Finding the Solutions

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Finding the Solutions

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Graduation Remarks at McKinley Tech High School

June 16, 2013

I’m so pleased to be here on Father’s Day with your wonderful Chancellor, Kaya Henderson, Principal Pinder, Mr. Saunders, McKinley staff, families and friends. And a special congratulations to the fantastic McKinley Tech High School Graduating Class of 2013!

I love the opportunity to help celebrate your academic and personal success and this time of passage to college and careers.

McKinley Tech is exactly the kind of school that President Obama holds up as an example when he talks about redesigning and strengthening our nation’s high schools.

McKinley Tech combines strong academic preparation in the critical STEM disciplines with rigorous and relevant training in career-related experiences and competencies.

Many of the seniors today, in fact, are graduating with both career competencies and college-level coursework or college credit.  Because of your hard work, think about the amazing opportunities you have created for yourselves as you move forward.

And with that kind of record, McKinley Tech has thoroughly earned the distinction of being a nationally-recognized Blue Ribbon school.

Now, to the graduates today, let me just say we are thrilled to see you earn your diploma at a school so committed to excellence. And we are excited to see you take the next step toward achieving your dreams.

But please remember that today honors not just your individual work and promise, but the support, the advice, and the love of your families and the McKinley Tech staff who helped you reach this day.

So, sometime today, please thank your parents and grandparents. Thank your aunts and uncles, your siblings, and your friends who supported you along the way. Thank that special teacher, or coach, or the counselor who believed in you--even when you maybe doubted yourself.

McKinley has a powerful motto that is deceptively simple: “No excuses, just solutions.”

What does that mean in practice? First, I will tell you what I think it does not mean.

It doesn’t mean the end of hardships or challenges in the years ahead. It doesn’t mean that you won’t fail--and even fail many times-- as you work to reach your goals. In fact, I will tell you that if you don’t have some failures, you aren’t stretching yourself and challenging yourself enough.

But McKinley’s motto does tell you that you have within you the talent, the skills, the resilience, and the character to respond to failure – to learn and grow from it – and to find solutions to remedy problems.

It tells you that even if you’ve faced challenges -- growing up without a lot of money, or in a single-parent home -- you can absolutely still thrive and overcome adversity. The tenacity you have already shown to get to this day gives me great reason to be optimistic about your futures.

To our seniors here, perhaps you feel like you’ve heard McKinley’s motto from Principal Pinder or your teachers or your parents a few too many times already.

But as simple as this motto seems, if you take it to heart and make it your own, you will continue to cultivate an internal strength that will empower you to succeed for decades to come.

As you move into college and careers, I promise you will encounter some people who make excuses and think of themselves as victims. You will find people who give up when they stumble--and say that a problem can’t be fixed.

My hope is that you will be the leaders who recognize difficulties but push past them. My hope is that you will never shrink either from identifying problems or from eeking to solve them.

My hope is that you will always be lifelong learners--and never assume you have little left to learn or to teach to others.

My hope is that just as you were helped here by family and teachers, you will help those who look up to you and follow in your footsteps.

When the adults here who care about you refused to validate your excuses, it wasn’t to ignore all that you’ve had to overcome to get here.

Instead, it was to demand from you a personal recognition of your tremendous capacity for excellence. It was to demand that you recognize the strength of character that lies within each and every one of you.

Your principal, your teachers, your coaches, your family were preparing you not just to dream, but to achieve your dreams by asking you to own your choices and be a problem-solver.

Because you are a class that has the real potential to be leaders locally, nationally, and across the globe, we will look to you in the years ahead to design solutions and actively participate in civil society. Someday soon you will be asked to pay it forward.

Seniors, if you’re in the Biotech strand, please raise your hands, and please keep your hands up. Those in Engineering, raise your hands. If you’re in the Media strand, where are you? And those in IT?

Thank you. I saw a lot of hands in the air!

That gives me great faith that, even if you cannot imagine it today, there are budding scientists and doctors sitting right here that our country will need to make discoveries and develop cures that will make a global health impact.

I see future electrical, civil, and aerospace engineers, who will develop and maintain the infrastructures that are essential to commerce, and travel, and exploration.

I see future web designers, developers, and journalists that will build our capacity to share information and communicate with each other and across the globe.

And I see future educators who, like the teachers who helped bring you to this day, will one day instill in your own students a curiosity and passion for learning.

I see prospective teachers who will, as the saying goes, enter the profession from which all other professions are created.

Now, none of this will happen overnight. None of it will be easy.

For those of you who are going to college this fall and who will be the first in your family to earn a college degree, you will likely face especially daunting challenges.

But I have every faith that you can meet those challenges if you search for solutions, instead of looking for excuses. You are prepared, and you are ready!

The 2013 graduating class is the first STEM-focused class at McKinley.

You’ve completed relevant projects, and experienced a new curriculum aligned to careers in biotechnology, engineering, and other areas. You’ve learned from teachers who are industry experts in their fields.

Please know that in completing all of this, you have already begun to set examples for generations of students who will come after you. So, too, has McKinley.

Imagine what we could do for thousands and thousands of students across the country by providing more opportunities for this kind of relevant, rigorous, and engaging learning.

Think of how we could boost graduation rates and reduce dropout rates if we just had more high schools like McKinley--schools where students can find their passion and connect classroom learning to their future, to the needs of society, and to the demands of a globally-competitive job market.

Your class set a new standard for academic achievement at McKinley. And we are grateful for your hard work and the example you set.

You are the first class to break 80 percent proficiency on reading and math assessments. And you’ve earned the highest rate of admission offers to four-year colleges – 98 percent -- and earned numerous scholarships.

Those are tremendous collective achievements. And your success challenges our rising seniors in a meaningful way.

But that collective success is possible because of the individual contributions each of you has made. It is possible because each of you chose to find a solution, instead of giving up in the face of a tough problem.

McKinley graduates persevere. It is who you are.

Uneka King, a recent alumnus, started the Gay-Straight Alliance as part of the Legacy Project, to spread tolerance and to do more to eliminate discrimination in the community.

Marquel Lewis fought through the disappointment of having little playing time on the basketball team last year.

I, too, know what that feels like--when I got to college I didn’t make the varsity team my freshman year and had to work twice as hard to make the team the next year.

But Marquel didn’t give up either. He committed himself to his team. And he scored a game-winning basket for McKinley against Spingarn this year. More importantly, he is graduating in the top ten percent of the class.

He didn’t let stumbling blocks stop him from fulfilling his dreams. Please, give him a hand.

Please give a hand, too, to Mercedes Young and Arnasha Jones.

As their counselor said, these ladies came in as freshmen four years ago, and I quote, “took McKinley Tech by storm in the most quiet but spectacular fashion.”

Mercedes and Arnasha ended ninth grade ranked number one and two in their class. And they have been at the top ever since--not as rivals but as friends who helped each other and those around them.

They don’t trumpet their success--they just succeed, quietly, and consistently, never accepting the excuses that could stand in their way.

It takes courage to face challenges. Class of 2013, you are prepared to meet any challenges you will face with courage, and grit, and resilience.

And, when you look back on your time here, I hope you will remember that conversation when Principal Pinder pushed you to be not just a student but a scholar.

You’ll remember the high expectations that Mr. Allen and Ms. Kilbourn set for your class.

You’ll remember that Ms. Fishman simply would not let you quit--and insisted on you doing your best.

Graduates, I know major challenges lie ahead for each of you— and, frankly, for all of us; that’s life.

But to stop because of challenges is to never realize your full potential – the vast potential that your families and friends, your teachers and principal, and I, see in you.

So my challenge to you today is, like McKinley’s motto, both simple and complex: Go out into the world of possibilities that now lies before you. Take it on. Make a difference. Find the solutions.

Go with the confidence that, individually and collectively, there is nothing you cannot do. You will always have some folks who may doubt you. Just use their skepticism to fuel your determination.

I am so proud of each and every one of you, and I look forward with great anticipation to what you will accomplish in the years ahead. Congratulations—and I wish you all the best!