Promise Neighborhoods and the Importance of Community

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at Neval Thomas Elementary School, Washington, DC

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Press Office, (202) 401-1576, press@ed.gov


Thanks to the Chavez Middle School band and the Thomas Elementary school children's choir. Thank you for that beautiful music.

It's a bittersweet day today. We need to listen carefully to the voices of children at this moment. We need to savor their innocence, and applaud their unquenchable appetite for self-expression and renewal.

Today--let me start with a piece of great news. Today, we're announcing the winners of a new round of Promise Neighborhood grants.

As most of you know, Promise Neighborhoods are cradle-to-career initiatives that call on all parts of the community to provide comprehensive wraparound supports to surround great schools, such as high-quality early learning, rich after-school activities, mental health services, and crime prevention.

I'm so pleased to announce that the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, or DCPNI, has won a $25 million implementation award. DCPNI is one of seven partnerships around the nation that won implementation awards today. Ten additional communities have won planning grants.

We had many, many more strong applicants than we had dollars available—I wish we could have funded the important work going on in many other communities. And I hope that other applicants, who didn't win grants this time, continue to press ahead with this comprehensive, collaborative, and critical work.

I congratulate DCPNI and its partners for not only uniting the Kenilworth Parkside community around a common vision, but for doing so with a rigorous, research-based approach to bettering the lives of all young people in the community. And I applaud the community for taking a broad and comprehensive view of supporting their children.

The hub of DCPNI efforts will be two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. But you have put together a tremendous coalition of more than 30 partners, including the city government, the DC public schools, hospitals and health centers, family support organizations, and the DC Housing Authority police.

I'm thrilled to see DC Mayor Gray, DC police chief Cathy Lanier, and DC's school chancellor, Kaya Henderson, are all here today.

The hunger for this kind of work in the nation is huge. More than 200 applicants applied for this round of Promise Neighborhood grants.

So many communities are eager today to provide equal access and support to disadvantaged children. So many communities are desperate to replace the cradle-to-prison pipeline with a cradle-to-career pipeline--that's what we all are fighting for.

The winners of implementation grants today range from big-city Los Angeles to small-town Indianola, Mississippi. In Corning, California, the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians won a planning grant.

Promise Neighborhood grants are so important because they engage the entire community—they ask everyone to work together. They ask everyone to take responsibility for helping children.

Children in many communities across the country deserve a stronger opportunity structure than we as adults have provided them. This is an amazing chance to rebuild the social compact with our young people.

The concept at the heart of this program—community-based and comprehensive—is equally relevant to a much more painful conversation America began, once again, last week in the wake of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Losing six dedicated educators and 20 first-grade students in a matter of minutes to a disturbed young man with access to weapons designed for war is forcing us all to confront some very difficult questions.

I don't pretend to have all the answers. But since last Friday, I think the world has changed. Much like with 9/11, many Americans will forever remember where they were when they heard the awful news of the shootings.

On Wednesday, I went up to Newtown to talk privately with teachers and school staff from Sandy Hook Elementary School and to attend the wake for their heroic principal, Dawn Hochsprung. And I can tell you that the sense of loss and grief there is overpowering.

No child, no parent, no family, no community should have to go through what this community is going through. They are strong. They are resilient. They are united. But they will be forever changed.

We have to make sure we learn from this awful tragedy as communities and as a nation. Every community needs to appraise its values and look at whether the community, parents, business leaders, faith-based leaders, political leaders, and schools are doing everything that they can to keep our nation's children safe from harm.

This is a collective responsibility. None of us gets a pass. It's not the time to point fingers. But we absolutely have to reassess a number of our society's value choices on issues like easy access to guns and limited access to mental health services.

We have to look at family engagement and the role of parents. And let's honestly evaluate the cultural messages we send that glorify gun violence or harden too many young people to its costs. At the prayer vigil in Newtown on Sunday night, President Obama spoke of the fact that it comes as a bit of a shock to parents to recognize that "no matter how much you love [your] kids, you can't do it by yourself. That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation."

So, are we doing enough to keep our children safe from harm? Are we allowing our children to grow up free of fear? I don't think so--and neither does the President. Newtown wasn't the first school shooting. A decade ago, it happened in Colorado. After that was Virginia Tech – taking 32 lives. And there have been other massacres outside of schools.

Meanwhile, in cities all across America – especially in low-income communities – young lives are lost due to senseless gun violence at a rate that is absolutely staggering.

This is very personal to me. As a child who grew up in my mother's after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago, I had a number of friends and mentors in the program who were gunned down at a young age. These were tragedies that were very tough to come to grips with as a 10 year-old.

As CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I attended far too many funerals of students. I went to too many homes of parents who had just lost their 10-year-old or 11-year-old child. I walked into too many classrooms with a desk that would be empty forever--and tried to explain the inexplicable to a class of grieving friends.

Nothing, nothing in my job was more difficult—and nothing made me more aware of how adults, myself included, were failing not just children but entire communities.

Like many of you, I am a parent of school-age children. And we all have to start by having honest conversations with our kids about what happened in Newtown. The worst thing to do would be to try to sweep this tragedy under the rug.

My wife and I have been honest with our son and daughter, both of whom are in elementary school. They've been thinking about this a lot, as I know millions of children across the country have. I tell our kids that we need to do everything we can to keep them, and their friends, safe--because they deserve better than to be fearful at school, or at a park, or the mall, or before they go to sleep at night.

We also have to help teachers and principals deal with their own fears. We ask so much of them – but we should never expect them to put their lives on the line – and yet they did. We owe it to these brave, heroic educators to summon just a little of the courage they had and do more to prevent these horrible tragedies.

At the President's direction, Vice President Biden is convening a group of four Cabinet secretaries to make recommendations next month to the President about how to reduce gun violence and prevent future mass shootings.

I am a member of that group, and we have met twice this week already. We have a broad charge to come up with comprehensive recommendations that the President, Congress, states, and communities can act upon soon to address this complex, difficult problem.

The President has started the conversation by offering some common-sense ideas: renewing an assault weapons ban; limiting high-capacity ammunition clips; closing the gun show loopholes that allow criminals to acquire guns without a background check. And he has promoted more meaningful background checks and better enforcement of existing laws.

Reasonable people should be able to agree on these restrictions. As the President has pointed out, many of these ideas are backed by members of the NRA and were in fact supported by President Reagan.

My friend, Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia, summed up the new consensus well. He is a lifelong hunter and a lifetime member of the NRA.

He said he doesn't "know anyone in the sporting and hunting arena who goes out with an assault rifle. [He] doesn't know anyone who needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting."

So I ask—I beg, I plead--let's make real and rapid progress on that front. But let's go further and ask what we can do as a community to dramatically reduce gun violence. What can we expect of each other? What responsibilities go along with the right to own guns?

We all need to make this personal. Imagine if that was our child in that classroom in Connecticut—or if our wife or sister was one of those who gave her life to protect other people's children. What would we do differently? What would we ask of others?

Let's have a conversation about mental health. Are we doing enough? Can people get access to the help they need? Are we doing enough to ensure that information about mentally ill individuals who pose a violent threat is shared on schools and campuses?

This is the time to come together, to prove that the naysayers about America's capacity to change are wrong. We have no other choice, but to do everything in our power to make our schools and our communities, safe havens.

When the American people put their mind to something, I have great faith that we will see real change in our schools. And I believe communities everywhere can and will reaffirm the sacred trust of keeping all of our children safe.

In the coming weeks I plan on spending a lot of time visiting schools and communities—in cities, suburbs, and rural areas—to talk about this issue.

I want to talk to gun owners and hunters and sport shooters and ask them, what should we do?

I want to talk about community and responsibility, and I want to talk about values—because we have common values that go far beyond the constitutional right to bear arms.

We value our children. We value our safety. We value our freedom to go to a movie theater or house of worship and do what we want to do so long as we are not compromising the freedom of others.

We value the right to live our daily lives and pursue our dreams, without fear.

But last week, the dreams of 26 people from Newtown, Connecticut were cut short at an elementary school because one disturbed young man was mad at the world.

I can't help wondering what he might have done, and how this might have been different, if he didn't have access to those guns. Maybe he would just be punching his pillow, and his mother would still be here to give him support.

And there would be 26 families from Newtown, Connecticut, preparing to celebrate the holidays, instead of arranging funerals.

Unfortunately, it's too late for them. But it's not too late for America.