The Gift That Can’t Be Taken Away

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The Gift That Can’t Be Taken Away

Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the TEACH Roundtable at the Edward Roybal Learning Center, Los Angeles, California

February 22, 2011

(Note: Speaker deviated from prepared remarks.)

Thank you! And thanks to Roybal for hosting us here today. As some of you may know, one of your own, teacher Linda Yaron is here with me today.

She told me about the teachers, administrators, parents, support staff, and community members who work hard every day to help you fulfill your dreams and inspire you to climb the mountain to college. And she has told me about the heart and passion of students who want to succeed and transform this community through education.

I know the last couple of years have not always been easy in the LA Unified school district. Money and resources are tight. Many schools, including Roybal, have had to make tough decisions about laying off support staff. All across the nation, schools and school districts are being asked to do more with less.

Yet with all of the pressures today on school leaders and teachers, most educators still retain their passion for teaching and their love of learning. And I would ask you, why is that?

Most teachers will tell you the reason they persist is that the rewards of being a teacher far outstrip its disappointments. Teaching is one of the few professions that are not just a job or even an adventure—it’s a calling.

Great teachers strive to help every student unlock their potential and develop the habits of mind that will serve them for a lifetime. They believe that every student has the potential to succeed—even when you doubt yourselves.

So, I come to Roybal today with two messages. First, stay in school--and stoke your hunger for education all the way to college and beyond. Fulfill your parents’ dreams for you--go to college, even if you are the first one in your family to do so.

And second, after you have that college degree, think about becoming a teacher. We need far more Latino teachers in the classroom, especially Latino males.

I am not alone today in urging you to pursue your education. Mayor Villaraigosa is here today. Oscar de la Hoya is in the house! You’ll hear from him shortly. And my friend, the amazing singer and school reformer John Legend is here.

These extraordinary leaders are all here for a reason. They are all here to say that many more Hispanic children in America must enroll and graduate from college. They join me today in seeking to strengthen the college-going culture in Hispanic communities across the U.S.

It’s fitting that we are here today in the Edward Roybal Learning Center. Edward Roybal knew the importance of a good education. He fought tirelessly to open educational opportunities for Latinos.

As a teenager, Edward Roybal was barred from the Evergreen Park swimming pool because Mexicans were prohibited from swimming there, except on the day before the pool was disinfected.

As an adult he protested that injustice—and the pool was opened to the entire community. He went on to become the first Latino member of the city council of Los Angeles in the 20th century, and the first Latino member of Congress from California since 1878.

In Congress, Edward Roybal never forgot the Boyle Heights barrio where he grew up. He authored the first bilingual education bill, providing Los Angeles school districts with assistance for bilingual teaching programs. He fought for funding for early education, tutoring programs, and Pell grants that enabled low-income students to go to college.

His daughter, Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, explained why her father fought for equal opportunities for Hispanic students when she spoke at the ribbon-cutting for the Roybal Learning Center three years ago.

Congresswoman Roybal-Allard couldn’t be here today because of votes in Congress. But she has followed in her father’s footsteps as the first Mexican-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. And she is a champion of education.

At the ribbon cutting for the school, she said “My father believed that education was the single greatest gift we could pass on to our children, because an education can never be taken away from you.”

“An education can never be taken away from you.” Maybe you have heard your parents say that. But it’s a truth about today’s world that is worth repeating.

The Hispanic community has so many strengths to draw upon—not just a strong work ethic but strong religious and family values.

But there are times when some of these very strengths do not help students persist to get a college degree. When young Latino males drop out of high school to take jobs to support their family, they are ultimately limiting their potential. When working parents keep their kids at home to do babysitting because they prefer family care to organized day care or can’t find affordable child care, those students are losing out.

Let me ask the students here: Please put your hand up if you know who Sonia Sotomayor is?

That’s right. Justice Sotomayor is the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice in the United States. She was valedictorian of her high school, top of her class at Princeton, and an editor at the Yale Law Journal.

But what you may not know is that Justice Sotomayor was not born with an Ivy League degree in her hand. She earned it despite growing up in a housing project.

Her father was a factory worker with a third grade education who died when Sonia was nine. Her mother had to work six days a week to raise Sonia and her brother in public housing in the Bronx on her nurse’s salary.

That didn’t stop Sonia’s mother. She told her two children that education was the key to success in America. Her children were the only kids in their housing project that had a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Before Justice Sotomayor was confirmed for the Supreme Court, she said “my brother and I grew up in the projects. But through my mother’s emphasis on education, we are living wonderful, full lives, liberated from the shackles of poverty.”

Justice Sotomayor understood that education liberates you to pursue your dreams. And the agents of that liberation are not just your parents but your teachers.

I believe education is the civil rights issue of our generation. And if you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start.

As President Obama said in his State of the Union, “if you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make a difference in the life of a child—become a teacher.” There’s a reason why so many people like Oscar De La Hoya remember a favorite teacher, even decades later. A great teacher can light a lifelong curiosity and feed a thirst for learning. They instill self-discipline and grit. They change the course of lives for the better.

The teachers that you will remember years later are the ones who wanted you to solve problems like a scientist, write like a poet, see like an artist, and observe like a journalist.

By the time you get out of college, teaching will be a booming profession. More than half of our 3.2 million teachers and principals are Baby Boomers. Over the next five to six years, the nation could lose a third of veteran teachers and school leaders to retirement and attrition.

Yet we know that today our country’s classrooms have far too few Hispanic teachers. For the last decade, Hispanic students have been the biggest minority group in our schools. Twenty percent of all public school students in the U.S. are Latino. But only seven percent of their teachers are Latino.

It is especially troubling that less than two percent of America’s teachers are Hispanic males. How can that be a good thing for young children, especially boys? The under-representation of Latino men in the teaching profession is a serious problem. And it is not self-correcting.

Now, some young Latino men may think male teachers lack machismo. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching is hard work.

It takes smarts. It takes grit. Just ask some of the Latino teachers in this school like Mr. Palomares and Mr. Bautista. Just ask Oscar De La Hoya whether his favorite teacher, Mr. Benson, pushed him to excel. A great teacher thinks of their students as extended family.

Before we open up for a roundtable discussion, I want to close by telling you a story about a Latino teacher who you may not have heard of; his name is Lauro Cavazos.

Lauro Cavazos was not the son of migrant workers. But he grew up on a giant Texas cattle ranch where his father was one of the foremen. His mother had a second-grade education and was functionally illiterate. His dad had only been to high school. But his parents were determined that he would get a good education.

For many years, Lauro didn’t believe his parents when they told him he would go to college. He started school in a two-room schoolhouse on the ranch and had to watch out for rattlesnakes when he used the outhouse in the schoolyard.

But his parents wanted him to go to a better school that wasn’t just for Hispanic kids.And when he switched to the school for the Anglo students, students called him names and beat him up because he was Mexican.

With his parents’ support and the support of great teachers, Lauro stuck to his studies. He became fascinated by biology. He went to college and became a medical school professor. Before long, he was the Dean of Tufts University School of Medicine and then President of Texas Tech University.

One day in 1988, he got a call from the White House.

He went to Washington to meet with President Reagan in the Oval Office. And more than two hundred years after our nation was formed, Lauro Cavazos became the first Hispanic to serve in the United States Cabinet. He became the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Now, Secretary Cavazos had a favorite grade school teacher, his principal, Miss Ruby Gustavson. She knew every student in the school and made a point of visiting their homes and talking to their parents. And decades later, when he became Secretary of Education, he invited Miss Gustavson to a speech he gave. He asked her to sit in the front row.

In front of the audience, Secretary Cavazos thanked her for initiating his education. She smiled and shook her head modestly.

In his memoirs, Secretary Cavazos notes that he met presidents of many nations, U.S. senators, Supreme Court Justices, and many distinguished persons. But that smile from Miss Gustavson meant so much more to him. Her approval of his academic achievement, he later said, “ranks among the highlights of my career in Washington.”

Secretary Cavazos ends his memoirs with something his father used to say. His dad would tell him “Son, educate yourself. It is a treasure no one can take from you.”

So today I urge you: Treasure your education. It is a gift that keeps on giving, that links one generation to the next.

And one day I hope many of you will return to your community as teachers. One day I hope you will return and thank your favorite teacher. One day I hope you will say “I made a difference.”