Nearly 1000 people filed into the East Tech High School auditorium in Cleveland on Wednesday afternoon for the third stop, and the largest crowd yet, on the “Education and the Economy” bus tour.
But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has a personal message for a small group of them. He asked the students in the audience to stand. Several rows of young, mostly African-American men wearing black sweater vests, white dress shirts, ties and khakis seated in the front rows stood, to applause from the crowd.
Duncan spoke directly to them.
“When I was in high school on the south side of Chicago, my friends could drop out of high school and go to work in the stock yards and steel mills, get a job and take care of a family. That’s gone now.”
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He went on to implore everyone attending to find a role in improving Cleveland’s education system and to reject complacency.
“If you do that, doors will open for you, if not – it’s going to be tough. Cleveland has made real progress, but your goal should be to be the best urban school system in the country four or five years from now. Cleveland has had some great successes, but now is not the time to rest on your laurels.”
The event “Connecting Cleveland’s Communities and Classrooms,” featured a panel discussion and audience Q&A with Duncan and national and local leaders in community service. Participants included Joshua DuBois, executive director of The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Acting CEO for the Corporation for National and Community Service Robert Velasco II; Reverend Tracy Lind; Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson; Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon, and Nikki Gentile, a 3rd grade teacher from Marion-Sterling school.
But the conversation began before Secretary Duncan’s bus rolled onto East Tech’s campus. The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships held a forum for leaders of Cleveland community-based organizations. Representatives of the federal Departments of Labor, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Education, as well as the Corporation for National and Community Service, offered information about federal programs that support local communities.
Representatives of nonprofit groups talked about how they are putting that funding to work in the Cleveland area. Outside in the main hallway of East Tech, government agencies and community groups showcased their programs and provided information to the guests.
Once the main event kicked off, Secretary Duncan said the goal was simple: “Connecting Cleveland’s communities and classrooms – what’s working, and what can be done to improve?” And, he noted, “Any time you have an auditorium full of people talking about education, that’s a good thing.”
The panel discussed topics and audience questions ranged widely; how to increase meaningful parental engagement; how Cleveland has increased graduation rates; what the appropriate role for charter schools is; and from a student in the audience who said he was in foster care and wanted to know, “What will happen in three years when Race to the Top money runs out? Are students like me going to be left on our own with no help from the system?”
Secretary Duncan was optimistic. “Race to the Top has catalyzed huge amount of change in this system,” he said. “Forty-four states have signed on to common core academic standards. For the first time in Ohio, children are being held to a much higher standard. When the (Race to the Top) money goes away – I don’t think that goes away. My hope is that we’ve taken our country in a new direction and will continue to improve.”