Past Presidential Scholars Reflect on the Program’s 50th Anniversary

The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program was established by executive order of the President fifty years ago this month. The program recognizes and honors some of our nation’s most distinguished graduating high school seniors and was expanded in 1979 to recognize students who demonstrate exceptional talent in the visual, creative, and performing arts.

Each year, 141 students are named as Presidential Scholars, one of the nation’s highest honors for high school students.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the program, ED has collected reflections from past winners, who explain how the program influenced their life and career.

Cornelia A. Clark, Class of 1968

FirstPresScholars

The first class of Presidential Scholars in 1964. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Presidential Scholars Alumni Association)

In 1968, as a then-resident of Atlanta, Georgia, I was honored to be named a Presidential Scholar from Georgia.  That June, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the assassinations of both Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy coincided with the Poor People’s Campaign and the construction of Resurrection City. This was when I visited the Supreme Court, Congress, and the White House for the first time and got a close-up political view of a country in the midst of crisis at home and abroad. President Lyndon B. Johnson told our class of scholars that we represented the best and brightest hope for the future of the world, and that we must live the rest of our lives in a way that would honor the recognition we received.

I have carried that challenge with me throughout my career. Each time I have accomplished something meaningful in my personal or professional life, President Johnson’s words have come back to me, especially during the time from September 1, 2010 — August 31, 2012, when I served as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. I believe that that achievement, as well as many others, came in part because of the encouragement I received in 1968.

For me, the distinction as Presidential Scholar was life changing. Each year now I locate at least one new scholar who resides near me and tell her why I hope it will be for her as well.

Cornelia A. Clark is a former Justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court

Sankar Swaminathan, Class of 1975

Many years later, when I look back at having been a Presidential Scholar, I still see the long hair and dated clothes that we were wearing. It was 1975, and Washington D.C. and the nation were still in turmoil from the effects of Watergate. Despite the politics of that summer, being invited to the White House was a great honor for all of us. I think the students and their parents were somewhat awed by being guests at the State Department and visiting the Rose Garden. But I also remember that it was a lot of fun.

What does it mean to have been a Presidential Scholar? Few people know what it represents, but when they see it in your CV, many ask about it. I tell them, with a little embarrassment, that it is given to two high school students chosen from every state, to honor scholastic and personal achievement.

At the time, as a seventeen year old, I was very grateful for the award and activities of those few days. I remember my fellow Scholars as excited to be there, and despite having received this prestigious award, being very down-to-earth and friendly. It inspired me to be worthy of being chosen to be among them, and to continue to try to meet such interesting, intellectually engaged and morally committed people. There really were a lot of idealists at that time. I hope that today’s awardees feel as fondly about the experience in forty years as I do today.

Sankar Swaminathan is a Don Merrill Rees Presidential Endowed Chair and Professor of Medicine and Chief of Infectious Diseases
at the Department of Medicine
at University of Utah School of Medicine

Christine Théberge Rafal, Class of 1984

Our local newspaper interviewed me about my selection as one of New Hampshire’s 1984 Presidential Scholars. An angry principal called me to the office for the first time in my life: “What? You never thought of yourself as an intellectual because your school doesn’t support intellectuals?”

“Well, morning announcements only ever mention my track performances, never my math meet scores, which are much better,” I replied.

My mother reported that the conversation made a difference for my younger brother and schoolmates in subsequent years, with the school making real efforts to acknowledge academic accomplishments.

Spending Recognition Week in alphabetical order by state, I made lifelong friendships with scholars from Nebraska and Nevada. The student from Nevada and I founded a little Presidential Scholar “posse”. We went to the same college together and stayed in touch over the summer, went to a movie as a group every Sunday night for all four years at college, and a couple of us even went to the same grad school! When a family friend from across the river in Maine was selected and didn’t want to go to Recognition Week, I persuaded him of the value.

Girls and women with ADHD, especially undiagnosed for years (decades) as mine was, often have low self-esteem, but having been a Presidential Scholar, whether anyone else knows it or not, has helped me emphasize my abilities instead.

Christine Théberge Rafal, is a Coordinator for Grants and Evaluation for Artists for Humanity, a non-profit that provides under-resourced youth with paid employment opportunities in the arts

Virgil Calejesan, Class of 1998

It’s an interesting exercise to think back 16 years ago. I find what I remember best are the people – particularly my fellow scholars and our leaders from prior award years that spirited us along from event to event.

I also viscerally recall a string of late nights, constantly amazed by my peers, trying to make connections at every unscheduled moment. I recall standing in line, though that too was quite fun given the company. I remember falling asleep wearing sunglasses at the Degas, At the Races in the Countryside exhibition and awakening to a museum-goer commenting “Pretty amazing, right?” What is amazing is how comfortable that couch was. Did they know I was asleep for the preceding 15 minutes?

If I could sum up National Recognition Week in a word, it would be “honored.” I still have a hard time believing that I deserved such an award, chosen on the basis of “outstanding scholarship, service, leadership, and creativity.” If I’ve learned anything in 16 years, it’s that those words are not achievements frozen in time, but rather a reflection of character. And if I am to accept that honor, then I must also accept the implicit responsibility to continue to deserve it.

That is what sticks with me to this day. And when I think of that museum-goer, maybe, in fact, they weren’t talking about Degas; maybe they somehow knew the impact the Presidential Scholar experience would have on me after all these years.

And they were right: It is truly amazing.

Virgil Calejesan is a designer living in Brooklyn, NY, who specializes in helping to create aerospace safety garments

Nigel Campbell, Class of 2004

(Nigel Campbell’s account is provided courtesy of the U.S. Presidential Scholars Alumni Association.)

Nigel Campbell began studying dance at age 12 at Creative Outlet Dance Theater of Brooklyn.  He attended The Julliard School and embarked on his professional dance career after graduation.  Here’s how he responds, in part, when asked what stands out the most in his memory about his National Recognition Week trip to Washington, D.C., after being named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts.

“Wow, it was an honor unlike any other,” he recalls.  “People – artists – work their entire lives to try to get to perform at the Kennedy Center.”

“And here I was at 17, performing a solo to a packed, sold-out audience with the President and the Secretary of Education and my entire family.  And a standing ovation. It was one of those really magical moments that you relive in your head throughout your life.  This was, by far, the most special moment of a week that was filled with a lot of really special moments.”

“Being recognized by the Presidential Scholars Program imbued me with a sense of confidence and a sense of my self-worth at a very early age. It really was the affirmation that I really could do this in a real way – that I could do all of the things that I’m doing now.”

Nigel Campbellis a member of Sweeden’s GoteborgsOperans Danskompani, the largest modern dance company in the Nordic region.

 

 

 

Parent and Community Engagement is Key Driver of School Transformation in Baltimore

teacher-2-620x410

As part of its “Expanding Great Options” initiative, Baltimore City Public Schools has employed a holistic parent engagement strategy to turn around struggling schools. One principal built relationships with parents and students by shaking hands before and after school each day. Teachers sent out flyers, knocked on doors, and made phone calls to parents to discuss their children’s performance. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Cross-posted from the PROGRESS blog.

Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle School is located in an impoverished neighborhood of East Baltimore that struggles with high rates of gang violence and teen pregnancy. In 2010, based on its test scores, Commodore ranked 872 out of 875 schools in Maryland. It enrolled only 225 students, half of the building’s capacity. Four principals had come and gone during the previous five years.

In the past four years, however, the school’s results have improved measurably. Enrollment more than doubled, chronic absences dropped significantly, and the percentage of students proficient in reading and mathematics rose 20 percent. In 2012, the school’s mathematics performance exceeded the districtwide average.

In 2010, Baltimore City Public Schools chose Commodore to participate in its “Expanding Great Options” initiative. The city opened new schools, expanded the capacity of high-performing ones, closed the lowest performers, and began working to turn around struggling schools, all while making district-wide school choice available.

With intensive support underwritten by Race to the Top funding, the district was able to change school culture and dramatically accelerate learning outcomes using a variety of methods: parent engagement, community relationships, new leadership, extra support staff, a longer learning day, new technology, more staff mentoring, and professional development for teachers.

Marc Martin, who became Commodore’s new principal in 2010, tells the story of how his school integrated these methods into an effective school turnaround strategy. “We sent out flyers, made phone calls and knocked on doors to let families know we were here.”

Martin and his staff held focus groups, barbecues and ice cream socials with parents to hear their concerns and feedback, as well as inform them about changes they could expect to see at the school. “I started out every morning shaking kids’ hands and being available to families,” said Martin, knowing that building relationships must be a priority.

Parents have expressed their appreciation for the efforts of Commodore’s staff. “I get phone calls from Maurice’s teachers letting me know about something good my grandson did. I like those kinds of phone calls,” said Carolyn Baker, whose grandson, Maurice, is a third grader. “When I was sick and couldn’t get my grandson to school, he [Commodore staff member] would pick him up and bring him home.”

Commodore’s efforts are paying off. With 95 percent of parents now attending academic conferences and engaging in students’ progress, student achievement is trending upward. Mathematics proficiency has gone from 47 percent in 2010 to 62 percent in 2013, and reading proficiency has gone from 49 percent in 2010 to 72 percent in 2013. Citywide, reading proficiency is up by 20 percent and mathematics proficiency by 18 percent. Dropout rates are declining and high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates are on the rise. While there is still a long way to go, Baltimore City’s solid foundation, built on strong family and community engagement and school leadership, will continue to facilitate the district’s goal of continuous improvement.

Read the full story to learn more.

Students Compete in Healthy Lunch Cook-off at ED

cookingchallenge

Students participate in the Cooking Up Change competition. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The school year is coming to an end, but the commitment to ensuring America’s students have meals that are healthy, delicious and affordable is a year-round effort.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education hosted the finalists of Cooking Up Change, a culinary competition sponsored by the Healthy Schools Campaign, a non-profit Chicago organization. Ten teams presented dishes for evaluation to a panel of judges from the fields of education, nutrition and government. The meals were required to be between 750-850 calories and needed to cost around one dollar per meal, showing the possibility of executing nutrition, taste, and low budgets.

White House Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy Sam Kass stopped by to commend the young chefs who had traveled across the country.

“I think there’s a real effort in undermining rolling back standards,” said Kass. “We need to make sure we’re putting kids and science first and let nutritionists determine standards, not politicians.”

During the event, Kass joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and wife Karen Duncan in voicing support for the Hunger-Free Kids Act. Since 2010, the law has held schools financially responsible for ramping up healthy meals, with quotas on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein while reducing fat, salt, and sugar – standards justified by the Institute of Medicine and the USDA. The aim of the Act is to stem the growing national obesity rate, as well as the billions of dollars spent annually on treating obesity-related conditions.

According to Secretary Duncan, the vast majority of schools are meeting or exceeding standards at a 90-95% rate. He said the USDA is providing flexibility to the remaining schools that need assistance in keeping up with requirements. Full rollbacks, however, would derail their progress.

“This event is a great reminder to us all why we’re here – sometimes what is missing is the kids,” Secretary Duncan said to the student chefs.

Read more about the Cooking up Change competition and to see a list of this year’s winners.

Max Luong is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

Learning by Doing: Hands-On Experiences Help Children Learn and Dream

I recently visited a great hands-on, experiential learning site for young children.  The IntelliZeum, the brainchild of Executive Director Blanca Enriquez, is a one-of-a-kind interactive learning environment, created in El Paso, Texas 10 years ago. This stimulating learning center provides enriching experiences for the lucky area Head Start children who visit twice each year.

There were so many things I liked about the IntelliZeum. Each specialized learning area within the IntelliZeum has different clothing, tools, and unique things to do.  Children may enter a “space center” where they dress in space suits. They may visit a pretend doctor’s office where they don white coats and stethoscopes.  When the children travel to the “Arctic room,” it’s freezing cold; in the “rainforest room,” it’s hot and muggy.  In the “electricity and water center” they discover how water makes power — and they learn about water conservation.

The IntelliZeum sets high expectations for what children can learn. And children learn about all kinds of things, from parts of the solar system, to types of dinosaurs, to names of tools used for building construction. Before each visit, children are prepared with vocabulary and background knowledge so they can get the most out of the experience. And after the visit, learning is reinforced in the classroom by incorporating the concepts and rich oral language into reading, math, science, technology, social studies, and fine arts activities.

The learning environments are sophisticated and designed to stretch children’s minds, encouraging them — even at age 3 and 4 — to start thinking about interesting and important future careers. I know children leave dreaming of becoming doctors, architects, engineers, pilots, or reporters.

Something else that I really liked was the intentional inclusion of children with disabilities. A child in a wheelchair can get inside the time capsule for traveling to the age of the dinosaurs. The underwater “ocean,” an area enclosed by three giant aquariums, is also handicapped accessible, so a child in a wheel chair can wheel right in while the other children scramble under one of the aquariums. But all the kids end up in the same place.

I wish engaging learning centers like the IntelliZeum could be available to all children. But parents can help their children engage in rich learning experiences — at home and during daily activities.

For example, instead of watching television, families can take a trip to the airport, visit a train station, or observe a construction site in the neighborhood and take advantage of teachable moments within these experiences. Even errands to the store can be turned into solid learning experiences by exposing children to vocabulary words, letting the children participate by picking out and weighing fruits and vegetables, taking photos with a parent’s smartphone of something they like, or talking to a person at the store. We need to get back to experiential learning that is real, exciting, and meaningful — and summer can be a great time to do that.

Libby Doggett is the deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Big Thinking and Bold Action to Reach America’s College Completion Goal

What if more Americans who dream of getting a college degree, and who hold a full- or part-time job could count on substantial – or even full – tuition assistance from their employer? What would that do to improve the prospects of individuals, families, and communities in this country? What would it do to increase the prosperity of our nation as a whole? How much closer would it put us to reaching the goal President Obama announced when he took office – that the U.S. will again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates?

Last August, the President called for innovative approaches to enable more students to access, afford, and complete college. Today, in New York City, I stood with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Arizona State University President Michael Crow as they announced a bold new partnership they’ve named the Starbucks Onward College Achievement Plan.

Under the plan, many U.S.-based Starbucks employees (known within the company as “partners”) who work 20 hours a week or more will have help starting – or completing – their degree in over 40 online undergraduate degree programs offered by Arizona State.  The plan is especially aimed at encouraging partners who started college, but because of costs or other commitments had to put their dreams on hold, to transfer their existing credits and get their degree. It offers the targeted services that first-in-family, minority, and other underserved learners may need to be successful in navigating the college experience, with built-in supports like enrollment coaches, financial aid counselors, and faculty advisors, to ensure that students make it across the finish line.

This model is innovative, in both its delivery – with online, adaptive, and personalized learning – and its focus on tuition reimbursement that rewards progress and degree completion. Efforts like this one also advance the fundamental American value of equity: that we all – regardless of income, background or any other factor – deserve the same chance to build a better life and realize our full potential.

A college education is the single best investment Americans can make in their future.  But, the amount of debt that many students must take on to pursue the dream of going to college is simply unacceptable. Today, two like-minded leaders and their organizations are taking an important stand to combat these rising costs.

Since President Obama took office, this Administration has focused intently on doing all we can to keep college within reach of every American. We’ve made key investments in federal student aid, and made it simpler to apply. We’ve created new tools and resources that help students select a college and make informed college financing decisions before they decide to enroll. And, last week, the President announced new executive actions to support federal student loan borrowers, especially those at risk of defaulting on loans.

But, regaining America’s place as the world’s best-educated, most competitive workforce will take all of us working together. I can’t think of a worthier goal to pursue: everyone benefits from a better-educated workforce and society. It’s our shared responsibility as a nation to ensure opportunity for all. We need big thinking and bold action.

The Starbucks Onward Achievement Plan is an example of the type of innovation we need to see more of in the workforce and education sectors. It shows that together, we can achieve so much more than we ever could separately. I hope this example will encourage other business and education leaders to rise to the challenge, and develop their own creative solutions.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

Six Students Tell Stories About Their Educational Successes

What does success in education look like? And what makes it possible? Six students recently sat down at a youth panel on social and emotional learning to talk about the educators that made the biggest differences in their lives.

The students provided real examples of what Professors Kimberly Schonert-Reichl and Gil Noam presented in lectures at a recent conference in Minnesota sponsored by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, the National League of Cities, the U.S. Department of Education, and others.

The students’ stories illustrate the many ways that educators can play an important role in ensuring that young people succeed.

  • Rich Pennington is a recent college graduate. He talked about the difficulties he had to overcome when he was described as a stereotypical young black male. An employer who gave him a space to fail and two teachers who took time to really get to know him made it possible for him to succeed.
  • Brittany Eich describes herself as an introvert. She had teachers and family who challenged her, gave her options, and then asked her what she wanted to do.
  • Chava Gabrielle has trouble with time management. She found support from peers who were a little older, but they challenged and supported her.
  • David Kim is a college graduate. He had teachers who helped him develop the skill of expressing from the heart and not just from the mind. They showed him a technique that he is now sharing with others.
  • Gao Vue was told she had ADD, but her mother didn’t accept it. She talked about a father who was a negative influence, but taught her how to be strong.
  • Hannah Quartrom says she likes to take over and lead. Her mother was an example of how to solve problems and get through difficult situations.

Employers, teachers, family, and peers, everyone can play a role in helping students develop the social emotional skills they need to succeed.

Ken Bedell is a senior advisor in the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center at the U.S. Department of Education.

Drawing the Right Lessons from Vergara

Sometimes conflict is the starting point on the path to progress.

That’s one of two possible ways events could play out in the wake of Vergara v. California, a court case that is driving enormous debate throughout the education world.

Brought on behalf of nine public school students, the Vergara case argued that California’s laws on teacher tenure and placement violate the right to an education in the state constitution. The lawsuit claimed that minority and low-income students are deprived of effective teachers by state laws that, in essence, award lifetime employment to teachers after as little as 18 months, and that require layoffs on the basis of seniority.

Last week, a judge agreed, saying these laws deprive students of their civil rights. The decision affirmed the fundamental duty to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, family income or skin color, receive a quality education – starting with an effective teacher.

The question is, what happens now?

One possibility is a series of appeals, probably stretching across years, and similar suits in other states and districts. Both sides have the millions such a fight would require. Improvements for teachers and students would be slow in coming.

I hope it doesn’t turn out that way.

There’s a second path – which is for all involved to recognize, as the court did, that the status quo is broken, and get to work on alternatives that serve students well – and respect and value teachers and the profession of teaching.

The second path may be harder to achieve. This country has plenty of experience at lawyering up. It has less at finding consensus on tough public issues.

But I am convinced it can be done. There is a common-sense path forward – built on a recognition that the interests of teachers and of disadvantaged students are not opposed, but aligned. With commitment and collaboration, we can create systems that do these vital things:

  • Ensure that disadvantaged students have strong teachers
  • Establish a meaningful bar for teacher tenure
  • Retain the most effective teachers
  • Make it possible to remove teachers who are ineffective, even after a meaningful period of support

Too much of the reaction to Vergara has suggested that the needs of students and of teachers are at odds. On the contrary, both students and teachers will benefit in systems that use wise practices, including high-quality, thoughtful supports and incentives, to ensure that all students – and especially the most disadvantaged — have effective teachers. Students and teachers both benefit when school systems take concrete steps to elevate the teaching profession, to recognize, listen to and learn from the most effective educators, and establish practices and career paths for educators that enable them to hold on to the most effective educators.

Tenure itself is not the issue here. I absolutely support job security for effective teachers. I think it’s vital to protect teachers from arbitrary or ill-motivated job actions. But giving teachers tenure after only 18 months in the job — a practice that Vergara challenged — is not a meaningful bar. Awarding tenure to someone without a track record of improving student achievement doesn’t respect the craft of teaching, and it doesn’t serve children well. Likewise, in the unfortunate circumstances when teachers must be laid off, letting them go solely on the basis of seniority, without taking quality into account, doesn’t serve our students well. Such policies ignore teachers’ effectiveness and undercut the public’s confidence in public education.

Instead, let’s create rewards —and reduce barriers — to attract and keep talented teachers and to develop inspiring school principals, especially in neighborhoods where children need the most help. The challenges that students growing up in poverty bring to school can be enormous. Our school systems should act on that understanding by ensuring that such students have especially skilled teachers, principals, and support staff.

Let’s recognize that as a nation, we have a responsibility to better prepare and support our teachers throughout their careers. Let’s recognize and celebrate the strongest teachers and find opportunities for those who are willing to mentor their peers to do so. Let’s pay teachers in a way that recognizes their real value and importance to our society. Through such steps, we can do a better job of keeping strong teachers at every stage of their career – from promising early-career teachers to accomplished teachers who can mentor their colleagues.

Let’s have a conversation that is national in scope but local in its solutions. Let’s find a way forward that supports both students and educators.

And let’s learn from high-performing nations that translate their respect for the value of teachers into action. These countries pay all teachers well, recognize excellence, and offer pay and career rewards for working with the neediest kids.

Elevating teaching and school leadership is an imperative everywhere in this country, and something we have long worked to support at the federal level.

Our RESPECT blueprint pulled together the thinking of thousands of educators to lay out a vision for how we as a nation can transform the profession of teaching; a new initiative, Teach to Lead, responds to some of their recommendations with new ideas for putting teachers in leadership roles, and builds on the many effective examples of distributed leadership at work in our schools today.  We’ve also collaborated with national education organizations, including the two major teachers unions, to spotlight and learn from examples where labor and management are working effectively together to support students and educators.

We are also putting a strong focus on how we can support states and school districts in more equitably providing great teachers to all students – a focus intensified by the work of our Equity and Excellence Commission. Our new Race to the Top-Opportunity proposal would invest in states and districts willing to tackle persistent, systemic opportunity gaps in access to resources, coursework, and effective educators. And we are promoting policies and making investments that target the many other inequities that can unfairly harm a child’s home life, as well as their education, and reduce their chances of going to college, being successful in a career and contributing to society.

After a dramatic, emotional week, it can be hard to recognize that there’s common ground among people and organizations that tend to be opposite each other in courtrooms, on television and at bargaining tables. But we can align in the fight against academic failure.

It took enormous courage for 10th grader Beatriz Vergara and her eight co-plaintiffs to stand up and demand change to a broken status quo. It’ll take courage from all of us to come to consensus on new solutions.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education and the former CEO of Chicago’s public schools.

Real Equality in Education Remains Elusive

This op-ed originally appeared in the National Journal.

This year the nation will commemorate two historic actions taken to protect equal rightsthe 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that abolished state-sponsored segregation in public education — and the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

We are left with an important question: Has the promise of Brown and the Civil Rights Act been fulfilled?

Most people agree that despite progress made, educational equity and opportunity remains out of reach for many students from diverse language and cultural backgrounds. For example, of all students enrolled in low-performing schools, 42 percent are black and 33 percent are Latino. Furthermore, these students are much more likely to be taught by teachers with less experience than those leading classrooms in more affluent, mostly white school districts.

There is some good news. Communities that recognize the value of language and cultural diversity have contributed to the proliferation of dual-language programs in schools across the country. California, Illinois, and New York all offer students what’s known as the Seal of Bi-literacy, a distinction that appears on the diplomas and transcripts of students who have become proficient in two or more languages by high school graduation.Legislation that would create a similar student recognition is either pending or under consideration in 10 other states.

Boosting the number of students able to speak, read, and write in more than one language—what President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan sometimes refer to as “bi-literacy skills”—has become essential to America’s future economic prosperity and national security.

We also have more work to do. According to the Education Department’s latest Civil Rights Data Collection, information compiled from all 97,000 of the nation’s public schools, black students (57 percent), Latino students (67 percent), and English learners (65 percent) have less access than their white, English-speaking peers (71 percent) to the kinds of rigorous math and science courses needed for college and many careers.

The CRDC also provides other evidence of unequal opportunity. Students in the process of learning English represent 5 percent of the nation’s high school students but only 2 percent of those enrolled in advanced-placement courses. Among students already proficient in English, about 7 percent participate in gifted and talented programs at their schools. That figure is three and a half times larger than the paltry 2 percent of students in the process of learning English who participate in similar programs.

In a country where the share of students who come from households where languages other than English are spoken at home is expanding, one has to wonder how much untapped potential is being squandered. How many exceptional minds are insufficiently challenged each day?

A number of recent incidents have also served to remind us that we have much more to do to ensure supportive, inclusionary, and egalitarian environments for all our children. Recently a school principal in Texas made headlines when she described the act of speaking Spanish as “disruptive” and prohibited it at school. Although the principal’s contract was not renewed and the ban on speaking Spanish lifted, this incident had a chilling effect on students and the community. It opened old wounds left from a time when this kind of language oppression was common.

Sadly, in the past year alone Education Department staff has heard similar stories during visits to schools in California, Colorado, Illinois, and Nevada. Students, parents, and even Hispanic teachers have reported being prohibited from speaking Spanish in all settings, including parent-teacher conferences. The agency’s Office for Civil Rights has also investigated several complaints alleging that school districts discriminate on the basis of national origin by prohibiting, and sometimes punishing, students for speaking in their native language. In 2013, the division received almost 80 official complaints containing allegations of discrimination on the basis of national origin involving services for English-learner students and/or communication with parents of limited English proficiency.

In many of these cases, districts have not been able to show valid educational justifications for these actions. Ironically, the reason given by many school administrators and districts for prohibiting Spanish is what I see as the misguided notion that this promotes more rapid learning of the English language.

As a former bilingual-education teacher, principal, and district superintendent, I have a hard time conceptualizing any valid educational justification for barring languages other than English from schools, making it more difficult for parents and teachers to communicate or sending the message to students that speaking a second language is a bad thing. Instead, it seems clear that these sorts of actions leave students and parents feeling excluded. Devaluing other languages and cultures is not only harmful to student identity and self-confidence, but can also be disruptive to the learning process.

In this country, we have a civic duty and moral obligation to be vigilant and courageous in taking appropriate action when we witness cases of mistreatment and exclusion of any student. We must embrace the richness and diversity that is our cultural and linguistic heritage. And, as we collectively face increasing global economic and political interdependency, equipping more students with the skills to read, speak, and write in multiple languages represents not only an advantage but an essential part of our country’s security.

Only when schools consistently do both will we realize the promise of Brown and the broader civil-rights movement.

Libia S. Gil is the assistant deputy secretary in the Education Department’s Office of English Language Acquisition.

Lessons Learned: The Importance of Summer Experiential Learning

Last Friday, I found myself in an elementary school classroom engaging with students on the topic of summer learning. Studies demonstrate that there is a notable trend of learning loss when young people do not engage in educational opportunities during summer months; thus, summer programs and activities are paramount to preventing the “summer slide”.

As I worked with the students, a light went on in my head as to how I conduct my own academic journey. Learning through action, discovery, and self-exploration can be as valuable as classroom experiences. These instances of experiential learning give me the chance to take classroom theories and practice them. What better time to engage in experiential learning than during the months away from school!

Whether it is getting involved with an internship or simply a local service organization, I challenge all students—especially those in high school and college— to step out of their comfort zones and try something new:

  1. Start your search by determining if your school has a service program; my college has an “Applied Study Term” option that allows us to take a semester off from coursework to grow in the community. These programs are often paired with grant and scholarship opportunities to cover incidental costs. If you’re still in high school, reach out to local organizations, like a community center, a museum, a youth group, or even your own school or library.
  2. Once you’ve narrowed your interests, contact relevant organizations for an interview. I dare you to pick an organization based on the personal contribution you can make to it rather than its name or prestige. Being able to “own” your assignments will help you discover your passions.
  3. Now that you have found a niche, make sure to have fun and connect your experiences over the summer with classroom knowledge. Your mind grows brighter with every light bulb moment.

They always say that the most important lessons in life come from experiencing it; ironically, my lesson still happened in a classroom through my summer internship with ED, just 822 miles away from home.

Michael Lotspeich is an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach and a junior at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Supporting the Economy by Helping Student Loan Borrowers Manage Debt

Cross-posted from the Department of the Treasury ‘Treasury Notes’ blog.

In today’s global economy, a higher education is one of the most important investments students can make in their own futures.  But for too many lower and middle-income families​, this essential rung on the ladder to opportunity is slipping out of reach as tuition continues to rise, and more students than ever are relying on loans to pay for college.

As the President takes further steps today to make a college education more affordable, there are now more tools available to help students and families manage their debt.

The Obama Administration is working to make college more accessible and affordable.  As part of these efforts, the Treasury Department and the Department of Education teamed up with Intuit Inc. during the 2014 tax season to launch a pilot program to raise awareness about income-driven repayment plans with millions of tax filers. The pilot resulted in nearly 100,000 clicks by individuals taking action to visit the Department of Education’s Repayment Estimator website and evaluate their repayment options.

Users of Intuit’s TurboTax service were able to determine their eligibility for lower student loan payments based on their income by connecting to the Repayment Estimator. Income-driven repayment plans allow borrowers to fully repay their student debt on a sliding scale that adjusts monthly payments based on factors like changing income and growing families. These tools are helping lower and middle-income families pay their debts and avoid default.

The partnership helped spread the word about tools available to borrowers. Intuit’s research suggests that many of its TurboTax online customers have student loans and many may not be aware of Department of Education’s loan repayment options. Building on this collaboration, today the White House announced an expanded partnership with Intuit and a new partnership with H&R Block to reach even more individuals who could benefit from income-driven repayment options, both during tax season, and beyond.

President Obama has said, “Higher education can’t be a luxury — it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.” As part of our mission of promoting economic growth and job opportunities, the Treasury Department will continue to explore ways to help student borrowers responsibly manage their debt.

In addition to the Repayment Estimator, the Department of Education offers federal student loan borrowers several repayment options and loan counseling tools to help students and families make informed decisions on financing a college education.

Melissa Koide is the deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Consumer Policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

 

President Obama on Student Loan Debt: “No Hardworking Young Person Should Be Priced Out of a Higher Education”

Cross-posted from the White House blog.

obamastudentloans

President Barack Obama signs a Presidential Memorandum on reducing the burden of student loan debt, in the East Room of the White House, June 9, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

More students than ever before are relying on student loans to pay for their college education. 71 percent of students earning a bachelor’s degree graduate with debt, averaging $29,400. While most students are able to repay their loans, many feel burdened by debt, especially as they seek to start a family, buy a home, launch a business, or save for retirement.

That’s why, as part of his year of action to expand opportunity for all Americans, President Obama is taking steps to make student loan debt more affordable and manageable to repay.

On Monday afternoon, the President signed a memorandum directing the Secretary of Education to propose regulations that would allow nearly 5 million federal direct student loan borrowers the opportunity to cap their student loan payments at 10 percent of their income. The memorandum also outlines new executive actions to support federal student loan borrowers, especially vulnerable borrowers who may be at greater risk of defaulting on their loans.

But in his remarks at the signing, the President made clear that Congress needs to take action as well, saying that today’s executive action will “make progress, but not enough.” He brought up the bill written by Sen. Elizabeth Warren that would allow students to refinance their student loans at today’s lower interest rates, noting that “it pays for itself by closing loopholes that allow some millionaires to pay a lower tax rate than middle-class families.”

The President then detoured briefly from his prepared remarks, explaining why it’s a “no-brainer” for Congress to pass the bill:

You would think that if somebody like me has done really well in part because the country has invested in them, that they wouldn’t mind at least paying the same rate as a teacher or a nurse.  There’s not a good economic argument for it, that they should pay a lower rate.  It’s just clout, that’s all.  So it’s bad enough that that’s already happening.  It would be scandalous if we allowed those kinds of tax loopholes for the very, very fortunate to survive while students are having trouble just getting started in their lives.

So you’ve got a pretty straightforward bill here.  And this week, Congress will vote on that bill.  And I want Americans to pay attention to see where their lawmakers’ priorities lie here:  lower tax bills for millionaires, or lower student loan bills for the middle class.

“This week, [Congress has] a chance to help millions of young people,” President Obama said. “I hope they do. … And in the meantime, I’m going to take these actions today on behalf of all these young people here, and every striving young American who shares my belief that this is a place where you can still make it if you try.”

Read the President’s full remarks from Monday’s signing, and learn more about how the President is working to make college more affordable.

And in case you missed it, the President will take to Tumblr this afternoon to answer your questions about education, college affordability, and reducing student loan debt. Tune in today at 4:00 p.m. ET.

David Hudson is associate director of content for the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House.

Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder Announce New Efforts to Address the Needs of Confined Youth

Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder meet with the members of the Federal Reentry Council in Washington, D.C. to discuss efforts to improve education and employment outcomes among persons reentering communities following incarceration. (Photo credit: Department of Justice)

Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder meet with the members of the Federal Reentry Council in Washington, D.C. to discuss efforts to improve education and employment outcomes among persons reentering communities following incarceration. (Photo credit: Department of Justice)

This past March, staff from our respective Departments met at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights to hear from a group of seven formerly incarcerated youth. This amazing group – most of them now over the age of 18 – shared their experiences with the juvenile justice system.

No two stories were the same. Some youth shared that they received no educational services at all, not even books to read, during their time in the facility. While several youth had been identified for disabilities before they were incarcerated, many did not receive services aligned with their individualized education programs. Among the students who did receive instruction, the courses available did not provide credits toward a high school diploma.

We are grateful to these youth for their resilience, leadership, and bravery as they speak out about their experiences. It is time that we match our gratitude with a new commitment to reform, to ensure that every child placed in a facility has access to high-quality education services and the supports they need to successfully reenter their schools and communities.

Today, leaders from 22 agencies joined us for a Federal Interagency Reentry Council meeting to discuss actions to reduce reentry barriers to employment, health, housing, and education for individuals who are transitioning from incarceration to community.  The meeting comes on the heels of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force Report, submitted to President Obama last week, which recommends new action to address the persistent opportunity gaps faced by too many youth, particularly boys and young men of color, and ensure that all young people who are willing to do the hard work to get ahead can reach their full potential, including new efforts to enforce the rights of incarcerated youth to a quality education.

In keeping with that recommendation, we announced to our federal partners that we sent a letter to each state school superintendent, and each state attorney general. The letter highlights the importance of supporting youth in facilities, describes how federal dollars can fund improved services, and signals our coming work to clarify the components of high-quality correctional education services.

This step continues recent work by federal agencies to support incarcerated youth in juvenile justice facilities. We’ve funded model demonstration projects for students with disabilities returning from juvenile facilities and commissioned a report from the National Academy of Sciences to better understand the developmental needs of incarcerated youth.  Moving forward, our departments will invest in a joint initiative to design an evidence-based education model for returning youth and to support demonstration projects in selected jurisdictions.

Our work builds upon the recent groundswell of state and local efforts, as well as private initiatives and investments in research, dedicated to strengthening services for incarcerated youth.  Last year, we were amazed by the efforts at Maya Angelou Academy at New Beginnings Youth Development Center to provide all youth with access to English, Math, Social Studies, and Science classes aligned with the standards of the District of Columbia’s Public Schools. During our visit to the facility, students were reading Night, by Elie Wiesel.

Maya Angelou Academy has set the bar higher for our youth in juvenile justice, and others are doing the same.

States such as Oregon, Indiana, and Pennsylvania are increasing access to technology as one strategy for connecting youth in juvenile facilities with academic content comparable to their peers in traditional schools.

Thanks to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, we now have consensus among researchers, practitioners, and advocates – from the fields of education, health, juvenile justice, and law enforcement – regarding the necessary steps to keep youth in school, prevent their entry into the justice system, and ensure that youth in facilities get the supports and services they need.

Plenty of work remains. Too many places still exist where youth in facilities do not have access to quality education services, or worse, receive no services at all. We know that there is often confusion among education and justice officials about who is responsible for students’ education once they are placed in a juvenile detention setting.  But we are heartened by the work of the Council of State Governments, the National Academy of Sciences, and others – an effort that represents growing national agreement that we have a collective responsibility to support, nurture, and prepare juvenile justice-involved youth.

That’s why we spoke up in a recent federal lawsuit in support of incarcerated youth with disabilities who alleged that they were placed in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more per day, discriminated against on the basis of their disability, and denied their right to a free and appropriate public education.

As noted in the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force report – when young people come into contact with the juvenile or criminal justice systems, these interactions should not put them off track for life. The President has set a goal that, by 2020, our nation will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world and that all Americans complete at least one year or more of college or career training. We must ensure that our youth in correctional facilities can play their part in achieving that vision.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education and Eric Holder is U.S. Attorney General.