2013 “Strong Start, Bright Future” Bus Tour Closing Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Castle Park Middle School Town Hall, Chula Vista, CA


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It's a treat to be here at Castle Park Middle School and to hear about Chula Vista's fantastic Promise Neighborhood program.

Today, we're wrapping up a five-day bus tour of the Southwest and West. I want to tell you about what I saw—and how the transformation of Castle Park Middle School is a beautiful example of what I learned.

In the five days we've been on the bus—and I have say, it's a pretty cool bus--we've traveled over 1,100 miles across four states, from New Mexico to Texas, to Arizona, and now here, to California.

We have seen firsthand how courageous educators, committed parents, and caring communities are pulling together to tackle tough educational challenges. They are showing what it means to provide all children with a strong start and bright future.

In today's knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, a world-class education must start with expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities.

It continues with holding ourselves to higher standards and expectations from elementary school through high school.

And it leads to preparing students both for a college education they can afford, and a career of which they can be proud.

The challenges to providing a world-class education today are very real. And they are very urgent. Yet for every challenge that we saw, we also saw a community, a school, and visionary leaders pulling together to meet that challenge.

Let me tell you first about some of the challenges. At the Columbus Elementary School, a border school in Columbus, New Mexico, 98 percent of the students speak only Spanish.

Seventy-five percent of the students—more than 400 students-- live in Mexico. They were all born in the U.S. and are U.S. citizens. And they walk across the border every day and then take the bus to school.

Many students bring with them a host of challenges. Some come from families where electricity and indoor plumbing are luxuries. Some students had never held a pencil or book when they arrived at school.

Tragically, too many of our children are not getting a strong start in life. In New Mexico, more than 60 percent of four-year olds—about 17,000 children--are not served in Head Start or the state's preschool program. About 90,000 of Arizona's 110,000 four-year olds are not enrolled in any publicly supported program.

That's no way to provide equal opportunity and level the playing field for low-income students.

States, the federal government, and local communities must all invest in education. We can't treat education as just another item on a budget line that can be arbitrarily slashed during a budget crunch. Budgets aren't just numbers on a page—they reflect our collective values.

In Arizona, I visited with tribal leaders who told me of the devastating impact sequestration was having on Indian education. Sequestration represents the worst of Washington and its political dysfunction. It hurts the very children who most need educational opportunity.

In Tempe, at Arizona State University, I talked to middle-class families and students who were struggling to pay for college.

I spoke to Hispanic parents and children who had done everything right--and were desperate for comprehensive, common-sense immigration reform, so they could make the dream of going to college a reality.

Yet for all of these challenges, I saw great teachers, committed parents, and community leaders solving tough problems.

At Columbus Elementary in New Mexico, teachers used Skype to communicate with parents on the other side of the border in Mexico. The principal, Armando Chavez, had worked at Columbus for 13 years. The pre-K teacher, Charles Scanlon, rose at dawn to meet his students at the border. That kind of commitment was not in their job description—they do it because they care so much about the future of children.

In New Mexico, the Republican governor, Susana Martinez, is making preschool a reality for many more families. She has doubled the amount of funding for the state's pre-K program in the last two years--and added nearly $5 million to this year's budget to serve an additional 1,400 children.

At TransMountain T-Stem Early College High School in El Paso, educators are making learning relevant and rigorous for their students in the STEM disciplines—80 percent of whom are Hispanic and 60 percent of whom are poor. I walked into a class of 9th graders—14-year olds—who were taking a college biology class, for college credit.

In fact, all students at TransMountain can complete an associate's degree by the end of their junior year and have the opportunity to attend the University of Texas at El Paso during their senior year. And students can engage in robotics and rocketry through a partnership with NASA. Students at TransMountain do not say "if I go to college" but "where am I going to college"?

In Yuma, the entire community embraces military families and their children--and does everything it can to support children whose parents are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And finally, at Arizona State University, the university has taken a series of innovative steps to ensure that ASU remains affordable for middle-class students--from first-generation college goers to low-income Hispanic students.

Under President Crow's visionary leadership, ASU has increased access, strengthened quality, and improved graduation rates—all while keeping costs low. That is a model of effectiveness which colleges across the nation can follow.

So, as we travelled the Southwest, we saw the same pattern repeated.

Successful solutions and effective innovation inevitably originated at the local level, not in Washington. They all entailed setting high standards and expectations for students, coupled with real support. You won't hear Principal Bleisch tell eighth graders that they somehow don't need to take Algebra II because they were not born into affluent families.

And while successful innovations originate at the local level, they flourish in partnerships with nonprofits, community and faith-based organizations, and the state and federal government. This is a shared responsibility—no one gets a pass.

Tough problems, like turning around persistently low-performing schools, require collaborative, comprehensive solutions that challenge the status quo head on. There is nothing simple about this work. Tough challenges force people out of their traditional silos and push them beyond their comfort zones. That takes courage—and a commitment to doing what is right, not what is easy.

In the end, it takes a community to provide a well-rounded, world-class education. It takes outstanding principals, great teachers, high-quality preschool, after-school tutoring, arts, and sports programs, affordable health care providers, and accessible community recreation centers. It takes committed parents, business, non-profit, and faith-based leaders all working together on behalf of children.

And by the same token, it is also true that no community can ultimately succeed without a great school at its center. Schools should be at the heart of community life. The single surest path out of poverty today is still a high-quality education.

Now, all of these ingredients of success are easy to spot in the transformation of Castle Park Middle School and the Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood zone.

The Promise Neighborhood program is a homegrown initiative that extends the decades-long work of South Bay Communities Services in Chula Vista.

Castle Park's turnaround has been driven by an insistence on setting high expectations for students--and a refusal to make excuses for students missing school or failing to do homework, despite the real challenges students face in their daily lives.

You have implemented a series of locally-inspired solutions, including the Granger Turnaround Model at Castle Park. And you have provided comprehensive wraparound support services for students in the Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood, from cradle to career.

You have encouraged sustained and meaningful family engagement. You provided more than 100 hours of training to parents and neighborhood residents to support their children's learning through your model Promotoras program. You understand the power of intergenerational education.

And you did this all through a powerful partnership. South Bay Community Services gathered 28 partners to form the Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood.

Local agencies, nonprofits, and business all stepped up. And we were proud to support and accelerate your work with a five-year, $28 million Promise Neighborhood grant. While we hope our resources have been helpful, it is your hard work and commitment—and not our money—that is transforming children's life chances.

We all know that turning around a school and revitalizing the community is some of the toughest, most frustrating work in education. But it also some of the most important and rewarding work you will ever have the privilege to undertake.

It might be easy to forget now, but just three years ago, Castle Park Middle School was an educational mess.

It had the worst attendance record in the district. On some days, 75 kids would miss school. More than half the students had no plans to go to college. Test scores were abysmal.

But leaders at Castle Park, at other schools in the district, and in the community decided the status quo was unacceptable.

The school implemented mandatory attendance, mandatory behavior, and mandatory academic support systems.

All students had to complete all missing homework assignments before they could go home.

The Promotoras program helped parents become more engaged and invested in their children's academic success.

And teachers found a new sense of collaboration and community respect, as they helped to build a college-going culture at Castle Park for the first time.

All of that hard work is creating a new world of opportunity for your students. Castle Park now has the best attendance record in the district, with almost 100 percent of kids in class every day.

Test scores have risen by nearly double-digits in almost every subject--and students are taking more rigorous courses, like Algebra II in eighth grade.

And all of Castle Park's students are being prepared to keep their eye on the ultimate prize--a college education and career.

Castle Park's turnaround is another profound example that when adults raise expectations, children will rise to meet them. The whole country can learn from what you've done here.

Now, as much as we might like to, the federal government can't fund Promise Neighborhoods everywhere. But the core ingredients of Promise Neighborhoods—evidence-based; place-based; and covering cradle-to-career—that holistic approach can be adopted everywhere.

I am pleased that there are many great examples of that comprehensive, community-based approach in nearby San Diego—and across the nation. In San Diego, the United Way and Strive's Cradle-to- Career network are working with over 100 partners in the City Heights Partnership for Children. And Strive's Cradle to Career network is now operating in more than 95 communities nationwide.

The President and I believe in place-based, neighborhood solutions. We both got our start working in the community--and we know that is where real power is.

That's why I've brought with me today the leaders of our White House Initiatives on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and American Indian and Alaska natives. The outstanding leaders of our White House Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships are here today, too--basically, our whole brain trust is honored to be with all of you today.

Leaders of each of the White House Initiatives will host break-out sessions after our Town Hall concludes today. We want your innovative ideas, we want your input.

So, as our nation's children head back to school, I am optimistic about our capacity to elevate and strengthen education in America--despite the serious challenges we face on a daily basis, the challenge of inadequate funding, poverty, and family breakdown.

I am optimistic because for four-and-a-half years and throughout this bus tour, I have seen great school leaders and teachers, I have seen engaged parents and committed communities pulling together to solve problems and provide all students with a world-class education.

I am optimistic because I have seen students with incredible grit and passion for education who simply will not be denied—whether they are a four-year old who walks across the border every day, or 17-year-old Abagail Smith, who, as a child of military parents, went to 10 different schools, as her family moved to serve the nation. Abagail is planning on becoming a Special Ed teacher.

And I am optimistic because I see encouraging signs of progress nationwide.

During the Obama's administration first term, the high school graduation rate rose to its highest level in three decades. And the news is especially promising for Hispanics. Across America, college enrollment is rising more rapidly for Hispanics than among any other group.

Just last week, the Census Bureau reported that it estimates the number of Hispanic students enrolled in college grew by more than 1.1 million from 2008 to 2012.

That is 1.1 million more young people with a better chance of getting a good job, owning their own homes, and supporting a family. They are living the American Dream.

All of this progress is happening even as states raise standards and expectations for children.
Forty-six states, plus the District of Columbia, have now voluntarily adopted the rigorous, state-crafted Common Core standards in English and mathematics. California is helping to lead this effort--and Governor Brown has been a champion here.

Higher standards are a welcome sea-change in education. For too long, too many states dummied down expectations for our students to make politicians look good. As a nation, we are finally gaining the courage to stop lying to children and families, and tell them the truth about their academic achievement.

To our students here: you must work hard. I believe it is your job to get a good education—no one can hand it to you.

To parents, I would say, we will always be our children's first and most important teachers. It is up to you to get to know your kids' teachers—and find out the best ways to stay informed about their progress.

Learn about the new, higher standards that are taking effect in so many states. And help build meaningful partnerships between families and teachers, so teachers, parents, and community partners collaborate to improve student engagement and learning.

Educators today are facing what may be some of the biggest changes in American education in decades. The transition to higher standards is hard. Yet it is chock-full with incredible opportunities.

Teachers across the country know this is the right thing for their children, and for the country. I would urge teachers and school leaders to step in and participate--be a leader in this transition.

To college presidents and administrators, I hope you will take seriously the challenge to step out of the pack with innovations that both make college more affordable and increase quality. More of the same won't solve the problem--or meet the needs of the middle-class.

And finally, to Congress, I would say that by listening to local educators on this tour, by getting out of Washington, I've learned more about what the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind should include if we are going to provide a world-class education to every child.

At the schools I visited, the students are saying yes to art, yes to music, yes to debate, yes to academic decathlon, yes to robotics. Students, parents, and educators want a rich, well-rounded curriculum to be the norm, not the exception. And we cannot provide a world-class education without funding it.

So, to lawmakers, as you go back and visit schools in your district, sit in the classrooms.

Don't talk at teachers and parents. Listen to them. Get a first-hand sense of what is really going on in our schools.

I encourage you to use that experience to inform your thinking on what a strong, reauthorized law should look like. We must fix the broken No Child Left Behind law.

Ask parents and educators, if they think education is an investment--or just another expense on a budget line.

As great an honor as it has been for me to serve President Obama, the biggest thrill of my job is getting out of DC and into our schools to talk with students, teachers, parents, and college leaders.

This is my fourth back-to-school bus tour. I learn something new every time.

Yet I never finish a bus tour without being reminded of the ingenuity and commitment and passion of our teachers and students for an education.

W.E.B. DuBois said that "of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental."

I absolutely agree—and my fervent wish for every student is that they embrace and enjoy the right to learn this school year.


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