On Tour’s First Day, a First Lady

The state of Georgia is home to many notable “firsts.” It was the first state to lower the voting age to 18; the first Coca-Cola was poured in Atlanta; and in 1922, 87-year-old Rebecca Felton, of Georgia, became the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. So it’s fitting that the U.S. Department of Education’s “Partners in Progress” back-to-school bus tour had its first stopping point in the state.

In keeping with the “first” theme, the tour began at Spelman College, America’s first historically black college for women, in Atlanta. There, Secretary Arne Duncan met with 15 students from Spelman and two other HBCUs in the area, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, for a roundtable discussion on preparing teachers from a variety of backgrounds to work in America’s increasingly diverse public schools.


Students at Spelman welcomed Secretary Duncan during the first stop on this year’s “Partners In Progress” Bus Tour. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Whether through traditional preparation programs at schools of education like Spelman’s or through alternative routes like Teach For America, our country’s schools need to recruit the next generation of talent from many different backgrounds, Secretary Duncan said. Schools — and the people who work in them — need to be connected to the communities they serve.

“Where schools are isolated from their communities,” he said at the roundtable, “that makes the work of that teacher that much harder.”

The next stop was at nearby Booker T. Washington High School, where Secretary Duncan was joined by First Lady Michelle Obama. The two were greeted by hundreds of cheering Bulldogs in royal blue shirts, fired up by the marching band and cheerleaders.


The Booker T. Washington High School Bulldogs cheered as the First Lady took the stage to talk about her Reach Higher initiative. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Booker T. Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. attended high school, was the latest high school to hear from Mrs. Obama about her own journey to college, from the South Side of Chicago to Princeton University — and how some adults along the way doubted she could do it.

The First Lady’s main objective was to talk about her Reach Higher initiative, which seeks to inspire all students in America to take charge of their future by completing their education past high school. That can come in the form of a four-year college degree, a two-year degree or a certificate that helps them get a job.

“You have to understand that completing high school is not the end but the beginning of your life’s journey,” Mrs. Obama said. “It’s just the beginning. In today’s world, in order to compete in an ever-globalizing economy, you’ve got to continue your education after you graduate from high school.”

Day one of the bus tour wrapped up in Carrollton, a small Georgia community near the Alabama border. Duncan met with school officials and representatives from the Southwire Company to hear more about the “12 for Life” program, which offers students who have fallen behind in high school the opportunity to attend class and make money by working in a Southwire manufacturing facility.


Tour time! Secretary Duncan joined students enrolled in the “12 for Life” program on a tour of a Southwire manufacturing facility. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Similar partnerships between Georgia school districts and business have resulted in 34 locations throughout the state, at Southwire but also in the grocery industry, furniture manufacturing and local government. A four-year $3 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education is helping to expand the number of students participating in 12 for Life from 160 to 320.

Students from the program led Arne on a tour of the factory floor — Southwire is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of telecommunications and home wiring — and they shared inspiring and deeply personal testimonies about the technical, leadership and life skills that they’ve acquired while earning their high school diploma.

Brittany Beachum was pregnant when her high school counselor suggested she apply to 12 for Life. “Not one time did not graduating cross my mind,” she said, “Being here gave me the opportunity to attend school and not give up, because of the supports.” Now Brittany is enrolled at West Georgia Technical College and expects to be certified as a nursing assistant by December. There’s a job waiting for her at the nearby veterans hospital, she said, and she wants to continue her training to become a registered  nurse.

This year marks the fifth back-to-school bus tour for Secretary Duncan and the Department of Education. Traveling through Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama will provide an opportunity to see innovations in education and to discuss progress, promise, and results.

Throughout the tour, we are focusing on the changes in education and the challenges that accompany them, all while highlighting the champions of reform — teachers, parents, community members, and others — who are leading the effort to improve education for all students. Traveling through places that represent the cradle of this country’s civil rights effort, the tour also focuses on important work that is closing opportunity gaps that many young Americans face.

Today, our tour bus will roll through Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., and Chattanooga, Tenn. Check back for a recap of those events. And for more information about the tour and to follow along virtually, visit here.

Patrick Kerr is a member of the Communications Development team in the Office of Communications and Outreach.