This week, Secretary Duncan took his national “Listening and Learning Tour” to New England, with visits to Rhode Island and Connecticut. Since May, the secretary has traveled across the country to nearly 30 states in an effort to receive feedback on federal education policy and input on the Obama administration’s education agenda.
While in the Ocean State, Secretary Duncan visited Hamilton Elementary School in North Kingstown with U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Representative Jim Langevin. Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association (NEA), and Lawrence Purtill, president of the Rhode Island NEA affiliate, also participated in conversations with 75 educators and administrators.
The dialogue in Rhode Island largely focused on the concerns of education support staff—who are, too often, overlooked in discussions of effective schools. These professionals help teachers in the classroom, transport and feed students, ensure that schools are safe and clean, and connect with parents. Sen. Reed, whose father served as a custodian in nearby Cranston, R.I., shared that he has a unique appreciation for the role of support staff in creating a community of adults who are dedicated to the wellbeing of children in a school.
Secretary Duncan heard from cafeteria workers who relayed their ideas about how to make school lunches more nutritious and teachers’ aides who were interested in receiving more opportunities for high-quality professional development. Secretary Duncan noted that although Rhode Island is a relatively small state, it has a chance to do exciting things in the national “Race to the Top” to improve education.
During the Listening and Learning event at Norwalk Community College (NCC) in Connecticut, Secretary Duncan was joined by NCC President David Levinson, U.S. Representative Jim Himes, and Superintendent of the Stamford Public Schools Joshua Starr. Secretary Duncan urged the gathered educators, administrators, policymakers, and community and religious leaders to challenge the status quo, adding that the state has a real opportunity to break through on closing its academic achievement gap—which is one of the largest in the country.
Dr. Edward Zigler, who also was in attendance and frequently has been called “the father of Head Start,” noted that he is more hopeful today than he has been in the past 50 years about the administration’s commitment to early childhood education. Gwen Samuel, chairperson of the State of Black Connecticut Alliance, made an impassioned plea to the secretary to support programs that make it easier for parents to get involved in their children’s schools, and noted the importance of communities engaging in shared leadership. “No one group works alone,” Secretary Duncan agreed. “If folks can collaborate—and we need to collaborate—we have the chance to see dramatically better results.”