Prepared for Success: Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the Clark Montessori Junior High and High School Commencement

Archived Information

Prepared for Success: Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the Clark Montessori Junior High and High School Commencement

May 27, 2010

Congratulations to the Class of 2010—all of your hard work has paid off. Thank you not just for your commitment to earning your diploma but for committing to go to college.

I want to especially thank Principal Rupa Townsend, who is doing a great job, and all of the teachers and parents and friends who helped these graduates every step of the way.

Rupa says that the Class of 2010 is a great community. She says she can feel the mutual kindness among the students. Your teacher Bob Girton praises you for your consistently outstanding academic work. He's particularly impressed that every one of you completed your senior project before spring break--and that you didn't participate in the American tradition of Senior Skip Day. Let me just say this: As the Secretary of Education, I don't endorse the tradition of Skip Day.

I also want to single out Team Obama. Your group took on the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge and you gave it your all. I hear you worked long days and nights making videos, filling out applications, and running an online get-out-the-vote campaign.

In the video your school submitted to the commencement challenge, Clark Montessori made a compelling case for why it is special. Through your video and your application, Team Obama, and all who supported them, achieved enormous success. Your application was chosen from among 1,000 contestants. You were one of six finalists. You showed thousands people across America what is possible when teachers and students work together as a community of learners. The more I learn about Clark, the more I see that President Obama had a very difficult choice among the finalists.

The fact that all of you are going to college — and that so many graduates before you have completed college — that's something every school should aspire to. Clark Montessori is showing schools throughout the country what's possible when teachers, students, and communities work together.

Clark isn't an ordinary school; it's an extraordinary one. And I want every high school in the nation to have caring communities, challenging academics, and a commitment to all students going to college.

Clark sets a very high bar academically, and you've been challenged to produce a senior project. For many of you, that's been a long-term paper that required you to use college libraries for the first time, and delve deeper into a subject than ever before. I hear some of those papers are good enough to pass as an undergraduate thesis--or even a thesis for a master's degree. That is simply remarkable, and I'm sure your senior projects were formative experience. Kelsey Bartsch researched how students in poverty learn. She discovered that many students who grew up in poverty spend more time with their teachers than their parents. As a result, she realized how much of a difference she can make as a teacher--and she now plans to pursue a teaching as a career. Beromie (Ber — OH - Me) Ellery studied how children learn to read. She also wants to be an elementary school teacher. I have to tell you, that is music to my ears. Others of you completed projects that will guide your potential careers in journalism, the law, music, medicine, and criminal justice.

You should feel absolutely confident that you are academically prepared for college. More importantly, the process has given you the experience of taking on a big task and completing it. It produces a special kind of learning — where you use critical thinking skills, develop an in-depth knowledge of one topic, and overcome obstacles along the way. I'm sure you struggled through it. There may have been times that you wished you could give up. But you persevered. Today, you're sitting here with a sense of accomplishment, feeling the reward of a job well done.

Unlike many other high school students, you've been required to do community service. You've all completed at least 200 hours. Many of you have done a lot more than that. You know how rewarding service can be. You also know it can take courage --walking into any service project, you will be challenged to do new things. You never know whether your offer to help will be welcomed or initially pushed aside. But you all took the risks — and I'm betting that your experience enriched your own education as well.

Clark and the other finalists in the commencement challenge are shining examples of what high schools in our country can be. They should be places where teachers are asking: "Where are you going to college?" — not "Are you going to college?"

They should be places where guidance counselors are saying — "Here's how you're going to pay for college" — not "How are you going to pay for college?"

But today I want to remind you that not all high schools are fulfilling that mission of preparing students to succeed. At least two challenges lie ahead—challenges for which you are well-prepared. First, make it your mission to complete college. Your goal is not to go. Your goal is to get that degree. You're going to run into many obstacles as you pursue your degrees. I know I did. But you've been prepared academically. You have what it takes to do well in college. Don't let anything stop you from succeeding there.

And here's a second challenge: Continue to be a role model for others. I know that many of you are the first in your family to go to college. You've shown your brothers and sisters, cousins and neighbors that college is possible. You may not ever realize how many eyes are on you, watching and learning, from you as you take the next stop on your education journey. I ask that you encourage them to pursue their college degrees themselves — even for five- and six-year-olds. It's never too early to plant that seed. Give them the encouragement and advice that your teachers and counselors here at Clark gave you.

As you, your friends, and your family members go to college and earn your degrees, I want to assure you that President Obama and I are not just cheering you on, but working hard to provide support to help you succeed. Earlier this year, Congress passed the President's plan to make college more affordable. Our plan saved more than $68 billion. We're taking away subsidies to banks and are investing it in millions of college students who need more financial aid over the next decade. We put that money toward increasing Pell Grants and other direct aid to students. We simplified the FAFSA form so the financial aid form itself would cease to be a barrier to college entry. We are also lowering the payments on student loans that you and your friends will be making once you enter the world of work.

Did you know that you will receive a substantial break in your student loan if you pursue a career as a teacher, police officer or some other public service? Your monthly payments on the loans will be capped. And after 10 years of public service, you won't have to make any more payments. Ten years of public service, and your debt will be gone, erased forever. We want to bring you and the next generation of extraordinary talent into careers where you can help others.

President Obama is making these investments in college education because he knows we need to educate our way to a better economy. He also is doing it because he believes in you — and in schools like Clark Montessori that prepare students to succeed in college and in life.

Since I became Secretary of Education, I've travelled to about 37 states and visited hundreds and hundreds of schools. I know it's possible for schools to prepare all of their students for success in college and careers. I've seen it, and I can see it in your faces today — just as I've seen it in the faces of students at the Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News, Virginia, at Yes College Prep in Houston, and at many, many others.

When I look at these schools, I see two defining characteristics.

First, they have a clear sense of mission: an expectation that every student can and will go on to college, and a determination to help them get there. As juniors, you spent two solid weeks planning your college search. You cover all of the bases, from planning your campus visits to planning when you'll take your SATs and ACTs. You even learn how to fill out financial aid applications.

That mission goes beyond the academic preparation for college. It extends to making all of your learning experiences relevant and exciting. At Clark, you've had unique opportunities. During your inter-sessions, you have had the opportunity to learn while hiking on the Appalachian Trail or while touring the historic sites of the Civil Rights movement. You have travelled to Morocco to learn about its history and culture and to Costa Rica to study its biodiversity. You have learned about art in New York City or about physics on roller coasters. Now that's some good hands-on learning. These are experiences you will remember forever. And the lessons you learned will shape you for the rest of your lives.

That mission also extends to teaching you how to be members of a community — in your school, in your neighborhood, in your city and around the world. The President talks about how he benefited as much from his work as a community organizer in Chicago as the people he was working with. The experience taught him about the meaning of citizenship and enabled him to feel the embrace of the community around him like never before. I hear many of you have learned that same lesson — that the experience of community service offers as much to you, as the people you're there to help.

I was lucky enough to learn that lesson in my own childhood. I grew up in an after-school tutoring program run by my mother in a tough neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. She had the older students tutor the younger children. She believed everyone should be both teaching and being taught at the same time. After we were all done with our studies and chores, we played basketball together. Everyone knew our program was a safe haven where children were nurtured, respected, and taught right from wrong.

Through that experience, I learned that in the right environment, all children can succeed. I saw the power of education to help each individual realize his or her true academic and social potential. My sister, brother, and I have all tried to follow in our mother's footsteps in various ways.

More than anything else, that fortunate experience is the reason why I've dedicated my life to ensuring that students across the country have the more access to great schools like Clark.

I have been able to pursue my passion, and I urge you to also follow your passion as you go on to college and beyond. If you haven't found that passion yet, don't worry. With a commitment to academic excellence and community service, I promise you will find it. Make community service a hallmark of your life, not just your high school experience.

Beyond a clear mission and laser-like focus, great schools have one other ingredient: Great teachers.

I believe that great teachers and educators are absolutely the unsung heroes of our nation. Your teachers have challenged you to do better even when you thought you were already giving your best. They saw gifts and talents in you that you may not have even known you had. They have treated you with respect. They've been here on Saturdays to answer your questions. They've answered your phone calls when you had questions on your homework.

I was moved by the story Jameesa Rucker told in the video that Team Obama submitted to the commencement challenge. After her mother died, Jameesa said she was faced with the question of who would attend the parent-teacher conferences with her. A friend's mom came with her. And after the conferences, she realized that every one of her teachers cared for her like a parent. It feels like she has seven moms and a dad because her teachers are there for her.

I'm sure all of you felt that sense of caring and connection from your teachers, and I can't tell you how much that means to me personally. So much of our education is about the relationships you build, not just the knowledge you gain. But your teachers also challenged you. If your teachers were anything like my favorite teacher from high school, at least some of them returned your papers with what seems like more of their writing on them than yours. They didn't do it to criticize. They did it to show you that you can do better--and to show you how to do better. They did it to bring out the best in you.

I recently had the chance to reconnect with my favorite high school teacher. Darlene McCampbell is her name. She still teaches English at the University of Chicago Lab School. She told me that those papers are an occupational hazard. They never stop coming in, and she's still bringing them home today — almost 30 years after I graduated.

She says the work is hard. But she doesn't feel as if it's a burden. For her, and so many of your teachers, being a teacher is a total joy. Whether today, or over the summer, please take a moment and thank your teachers, coaches and counselors who have been there for you. That will mean more to them than you will ever know.

Finally, as you go on to college and prepare for your career, I urge you to consider teaching. We need now to prepare a million smart and passionate people to do for current and future students what your teachers have done for you.

And I hope that many of you will leave here today thinking not only how you can help students as a teacher, but as a tutor, coach, or mentor. The impact you can have on the lives of others is extraordinary.

We look forward, with great hope and anticipation, to the next stage of your journey. Your high school experience and your work ethic have prepared you well for the next step. I know you will continue to make your teachers and your families proud.

Congratulations, and thank you for allowing me to share in this wonderful celebration with you.