future a reality. We applaud Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Lynch for their combined efforts to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline by making in-prison education accessible to those in need of a second chance. Because of our own disparate experiences in accessing higher education in prison, we know firsthand the transformative power education can have on the life of someone who involved in the justice system. It can take these individuals, the ones that society often overlooks and forgets, and forge them into future leaders and change makers.

Vivian Nixon is Executive Director of College and Community Fellowship (CCF), an organization committed to removing individual and structural barriers to higher education for women with criminal record histories and their families. Glenn E. Martin is the Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), a national advocacy organization dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030.

Start Now, to Start the School Year Right

Three children in the classroom.In communities and homes all across the country, change is in the air, and families are thinking about back-to-school season. There are lots of ways to gear up for a great school year.

Sometimes the whole neighborhood plays a part! For example, this past weekend, my hometown of Chicago hosted an 86-year tradition: the largest back-to-school parade in the country. Hundreds of students, parents, teachers and their neighbors took to the streets with marching bands, floats and special activities to celebrate the last few weeks of summer and get the word out about the new school year.


“Now is the time for parents and kids to start getting set for success in the classroom.”
Arne Duncan


But even if there’s no parade or back-to-school block party in your area, now is still a great time for parents and kids to start getting set for success in the classroom. Here are some things you can do now, and in the weeks ahead:

Start adjusting early. Start bringing meal times, bed times, and morning routines back in line with the school year schedule. Reading before bedtime, getting enough sleep, and having a reliable weekday routine: all these activities contribute to a student’s readiness to do well in school from day one.

Brush up on skills and complete any summer assignments. Take time together for refresher activities like practicing math facts or playing math games. Also, many schools send home summer activities, like math packets or reading lists, or post them on their website. Look through these together and make sure all assignments are completed.

Make a back-to-school to-do list, and start checking off tasks. With less than a month to go, create a plan to take care of everything that’s needed for a great first day of school. This includes scheduling any remaining health check-ups including dental and vision screenings, contacting the school with any questions, completing all necessary forms, taking care of any insurance, meal plan and enrollment requirements, as well as stocking up on supplies, clothes and other back-to-school gear.

Plan a learning adventure. Do something fun together that’s focused on learning, whether indoors or out: from a kitchen craft project or backyard science experiment, to a trip to the library or a museum. Our minds are like muscles: help get them warmed up for academic success.

Help to beautify your school. This month, many schools will host events to get their buildings looking great for the first day, from planting flowers and picking up trash in the schoolyard, to painting walls and cleaning classrooms. It’s a great way to learn about service together and help create a welcoming environment for the whole school community. If your school doesn’t have a beautification day, ask whether there other ways you can help teachers and school staff prepare.

Make space for study and creativity. Identify a quiet place for your child to do homework. Set aside space to post school schedules and assignments, classwork, art, projects, and report cards, as well as messages and milestones.

Set some clear, achievable goals for the year. By setting and meeting academic goals, students do more than improve their performance in school – they also gain confidence, motivation, and pride in their accomplishments. Help your child set some clear goals, like improving math or vocabulary, along with timeframes and clear steps for reaching them. Write them down, post them, and check progress regularly.

Get connected and stay in touch. Parents who are active and engaged with their child’s school are a key ingredient to helping their kids thrive. Here are just some things parents can do:

  • Reach out to your school, and get to know your child’s teachers. Let them know the best ways to contact you, and that you’re ready to work closely with them to help your child succeed.
  • Start a calendar for parent-teacher conferences and school events, and to check in regularly with your child’s teachers throughout the year.
  • Plan ways to keep track of your child’s subjects, grades and progress, help with homework, and provide support throughout the year. Agree to talk often together about what’s happening at school, what your child is learning, what she enjoys and where she might need help.
  • Consider serving on your local parent-teacher organization, or joining in other activities that help support great teaching and learning.
  • Check out our month-by-month toolkit at: www.ed.gov/parents/countdown-success

Talk about what to expect and focus on skills for life. Each student is different: some kids love back-to-school time; others have concerns or questions. Each new school year means transitions – to a new grade, classroom, or school building. In case of any back-to-school jitters: take time to remember the highlights from last year, and point out things to look forward to this year. As a parent, you can share memories of your own school experiences – including favorite teachers, field trips, subjects and activities – as well as lessons learned. Most of all, help your child build the skills that make for long-term success in life, like flexibility and open-mindedness, persistence, and a positive attitude.

Working together, parents and children can help make sure the new school year is filled with progress, achievement and the wonder of learning. Let’s make it a year worth celebrating, for every child.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education