Who Is In Your Village?

Traditionally, when we think about schools and family involvement, we picture “moms.” Moms getting their children up in the morning, fixing lunches, and walking children to school. Moms helping with homework, going to parent-teacher conferences and volunteering at school. This vision makes sense, given that at one point in our society, mothers were the primary caregivers and school volunteers. However, our society has changed and so have moms.

We know that children thrive when they have adults caring for them and supporting their education. And adults are stronger when they have each other to support them in raising their children. Mothers and fathers, step-parents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, foster and adoptive parents, grandparents, family friends, and neighbors all pitch in to ensure the most positive outcomes for children. It truly takes a village to raise a child to reach his or her potential.

As research has shown for decades, and continually supports, parent involvement in schools is a crucial factor in children’s academic success. The shift from “parent involvement” to “family engagement” acknowledges that the reality of who is “parenting” a child is broadening and there needs to be more meaningful input and dialogue between schools and families.

Investing in Our Principals

My first year as a principal I wanted a great school, and I wanted it immediately.

I remember feeling that pit in my stomach, reminding me that every child and parent was depending on me to deliver the best educational experience possible. I remember including in the parent newsletter ways for parents to engage their children in conversation about school. I was asking my parents to have their children rate their experiences at school because I knew the children would be honest, maybe brutally honest. I was that principal who wanted to know the good, the bad, and the ugly so that we could always strive towards being the best! What I realized, after my whirlwind tour of trying to make a school great, is that the “WE” must be built within the culture of the staff—not just the principal.

I also learned that a principal’s leadership does not change a school overnight.

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Developing Their Reason, Revealing Their Spirit

Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what to teach next. Lesson planning is a constant internal monologue: What’s next? What’s important for my students now? Where do we go after that? In the early days of my career, I was obsessed with what I perceived my students were lacking. They couldn’t spell. They couldn’t punctuate. They can’t. They won’t. They don’t. As an educator, it is all too easy to fall into that trap.

Olsen's students perform research that won't just benefit them, but their community, as well. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Olsen’s students perform research that won’t just benefit them but their community, as well. (Photo courtesy of the author)

When I was obsessed with what I perceived my students weren’t able to do, I was also making rash and frustrated decisions about what was most important to teach them next. But what is important to teach our students? The case can be made that all subject areas are important, but students often lack the educational opportunities to put their learning from these subject areas to work in the real world.

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The Constitution Is For All of Us

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of Education John King gave an inspiring speech on civic education at the National Press Club. As part of his speech, he called for a commitment to nonpartisan constitutional education in our classrooms. At the same time, he recognized that civic education isn’t easy. Even for teachers and administrators with the best of intentions, these conversations—which often cover some of the most contested issues at the center of our public life—can skew partisan. This is no small problem.

To navigate these conversations effectively, teachers must have training on how best to facilitate these discussions and must receive support from their principals, their administrators, and the wider community. However, teachers must also have access to trusted, nonpartisan information about our Constitution and its history—information that can be hard to find in our polarized age. That’s where the National Constitution Center comes in.

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‘We’re All in This Together’: Reflections on ParentCamp 2016

During a morning in mid-October, I stood on a corner in Washington, D.C., accompanied by two friends as we patiently waited for the illuminated walking man to give us safe passage across the street. The view before us was an expansive building stretching the majority of the block of Maryland Avenue — the United States Department of Education. It was our destination that day – where we would meet 250 other parents and educators from across the nation.

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Kristin Kane was one of many parents who attended Parent Camp at the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month. Here she’s seen taking notes on her phone during a session. (Photo: U.S. Department of Education)

Soon, we found ourselves among smiling faces and friends – all bustling about and mission driven.

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What We Owe the Next Generation of Teachers

I was a fairly mediocre teacher when I first started. Sometimes I look back on my first few years and wonder why my students didn’t walk out on me. My old slides look atrocious; my handouts were too wordy; my instruction was completely teacher centered: me talking, me explaining, me doing some weird dance.

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“I’m the teacher I am today largely because I stuck it out and learned from my early career failures and missteps.” (Photo courtesy of the author)

There were some long, sad, doubt-filled nights my first few years of teaching. I thought frequently about moving into law. For the first several years of my career, every spring, I would thumb through an LSAT prep book and browse law school catalogues. It wasn’t until my seventh year that I didn’t get that “ritual spring itch.” That’s when I knew I had hit my stride.

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Sustainability as a Mechanism for School Engagement

Cross-posted from the Green Schools National Network.

U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) is founded on the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) authority to identify and communicate practices that increase student and community engagement and, in doing so, also raise academic achievement.  Annually, the Green Strides Tour shines a spotlight on the potential for sustainable schools practices to engage students, teachers, families, and community members.

Growing avocado. (Photo courtesy of the Green Schools National Network)

Growing avocado. (Photo courtesy of the Green Schools National Network)

The 2016 “Real-World Learning” Green Strides Tour put this commitment on display, as we toured schools, districts, and even a postsecondary Pennsylvania ED-GRS honoree, celebrating their achievements, and educating visitors on the many ways schools old and new, public and private; districts large and small; and colleges and universities can reduce environmental impact and costs, improve health and wellness, and teach by the most hands-on, engaging means possible.

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One Million Champions for Opportunity: How AmeriCorps Improves Public Education

Today marks an important milestone for our nation. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has sworn in over one million AmeriCorps members, so many of whom devote their service to ensuring that every child has the opportunity succeed. Since AmeriCorps launched in 1994, young people have dedicated themselves to public service through a range of projects from rebuilding communities to mentoring students. At the United States Department of Education, we are proud to partner with thousands of AmeriCorps members each year. As we celebrate CNCS’ historic accomplishment, I want to thank AmeriCorps members for all they have done to support students, strengthen schools, and promote opportunity in our nation.

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AmeriCorps members are champions for opportunity. (Photo: U.S. Department of Education)

When President Obama took office in 2009, he made it clear that national service was a major priority. He signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, launched innovative AmeriCorps partnerships and created the President’s Task Force on Expanding National Service. The President and our team at the Department also recognize the essential role that AmeriCorps members play in our schools. In 2013, we launched the School Turnaround AmeriCorps program to help uplift schools in struggling communities. We committed $2.5 million a year for five years to ensure that schools with the greatest challenges benefit from AmeriCorps’ members hard work and zeal for service. And just a few months ago, we announced the second group of grant awards to seven organizations working across 10 states. A recent study of the program showed how School Turnaround AmeriCorps’ efforts are working. In schools across the country, AmeriCorps members are becoming a key part of building positive school cultures, improving educators’ capacity in the classroom, and forming strong relationships with students that help them learn essential academic and socioemotional skills.

CNCS programs, including AmeriCorps, are also a vital part of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative. CNCS has committed $15 million in grant awards over the next three years to support the Summer Opportunity AmeriCorps that will enable up to 20,000 young people to learn new skills and earn money for college. In addition, this year, CNCS announced a new partnership with the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance to place up to 20 AmeriCorps VISTA members in MBK communities each year. Across the nation, nearly 250 cities and rural and tribal areas have launched and are executing local action plans to create more opportunities for all students as MBK Communities. AmeriCorps is also a key leader of the MBK Success Mentors initiative, which works with MENTOR, Attendance Works, Johns Hopkins University and other partner organizations focused on supporting student attendance.

AmeriCorps members lead this important work because they are champions for opportunity. They know that as mentor, an advocate, and even a volunteer, you can change a community for the better. As a nation, we are truly better off because of the million AmeriCorps members that have served and improved our neighborhoods. I want to thank them on behalf of our Department and on behalf of the millions of students and families that have benefited from their service. The service of the first million AmeriCorps members has been invaluable, and I cannot wait to see the impact of the next million. To learn more about how to get involved in AmeriCorps, visit their website here.

James Cole, Jr., is the General Counsel, Delegated the Duties of Deputy Secretary of Education.

Teachers Across Many Nations With a Singular Purpose

In Jordan. (Photo courtesy of the author)

In Jordan. (Photo courtesy of the author)

As we celebrate World Teachers Day 2016, I want to thank my teaching colleagues around the world for daring to take on this extraordinary profession, for spending long hours honing a unique set of skills, for teaching generations to come how to mine their own capacities and for helping our young people forge a stronger, more resilient and problem-solving oriented world community.

As I look back on the years I spent teaching in the tribal lands of Zuni, New Mexico, in a rural schoolhouse in Brazil, in an overcrowded classroom in Egypt, at a central university in Jordan, and at an international school in Italy, I am awed by the degree of untapped resourcefulness that all my students possess. Despite the vastly diverse cultural backgrounds, economic classes, and social circumstances within which we teach, there is a common, extraordinary set of skills teachers must employ to draw out this resourcefulness and help develop a resilient, solution-oriented child.

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Hearing the Voice of Families: Meet ED’s First Family Ambassador

Parents and families are a child’s first teachers, supporters, coaches, cheerleaders, tutors, confidantes, conspirators and advocates. They are the experts about their children and the authors of what they want for their future.

Meet Frances Frost, ED's first Family Ambassador!

Meet Frances Frost, ED’s first Family Ambassador!

When it comes to school, however, families are sometimes left out of the discussion regarding the needs of their children in receiving the best education possible. Many parents can list examples of changes in their school that they didn’t know were coming or a policy that impacted them in a way no one considered before implementation. That’s why the Department of Education recently created the Family Ambassador. This new position acknowledges the important voice of parents in the development and implementation of education policy.

I’m proud and excited to serve as the inaugural Family Ambassador. I’m the mother of four active children and began my involvement with schools as a parent when my oldest entered kindergarten 13 years ago. I started out visiting her school for parent-teacher conferences and school information nights. Through the PTA, I became more involved and found my voice as an engaged parent in our large school system.

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Communicating Visions of the Current World: 2016 Scholastic Art & Writing Award Winners Honored

During Keiji Ishida’s vacation last year in Japan, the 17-year-old Los Angeles teen observed an overwhelming number of subway commuters tethered to their cell phones, texting and playing games. “People were quiet — muted,” he noted, “and that just isn’t right.” Not, he continued, in a country alive with so much beauty and expression.

This discomfort sparked Keiji’s creative streak, evident in his painting, “Addiction,” now displayed in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Department of Education (Department) headquarters, along with 57 other 2016 Scholastic Gold Medal winners in 2- and 3-D art.

Since the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards inception in 1923, it has become the nation’s best- known recognition program for teen artists and writers, and their largest source of scholarships. About 250 people attended the Department’s 13th annual celebration of the winners and the opening of the exhibit. Present were 2016 honorees, their teachers and families, art educators and leaders, and Department staff.

Keiji’s painting — splashes of vivid colors covered with black outlines — creates abstract hands holding cell phones.

Keiji Ishida with his painting “Addiction”.

Keiji Ishida with his painting “Addiction”.

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The First Lady’s New Tool for Students: Up Next

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When we talk about improving educational outcomes, we talk about all kinds of critical issues: poverty, accountability, school climate, teachers and curriculum to name a few. These are all essential pieces of the puzzle and deserve our attention as educators, advocates, and parents. But another piece of the puzzle also merits further attention: student access to college advising.

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