Higher Expectations to Better Outcomes for Children with Disabilities

President Obama has said that we are stronger when America fields a full team. Unfortunately, too many of the 6.5 million children and youth with disabilities in this country leave high school without the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in a 21st century, global economy. While the vast majority of students in special education do not have significant cognitive impairments that prohibit them from learning rigorous academic content, fewer than 10 percent of eighth graders with disabilities are proficient in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Too often, students’ educational opportunities are limited by low expectations. We must do better.

That’s why the Department is changing the way it holds states accountable for the education of students with disabilities. For many years, the Department primarily focused on whether states were meeting the procedural requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Generally, we have seen significant improvement in compliance.

But if kids are leaving high school without the ability to read or do math at a high-school level, compliance is simply not enough. This year, we also focused on improving results when we made determinations as to whether states are effective in meeting the requirements and purposes of IDEA.

With this year’s IDEA determinations, we looked at multiple outcome measures of student performance, including the participation of students with disabilities in state assessments, proficiency gaps in reading and math between students with disabilities and all students, and performance in reading and math on NAEP.

I believe this change in accountability represents a significant and long-overdue raising of the bar for special education. Last year, when we only considered compliance data in making annual determinations, 41 states and territories met requirements.

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This year, however, when we include data on how students are actually performing, only 18 states and territories meet requirements.

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In enacting IDEA, Congress recognized that improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.  We must do everything we can to support states, school districts, and educators to improve results for students with disabilities. We must have higher expectations for our children, and hold ourselves as a nation accountable for their success.

Michael Yudin is Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Focusing on the Needs of Rural Students

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Students Emilea Pitts, John Hall, Amy Brewer, and Braxton Eiserman showcase the technology they use at Sebastian Middle School, a rural school located in Breathitt County, Kentucky. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The National PTA has designated June as the Month of the Rural Child, a time when parents and communities explore ways to become involved and support students in rural schools.

Otha Thornton, President of the National PTA has noted, “Nearly one in four high school students in rural areas won’t graduate. To help address the unique challenges rural schools face and ensure all students graduate and reach their full potential, it is essential that families are engaged and that strong partnerships are built between families, schools and communities.”

For one rural Kentucky school district, technology is helping to create strong partnerships between schools and the community, and federal GEAR UP funds are helping to make this possible. Alonzo Fugate, GEAR UP Academic Specialist for Breathitt County Schools in eastern Kentucky, works with students on a weekly news program using iPads purchased with GEAR UP funds.

“Many of our students do not have access to technology at home, so it is vital that they are able to use it effectively in the schools,” he said. The program, featured on the school website, serves as a source of pride for the students and teachers involved and provides an avenue for parent and community involvement.

Some students are even planning their career paths based on their experiences. Fourteen-year-old Brooke started working with the school news program when she was in fifth grade and has been interested in becoming a news reporter ever since. The iPads also are important to  other class projects. For example, Brooke and another student recently created an app called “Fashion SOS” for a science fair project, which blended their personal interests in the fashion industry with technology, resulting in a unique educational experience.

In the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, students in Breathitt County face the challenges of going to school in rural America: traveling longer distances to get to school, having limited access to technology at home, overcoming geographic isolation, and contending with limited financial and educational resources. Thanks to the introduction of technology in the classroom, students there are now provided with the tools that can help them graduate high school college-and-career ready.

In his recent remarks to the National PTA, Secretary Arne Duncan referenced nearby Leslie County High School in Hayden, Kentucky, as another model of success in rural education. In 2010, it was ranked 224 out of the state’s 230 high schools. Today, the school is ranked 16th in the state and graduates 99 percent of its students thanks to the extraordinary commitment from the leaders and educators who joined forces to turn things around.

“Every student – no matter where they come from, what zip code they live in, or challenges they face – deserves the opportunity to truly learn and succeed,” Secretary Duncan said. That statement rings true this June—during the Month of the Rural Child—and every day.

McKenzie Baecker is an intern in ED’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education and is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Bracken Academy Runs on STEAM Power

There’s a school in Nevada with an unusual name that is helping students to achieve promising results: Bracken STEAM Academy of Las Vegas.

The STEAM in Bracken’s name comes from its focus on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, with the largest emphasis on engineering. The school also is placing a renewed focus on holding all students to rigorous, college- and career-ready standards.

Michelle Wheatfill, who teaches Bracken fifth-graders and has taught at the school for nine years, sees a difference in the classroom after teaching with heightened standards. “The students are learning exponentially,” Wheatfill said. “And because of the technology we have, they take charge of a lot of their learning. We’re there just to help guide them, instead of teaching every lesson with direct instruction.”

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Teacher Michelle Wheatfill introduces a lesson to her 5th grade class. (Photo Credit: Clark County School District)

Victoria Zblewski, a fourth-grade teacher with seven years of experience at Bracken, agrees. “As a result of the higher standards, my students are able to explain why we’re doing something,” she said. “We actually have kids write out their thinking, not just write their answer.”

But what do the students think of how they’re being taught? Wynn, a third-grader, said that she likes the opportunities that are presented. “Bracken is so good because the teachers don’t stop you at certain levels. They keep pushing you so you can keep going higher and get better.”

“Bracken is such a good school because the teachers push us to our level,” said Aden, a fifth-grade student. “I like when we get to do accelerated levels.”

Principal Kathleen Decker, who has led Bracken for 13 years, also sees the differences. “I’m in the classrooms all the time,” Decker said. “I do see teachers using a lot more hands-on, a lot more project-based learning, and a lot more differentiated and individualized instruction than in the past.”

Bracken’s commitment to higher standards is supported with two grants from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The Bracken STEAM Academy’s collaboration with Las Vegas’ Smith Center for the Performing Arts is funded by the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education Program which, in turn, is supported by ED’s Arts in Education National Program.

In addition, ED provides the school with $27,000 per year in a Title I grant, which helps keep the computer labs open before and after school, and funds a parent volunteer coordinator.

Principal Decker emphasized that teaching the children is the top priority and, one way or another, supporting the kids will always get done. At the same time, Decker said, “The federal money we receive at Bracken helps us engage everybody. The dollars do make a difference.”

Joe Barison is the director of communications and outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.

 

Recognizing the Importance of Fathers

One out of every three children in America —more than 24 million in total — live in a home without their biological father present, according to a 2012 White House Fatherhood Report. Roughly one out of every three Hispanic children and more than half of African-American children also live in homes without their biological fathers.

The presence and involvement of a child’s parents protect children from a number of vulnerabilities. More engaged fathers — whether living with or apart from their children — can help foster a child’s healthy physical, emotional, and social development. While evidence shows that children benefit most from the involvement of resident fathers, research also has highlighted the positive effect that nonresident fathers can have on their children’s lives.

Recognizing the importance of fathers in children’s physical, emotional, and social development, Shirley Jones, a program specialist in the Department of Education’s regional office in Chicago, partnered with the Detroit Area Dad’s PTA and the Detroit Public School system. Together, they organized the “Dads to Dads” forum at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School at Northwestern, where 350 men, women, and young adults committed to a day of discussion on how to best support children in their communities.

National PTA President Otha Thornton, one of the speakers at the forum, challenged the parent participants to identify the barriers that prevent them from being more involved in their children’s education and lives. He also talked about finding ways to overcome these barriers and encouraged dads to develop visions for their kids’ futures.

Mentoring programs, support groups, and other resources – such as places of worship, school PTA’s, and local governments – were also presented as places where fathers might turn for support.

Panelist Rev. Dr. James Perkins spoke during the final session and stated, “Your sons and daughters will learn what’s important by what’s important to you.” He stressed that fathers can encourage their children by spending time with them, which will have a lasting impact.

Anna Leach is a confidential assistant for the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education.

College Value and Completion: “Righting the Balance on the Side of Students”

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Students discuss college affordability during a recent town hall. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

“Who thinks college is affordable?”

Secretary Duncan and new Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell posed that question to a packed room of college students and freshly-minted graduates at a recent town hall on college costs and access.

Almost no one raised a hand.

A college education is still the best investment students can make in their future. It is also a critical investment that we can make as a nation. But right now, this important rung on the ladder to opportunity is slipping out of reach for many low- and middle-income families in America.

That’s something President Obama is determined to change. Since taking office, the President has made key investments in education and advanced an ambitious agenda to combat rising college costs; to make college more affordable; to increase quality; and to improve educational outcomes. On June 9, 2014, the President signed a Presidential Memorandum that will allow an additional 5 million borrowers with federal student loans to cap their monthly payments at just 10 percent of their income.

But during the town hall meeting, the feeling in the room was clear: this country needs to do so much more, to ensure that students – regardless of their circumstances – have the information they need to make good choices and the financial support to pay for and complete their education.

The town hall was part of a series of events to encourage conversations and gain insights from the people most directly affected by the rising costs of college. Secretary Duncan and Under Secretary Mitchell were there with one purpose: to hear from students. This was an opportunity to listen to students’ stories, needs, and ideas.

One student panelist, Johnathan, said, “My mom always told me I could go to my dream college. Then when we started to look at the cost, we had to slow down and think again. It’s not something parents want to have to say: ‘Let’s see what we can afford. Let’s pick something lower on your list.”

Johnathan saved on expenses for his family by spending his freshman year at a lower-cost college before transferring to that dream school, Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Wendy, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania and daughter of immigrant parents, shared her mother’s response when she was asked if the family was saving money for Wendy’s college education. She quoted her mother, “Are you kidding me? I’ve been trying to survive in this country. You have to figure it out.”

Student after student took the microphone, eager to share experiences and challenges, and offer ideas about how the federal government, states, and individual colleges and universities could help ease the financial aid process for students and families. Student participants attended institutions coast-to-coast—from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, to the University of California at Berkeley.

Several students recommended community college as a strong option for securing the first two years of a 4-year degree at a reasonable cost. One explained, “I feel like there is a stigma about promoting community colleges; [but] I have been able to stay debt free until my senior year.” Still many others raised their hands when asked if they were working their way through school. Several students described the challenge of juggling studies and the need to keep their grades high with the demand to work, in order to keep their loan balances down. Others spoke about the realities of being first-generation Americans, with parents who value a college education, but who encounter cultural taboos about borrowing money to pay for it. Still others spoke about having parents who attended college abroad and were unsure about helping their kids navigate the U.S. higher education system.

The consistent message at the town hall was that with better information, students and families can make informed decisions about higher education, manage their loans and finances wisely, and not have to defer their dreams.

“I want to be clear,” Under Secretary Mitchell told the room of promising young people, “the balance has shifted in ways that are not fair to students and families. We need to be guided by righting that balance on the side of students.”

Robert Gomez is the director of higher education outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

Let’s Do This Work Together: The Importance of Parents in Today’s Schools

“I ask you to hear my remarks not as information, nor as argument, but as a call to action.” Secretary Arne Duncan, National Convention of the Parent Teacher Association, Austin, Texas, June 20, 2014

Secretary Arne Duncan spoke these words today during the National Convention of the Parent Teacher Association, when he addressed a crowd of about 1,200 parents, teachers, and students gathered in Austin, Texas. The Secretary outlined the changes needed to improve public education and talked about the need to challenge and prepare students for their future, taking questions and sharing his vision for moving education forward.

The Secretary shared stories of his experience as a parent and the state of education nationally. He urged parents to work together to create the types of schools that will meet the needs of future careers by advocating for the advancement of the teaching profession, as well as college- and career-ready standards, preschool for all, and college affordability.

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Secretary Arne Duncan chats with Teacher Ambassador Fellows JoLisa Hoover (left) and José Rodriguez (right) at the National PTA Conference. (Photo credit: Karen Stratman/U.S. Department of Education)

As I listened, I thought of all the volunteers that have come through my classroom and of my own young niece and nephews and the paths that lay ahead of them as they begin school. As a teacher, PTA member, and proud aunt of preschool and public school children, I share Secretary Duncan’s call to action to improve education and his invitation to work together.

My mother was my class’s “room mom” throughout my elementary school experience and both my parents actively supported schools throughout the time they had kids in public schools. My mom and dad still volunteer and support my classroom, and they’re also involved in their grandchildren’s school lives. They have always been models for me regarding the importance of service to others and have demonstrated how to be involved and supportive without becoming “helicopter parents.”

Parent volunteers have been a lifeline for me and have enriched my classroom more than they will ever know. Every time a parent volunteers to take a task that saves a teacher time, he or she enables that teacher to be a better educator. Parents have raised money to fill in budget gaps and have routinely provided items not in the budget. I am so thankful for parents that have dutifully read e-mails, checked homework, attended parent conferences, and kept their children reading through the summer, all to support their child and their school.

Parents, you are important learning partners and teachers are so thankful for all you do!

Yet parents have another valuable role, and that is in making their voices heard regarding education policy. I am so thankful that my parents taught me how to be my own best advocate and demonstrated for me the importance of speaking up. During his speech, Secretary Duncan urged parents to use their collective voice to support ideas to build schools that will meet the needs of the next generation.

So, what exactly can parents do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be a voice for higher expectations;
  • Be a voice for elevating the teaching profession; and
  • Be a voice for the kinds of changes our schools must make to truly prepare our young people for the future they will face.

Improving schools is an important job and one that teachers, parents, and policymakers should do together.

JoLisa Hoover is a 2008 and 2014 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow and educator in Leander, Texas.

Interning at ED’s International Affairs Office Provides Worldly Perspective

My belief that a failing education system is one of the biggest problems faced by many societies is what compelled me to pursue an internship at the Department of Education. Working in the international affairs office (IAO) has offered me the perfect opportunity to combine my two passions: international affairs and education policy.

I have learned more about improving access to a quality education and that education can be an effective tool in eradicating poverty, advancing gender equality, ensuring healthy lives, supporting environmental sustainability, promoting good governance, and enhancing peace and security.

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Gaining valuable experiences as an intern. From left to right: Noel Schroeder of Women Thrive Worldwide; Allison Anderson of the Center for Universal Education; Meredy Talbot-Zorn of Save the Children; Rebecca Nasuti, Intern at ED’s IAO; Beckey Miller of ED’s IAO; and Laura Henderson of Women Thrive Worldwide (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Engaging with numerous organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Organization of American States (OAS), and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) has provided me with a substantial body of knowledge.

As an intern, I am exposed to the multifaceted ways ED engages with the international community to improve education.

During my first couple weeks, I was able to meet the Chinese Vice Minister of Education and his delegation during a meeting to discuss issues such as student exchanges, K-12 policy development, and higher education collaboration. I also met representatives from the Center for Universal Education, Save the Children, and Women Thrive Worldwide to discuss post-2015 education goals and targets to enhance equitable education for all.

I’ve seen the IAO’s involvement with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department, and the Peace Corps, and I have worked on updating and developing new content for the APEC Education Wiki that spans decades of cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. I believe education initiatives within APEC are particularly important and timely, as President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” stresses the significance of enhanced partnerships and diplomatic ties in the region. I am so humbled by this experience and I feel as though I’ve already become a more globalized citizen — and this is only the beginning.

Even though I have grown up during a time where Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and smart phones are the norm, I’ve never questioned that we are more interconnected today than ever before.  But accepting how inextricably tied we are to each other can be daunting. I can confidently say that interning in the IAO has already strengthened my ties to the world outside of Peachtree Corners, Georgia.

After graduation, I plan to apply for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant in the Asia-Pacific region so I can utilize the skills I am acquiring during my internship within the framework of a totally new education system.

In the long-term, I plan to be a lifelong international nomad in hopes that I can continue to learn about the people and cultures with whom we share this earth. In a society running toward innovation and advancement, there is no telling where we will be decades from now. To quote Secretary Duncan, “expanding educational attainment everywhere is the best way to grow the economic pie for all.”

Wherever we go from here, we’re going together as an interconnected network of nations. I’m excited to see what’s to come.

Rebecca Nasuti is an intern in the International Affairs Office at the U.S. Department of Education.

Ed.gov Has a New Look

The Department of Education has redesigned its website!

As you’ve probably noticed at first glance, our entire site has a more modern look and feel. We’ve also streamlined a lot of our site navigation elements, which we encourage you to explore.

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We’ve also improved our site search. We’re now using DigitalGov Search, GSA’s free search box solution that allows users to search all of our public-facing content. Additionally, the tool is powered by Bing’s index.

Our site is also now completely mobile-friendly. We know that the general public is increasingly accessing all sorts of websites on their phones, and we want to make sure that you can access all of our information, even when you’re on the go. This latest website facelift now makes it possible for you to read our content on your smartphone or tablet without having to pinch and scroll.

We’re not done improving our website, though. Coming later this summer all of our blogs will have a new look and feel. And coming in early 2015, we will have completed redesigning our homepage to make it even easier for you to find what you’re looking for.

Stay tuned!

Jill James is web director at the U.S. Department of Education and co-chair of the Department’s Open Government Working Group.

Recognizing the Importance of Summer Learning Day

Today we join hundreds of communities and programs across the country in celebrating National Summer Learning Day, a recognized national advocacy day to spread awareness about the importance of summer learning to our nation’s youth—specifically, in helping close the achievement gap and supporting healthy development.

Summer learning is everywhere; it’s happening in cities and towns all across the country. Today in Fayetteville, NC, the local university is opening its doors to local youth to learn about its College Readiness Summer Institute and how they can participate. In Louisville, KY, Mayor Greg Fischer joined other prominent local figures to kick off Every 1 Learns, a citywide summer learning effort designed to provide access to academic support and meaningful work experience for Louisville youth.

Find more summer learning opportunities across the country on our interactive Summer Learning Day Map.

Last month, I blogged on HomeRoom about how families can keep their teens learning and preparing for college and careers this summer. A few weeks later, First Lady Michelle Obama joined students in San Antonio to highlight her college access initiative Reach Higher. She is supporting President Obama’s “North Star” goal of returning the U.S. to being the leader in college graduates by 2020. One of the core solutions in achieving that goal is summer learning. The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) is excited to partner with the First Lady in helping teens “Reach Higher” all summer long and beyond.

Today it is a true honor to share the stage with the First Lady at the U.S. Department of Education to celebrate National Summer Learning Day. Bringing together high school students and education leaders from across the country, our event highlights the critical role summer learning plays in preparing young people for successful college entry and completion.

The First Lady and other guests will see and hear from young people about the incredible things they learned last summer, like how to write a personal statement,  teach and mentor younger youth, dance, cook healthy meals, apply for financial aid, and even dissect a sheep brain.

The 100 youth joining us today have the opportunity of a lifetime to participate in exemplary programs, and we hope to extend that opportunity to all young people who need and want that experience. Across the country, we’re beginning to see school districts partner with institutions of higher education and other nonprofits to offer rigorous coursework, counseling, and meaningful work experience for young people in the summer, and it’s changing lives.

There’s great reason to believe that summer learning opportunities can increase college access and completion among first generation college students. We’re thrilled that Mrs. Obama has taken notice of the importance of summer learning, and we’re honored to work with her on such an important issue for our nation’s youth.

Sarah Pitcock is CEO of the National Summer Learning Association.

5 Key Takeaways from #edcampusa

The energy at the end of the day was infectious.  To hear Emily Davis from the U.S. Department of Education speak with such passion about what had occurred at ED that day was both encouraging and inspiring.  In lieu of the traditional Edcamp smackdown to wrap up the day, 100 educators from around the nation discussed the day’s impact of the first ever EdCamp USA. In reflecting on my time at the department on June 6, and having co-facilitated four sessions throughout the day,  I left with the following five main takeaways:

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At the first EdCamp USA. Pictured, from left to right, Joe Mazza, Innovation Leadership Manager at PennGSE; U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Tom Murray, State and District Digital Learning Policy & Advocacy Director for the Alliance for Excellent Education (Photo courtesy Tom Murray)

Innovation Leadership Manager at PennGSE

1. Relationships and Culture Matter at ALL Levels - Throughout each of the four sessions I was a part of and regardless if we were discussing digital leadership, being connected, or a tool such as Voxer, educators continuously shared how relationships and school culture are a difference maker.  Personally, how will I foster relationships with those at the ED, those in Congress and the Senate, State Departments of Ed, so that we can collectively work to provide students with the access they need and staff with the professional learning needed to effectively shift instructional pedagogy?  What tools can we use to form bonds with other educators both near and far?  How can I encourage other educators to do the same?

2. Connected Educators are My Educational Family - Prior to being connected with educators around the world on Twitter, I felt like a man on an educational island.  The role of the principal was one that was often professionally lonely and challenging.  After becoming connected on Twitter with some of education’s best and brightest, I became encouraged, inspired, and professionally challenged to be better for kids.  Over time these relationships have fostered incredible friendships.  Being able to spend quality time with educators I may see only a few times a year reminds me that these high quality relationships are not just part of my professional learning network, but my educational family.  A special thank you to Joe Mazza, Steven Anderson, Adam Bellow, Susan Bearden, Katrina Stevens, Tom Whitby, Erin Klein, Bob Dillon, Jerry Switak, Patrick Larkin and Kristen Swanson, who were all at #edcampusa, for this reminder and for pushing me to be better for the kids we serve, all while having an incredible amount of fun in the process.

3.  It’s not about the technology; It’s about the learning - During session 4, Joe Mazza (@joe_mazza) and I co-facilitated a session entitled, “From DM to Voxer”.  In using this tool, we reached out to and received feedback from about 15 educators across the world (including Australia) regarding how the use of such tools can connect educators to help problem solve, form relationships, discuss topics and trends, etc.  Although it could appear that such a session would be tool focused, it’s about the end game; the learning and connecting that come from its use that’s ultimately most important.

4. Personalized PD is Essential - Session after session, the topic of high quality professional development was discussed or brought up by someone in each group.  Simply put, the traditional, top-down, one-size fits all approach to PD is outdated and a waste of time.  It must be replaced with a model that is meaningful, engaging and relevant, where teacher voice is an important part of the process and owership is shared by all.  There is little arugment to the fact that professional development is a key to moving our students to higher levels of achievement.

5. We have a Leadership Crisis Upon Us - Similar to professional development, many identified issues throughout the day, seem to come back to one key area; the need for high-octane educational leaders who create environments that promote risk-taking and innovation in their schools, who focus on the whole child not just state test scores, and who are models for the staff and students they serve.

Like any professional learning experience, what matters most is what happens from this point forward.  So I will personally and publically commit to the following:

  • Continue to work to develop high quality relationships with those in State Departments and Districts across the nation.

  • Remain connected with educators from around the world and engage with them.  I commit to continuing to share my learning, push the thinking of others, allow my own points of view to be challenged, and to help others get connected and see the value in learning alongside others.

  • Continue to keep my focus on the learning, and not on devices, tools, and the latest tech fad.

  • Continue to work with state leaders in my new role as the State and District Digital Learning Director, helping them transform professional learning at their levels, so that educators are engaged and the time is well spent.

  • Find ways to cultivate leaders around our nation.  Our children need incredible educational leaders serving them at all levels.

I want to commend Secretary Arne Duncan, Director of the Office of Educational Technology Richard Culatta, and Teacher Ambassador Emily Davis, all from the US Department of Education, for their work to make the first EdCamp at the Department a huge success.  The kids of our nation will benefit from this opportunity.  Thank you.

To those that I learned alongside of at the ED, what is it that you’ll publicly commit to as well?  Leave a comment in the section below.  Don’t let this past Friday be just another day day of PD.  Let it be a difference maker for those that we serve.

We can do this!

Tom Murray is the State and District Digital Learning Policy & Advocacy Director for the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C.

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

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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.