Student Voices: A Tradition That Will Live On

Throughout Secretary Duncan’s tenure, thoughtfulness and passion for doing the right thing for students shined through his everyday work. But to fully understand his time at ED, we must look at the conversations he had with students. Before coming to the Education Department (ED), Arne was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, where he met frequently with his student advisory council. His efforts to engage students were no different when President Obama tapped him to be Secretary of Education. During his time at ED and on a monthly basis, the Secretary invited students from around the nation to his conference room for what he called “Student Voices Sessions,” to speak about their issues, concerns and ideas to improve education.

It was not only important for the Secretary to share his own vision for educational excellence but also an opportunity to hear from students that were part of today’s educational system. Some Student Voices Sessions included conversations with Native American students, undocumented youth, first generation and LGBTQ students, where they discussed their hardships and what ED could do to provide support.

By hosting these events, Secretary Duncan got to hear directly from students about what resources they felt were needed and allowed them to have an open dialogue about the future of education. He enabled and challenged students to speak openly and offered a secure space where no idea was too small and no critique too insignificant. The Secretary often mentions that he is lucky to talk to youth, visit schools and classrooms, but many times, his staff members don’t have that same opportunity. These sessions also allowed for staff to hear and learn from students about their daily experiences and challenges.

While students expressed their concerns with the educational system during these sessions, they often applauded efforts by the Department and the Obama Administration to increase Pell grants, protect student borrowers, simplify the FAFSA, create more college access tools, and support efforts to address and prevent sexual violence on campus. Youth also identified and highlighted student-led efforts around the country that were working to address critical issues that impacted their communities.

Ultimately, students left meetings with a sense of empowerment. Many would express to staff that they never thought someone like Arne would ever care about what they had to say, and listen so intently about their concerns. It is no surprise that Duncan was able to have a lasting impact on many students he met. Where else could students be a part of the national conversation on education and actually have a hand in their own futures?

The Secretary’s passion to create an environment where students can be honest and frank is one way that we can remember the indelible impact he had as Secretary of Education. We can also remember the individual that fought tirelessly day in and day out to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, had an opportunity to access high quality education across the country.

Robert Gomez is the director of higher education outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and part of the student engagement team.

A Call to End Racial Harassment on Campuses

Recently, the Department held a meeting with campus leaders from around the country — presidents, faculty, legal experts and student leaders — to tackle the issue of racial harassment on campuses and to lay out solutions to foster supportive educational environments. In the wake of recent incidents of racial harassment on college campuses across the country, Secretary Duncan penned an Op-Ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to share highlights from the meeting.

Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, was in attendance and wrote a statement in solidarity to the Rutgers community, sharing the university’s support for students calling for an end to racial harassment on campuses and for institutions of higher education to do their part to make social change.

Dear Members of the Rutgers University-Newark Community:

As the world continues to process the horror of the violence that claimed so many innocent lives in Paris on Friday night, we, too, at Rutgers University – Newark feel profound shock and bewilderment.  Our minds go to other places – to Beirut and Kenya, to the children lost at sea seeking freedom, to the lives lost that so mattered in Ferguson and Baltimore and on, to the seemingly endless instances in our daily lives, on our campuses – even ours – when difference cloaks bigotry or just ignorance, when we fail to listen to the other, fail to give the respect they deserve and manage instead, perhaps without intent, to hurt those with whom we should be sharing one community.  How can this keep happening?

We sit here, in a city made global by waves of migration over many generations, a place whose heart beats to a rhythm of opportunity-seeking that knows no boundaries of land of origin, language, race, ethnicity, a gathering of peaceful peoples pursuing different faiths and common desires.  Yet we see also around us the scarring consequences of decade after decade, group after group, strangers to each other, enemies even within the same land, separated by an architecture of segregation, an economy of inequality, a politics of polarization, a dogma of intolerance.  We witness the loss of a new future, struck down.  And we wonder aloud, what we can do differently?

We can take seriously what we all know to be profoundly true, the diversity of our university and its home community with all its ties to heritages far and wide is the power we have – arguably the only power we have – to make a fairer, safer, more just, less violent, more peaceful future.  This is it, so what shall we do to act together in that power?

We shall answer the call of our students to rally in solidarity with other students facing racial harassment on campuses from Missouri to Ithaca and on, as they stand here echoing the courageous voices of the Black Organization of Students at Conklin Hall and the Minority Student Program at the Law School.

Join me as I join too, and do so, as they call us to do, with an eye toward looking too at ourselves, for we have the benefit of numbers here, the vibrancy of much diversity, but not the luxury of complacency. We must examine how hard it is, every day, for each of us, to move from the insularity of difference to the breadth of real conversations, when we live with the ghosts of a long past with an even longer reach, as I wrote about in August.  Can we do this together?

We need to, as the strategic plan study group on leveraging diversity asked us to, and as a new Commission on Diversity and Transformation, following their lead, and co-lead by Jerome Williams and Shirley Collado, will do going forward – scholars, activists, students, faculty, and staff will articulate what it means for us to be a place that values the freedom of expression and the responsibility of listening, so that we too can move forward to the heartbeat of opportunity and the inspiration of excellence built on the power of difference coming together.  If we are the one’s we’ve been waiting for, let’s not wait any longer.

My best in hope,

Nancy Cantor

Nancy Cantor is Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark

How Elementary School Students Taught Me about Being Globally Competent

Marina in São Paulo, Brazil. She studied abroad in Rio de Janeiro in spring 2015. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

Marina in São Paulo, Brazil. She studied abroad in Rio de Janeiro during the spring of 2015. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

At age nine I had the chance to visit my father’s birthplace, a rural town in Guatemala surrounded by mountains. This trip, and many others that followed, would change the way I view the world and have inspired me to learn more about my heritage. Over the years, I have developed an affinity for international issues that led me to learn Portuguese and study abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Through these experiences, I learned important skills like flexibility, adaptability, open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, and I gained greater self-knowledge. I didn’t realize it, but I was learning to be globally competent.

The Global Competence Task Force, established by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Asia Society, defines globally competent individuals as people who can “use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize their own and other’s perspectives, communicate their ideas effectively with diverse audiences, and translate their ideas into appropriate actions.”

During my first two-and-a-half years of college, I volunteered at a predominately Latino, bilingual elementary school in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. Many of the students reminded me of myself, and some even had parents from Guatemala. But, unlike me, almost none of them had ever left the country, yet they were still very in touch with their heritage.

Marina with first grade students in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

Marina with first grade students in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

These students taught me two things. First, I learned that you do not need to go overseas to be globally competent. While the students I worked with faced many obstacles, they had already mastered several globally competent skills. All of them had at least a basic proficiency in a second language and were familiar with other cultures. Schools across the nation like the one at which I worked are recognizing that global competencies are vital to succeeding in today’s diverse world and that these skills can be learned in the classroom.

The second lesson I learned is that having overseas experiences, too often, is a privilege – it is not an opportunity that is afforded to everyone. Coming from an underserved community, many of the students I worked with would be lucky to meet their extended family in Latin America, like I did. This led me to design a service project to teach these students about study abroad as part of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship I received to go to Rio.

Before interning in the International Affairs Office at ED, I knew I had learned these lessons, but I did not know how to articulate them. This semester, I have been fortunate to participate in discussions about the future of global competencies. Something that will really stick with me from these conversations is that global competencies are not add-ons or “nice-to-haves,” but rather, components of a quality education that all students need. As Secretary Duncan said in his statement on this year’s International Education Week, “Let’s work together … to make global competence the norm, not the exception.”

Marina Kelly is an intern in the International Affairs Office at the U.S. Department of Education and a Senior at American University.

Celebrating Disability as Diversity: The Importance of IDEA

Gallaudet University proudly celebrates diversity. Assistant Principal Heather Costner, Principal Debra Trapani, and ED intern Jacqueline Wunderlich pose on campus in front of the President's house. (Photo credit: Jacqueline Wunderlich)

Gallaudet University proudly celebrates diversity. Assistant Principal Heather Costner, Principal Debra Trapani, and ED intern Jacqueline Wunderlich pose on campus in front of the President’s house. (Photo credit: Jacqueline Wunderlich)

Imagine failing to respond to your own name.

Imagine going through school smiling and nodding and hoping nobody can see how little you really understand. Imagine struggling to survive school because it is not accessible.

Unfortunately, this is a reality for many students today. I know because this was my experience. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

At the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School (KDES) in Washington, D.C., which serves students who are deaf and hard of hearing from birth to the eighth grade, Principal Debra Trapani strives to implement a philosophy of equity, acceptance, and celebration of diversity in every classroom. I recently had the privilege to shadow Debra during the Department of Education’s Principal Shadowing Week, and the stark difference from my own experience as a deaf student to the culture created for the students at this school was shocking. KDES is based on a foundation of bilingualism and biculturalism, promoting the equal usage of American Sign Language and English. Students here are proud to be deaf and hard of hearing, and of the culture and language that surrounds them.

Working in a school where every student has an individualized education plan, or IEP, may seem like a challenge to some educators, yet Debra looks at it as an opportunity. She is constantly moving from classroom to classroom, working with her teachers to support differentiated instruction that meets the needs of students, and encouraging her teachers to try new things. Collaboration is the key, Debra explained, crediting much of her school’s positive and welcoming culture to her leadership team and teachers.

As a deaf principal, Debra is a role model to her students, all of whom are determined to go on to college and have successful careers. These are dreams that might not have been possible years ago without the legislative turning points that were the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As the nation celebrates IDEA’s 40th anniversary, it’s important to realize how far we’ve come. For example, in 1970, only one in five children with disabilities was educated in public schools. Today, more than 6.5 million students receive special education services. However, there is still much to be done to ensure each student is able to reach his or her maximum potential. Looking at schools like KDES can help show us what is possible.

Jacqueline Wunderlich is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and junior at Gallaudet University.

Celebrating 40 Years of IDEA

This month, our nation marks the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed by President Gerald Ford.

This law represents a landmark civil rights measure that has helped to give all children the opportunity to develop their talents and contribute to their communities. IDEA opened the doors of public schools to millions of children with disabilities.

Before the law was passed, children with disabilities in this country were not guaranteed equal access to a quality education. More than 40 years ago, nearly 1.8 million children with disabilities were excluded from public schools. In 1970, just five years before IDEA was enacted, only one in five children with disabilities had access to a quality education. In some states, many students with both physical and mental disabilities were denied an education—essentially shut out of classrooms across the country.

Education for students, including students with disabilities, has improved significantly since that time. Classrooms have become more inclusive and the future for children with disabilities is brighter. Significant progress has been made toward protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving educational results for students with disabilities.

Today, nearly 62 percent of students with disabilities are in general education classrooms. Early intervention services are now being provided to more than 340,000 infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. Before IDEA, these services were not always available. Today, over 6.9 million students with disabilities have access to special education and related services. These services are often designed specifically for students to meet their unique needs.

While tremendous progress has been made over the years, we must continue the hard work to address the challenges that still exist. Although we are able to help many individual students to achieve their goals, we must continue to work at ensuring that all children have the supports they need and to find ways to ensure they can reach their full potential.

For more information, visit the Department’s new website featuring resources developed by our grantees, instructional best practices, assessments, and information on student engagement, school climate, home and school partnerships, and post-school transitions for students with disabilities.

Hannah Smith is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and a Senior a the University of Missouri.

Providing Digital Pathways for Native Youth Success

Cross-posted from the Department of Interior blog.

large jewell with native american youth arizona 560 thumbnail

No matter who you are, where you grew up or what you want to do, we all know digital skills and connectivity are crucial for success in today’s job market.

And so, as part of the Obama Administration’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative to invest in opportunities for Native youth success and the President’s ConnectED initiative to provide access to digital learning and education technology resources, Interior is moving forward with a public-private partnership between the Department and Verizon to provide more than 1,000 Native American students nationwide with improved access to digital technology in their classrooms and dorms. The President announced this ConnectED commitment in his visit to Standing Rock last year, and it delivers on a recommendation from the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) Blueprint for Reform that Interior invest in educational technology for its schools.

By early next year, thanks to this new partnership, 10 dormitories funded by the BIE will have high-speed wireless Internet and Microsoft Nokia tablets, enabling students to use vital tools for learning 24/7.

According to a recent White House report, Native youth have the lowest high school graduation rate of students across all schools. Forward-thinking solutions like this partnership are critical if we’re going to change those numbers for the better. Improved access to technology helps meet some of the critical educational needs for Native students while empowering tribal communities to provide high quality, academically rigorous and culturally relevant education to their students.

On their tablets, students can access educational apps for STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math subjects — as well as programs that can preserve and strengthen their tribal identity and cultures. Verizon is also providing free wireless data to students for two years, which includes data use on the educational tablets donated by the Microsoft Corporation. And through a partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America in Indian Country, Verizon is hosting two years of free digital training, services and support for students — as well as teachers and dormitory staff.

In a few weeks, I’ll visit the Winslow dormitory on the Navajo Nation to see firsthand how these new digital tools are helping students learn and achieve their educational goals inside and outside the classroom. Through new investments, increased engagement, multiple partnerships, and a culturally appropriate approach, we’re working to ensure that Native youth have the tools they need to reach their full potential.

Sally Jewell is U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Teach to Lead Summit Inspires Literacy Reform

Improvements are under way at the Louisa Boren K–8 STEM School in Seattle, and the most recent Teach to Lead summit played an important role in facilitating some big changes.

A month ago, 100 teacher leaders gathered near Tacoma, Washington, for the fifth regional Teach to Lead Summit with hopes of learning how to address challenges in their schools.

These summits are part of the Teach to Lead initiative, created by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) to expand opportunities for teachers to lead, particularly those allowing teachers to stay in the classroom.

Two of us came to the summit from the Louisa Boren K-8 STEM School in Seattle, where we focus on low student literacy skills. We left this two-day meeting filled with energy and ideas to address our concerns, many of which our school has immediately begun to implement. Our rapid progress is amazing!

Since Louisa Boren opened in 2011, teachers have watched their students master subjects that today’s global job market rewards — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Our students’ language arts skills, however, often don’t keep pace. Too many haven’t grasped phonics, don’t know how to break down words into syllables and lack skills that eventually will be needed to analyze complex literature.

We hoped the Teach to Lead Summit could set us on the right path, and we weren’t disappointed. During the summit we developed a concrete reform plan to take back to our school, “Literacy is the Backbone of STEM.” With support from one of the 70 educators present at the summit (our “critical friend”), we learned to:

  • Develop a “logic model,” which is a framework for evaluating a program and finding ways to improve it. We first clarified exactly what our problem is, then created goals to move us beyond the problem and finally developed steps and activities to reach the goals. Our biggest challenge is that Seattle hasn’t adopted an elementary school literacy curriculum in 14 years, so teachers in our project-based school have no common way to teach literacy. Consequently, students don’t have aligned literacy instruction and no consistent literacy assessments, nor is a structure in place to discuss student data and use it to inform instructional practice. Our aim is to provide instruction that is aligned within all classrooms at a particular grade, as well as from one grade to the next
  • Create an “elevator speech,” which provides us and other school educators with a short, clear, and consistent message about literacy expectations, which we can now share and communicate to and between the staff and the community
  • Use our critical friend, who was assigned to us at the summit, to guide us in developing our school’s logic model and helping us and our school find appropriate instructional resources

Since the summit ended, our work to implement literacy reforms has accelerated. In just one month, teacher leaders at our school (1) gave an elevator speech to the principal and presented the logic model; (2) developed and distributed a staff survey to learn how the STEM staff can align literacy instruction and assessment within the context of the school’s project-based learning environment; (3) developed literacy professional development plans; (4) gathered information to guide the improvement of classroom libraries; (5) made a presentation to the PTA president to gain support for literacy reforms, as well as more money for books; and (6) took steps to involve parents in the conversations and reforms.

And the work continues! We hope our logic model eventually can grow to address literacy issues not just within Louisa Boren, but throughout all Seattle Public Schools.

Mary Bannister is a teacher-librarian and Jodi Williamson is a second-grade teacher at the Louisa Boren K-8 STEM School in Seattle. Both teachers are certified by NBPTS.  

ParentCamp Brings Families to the Education Table

Last week the U.S. Department of Education (ED) hosted its first ParentCamp USA with over 200 participants from across the country.

The ParentCamp participants joined ED staff to build relationships, network, and talk about the issues parents face every day. ParentCamp, like the EDCamp “unconference” model for educator engagement and professional growth, provides an opportunity for families to engage in facilitated conversations that are of interest to them. Conversation topics were generated by registered participants with other topics added to the conversation board as people gathered for the day’s activities. Through discussions and sharing, parents and educators came away from sessions with effective ideas used in other parts of the country. It was a wonderfully, positive experience with many participants planning on hosting ParentCamps in their own communities.

While we know that families are children’s first and most important teacher, advocate, and nurturer, they are not necessarily seen as the experts when it comes to educating their children. Families may be the most important resource educators have for supporting positive outcomes for all children, and yet, they are often the most underutilized asset a district or school could have. It is our hope that ParentCamp USA will start conversations and build the relationships needed to create purposeful family, school, and community partnerships to improve schools and student outcomes.

Over the coming months, ED is committed to hosting and participating in ParentCamps across the country and to gathering and disseminating the tools and resources states, districts, schools and families need to build meaningful partnerships. We understand that great work is happening all across the country and want to hear your stories of successful family, school and community engagement. It is our hope that every educator will have the knowledge, tools and support they need to meet the hopes and dreams that every parent has for his or her child. After all, it doesn’t just take a village to raise a child; it takes a village to educate a child.

You can find more information about the Department’s October 26th ParentCamp USA on our Facebook page.

Please check back for more information coming soon on how you can share your stories and be a part of a movement to support family, school and community partnerships in your community.

Tell Us Your Story

One of the best ways to start the conversation is through the exchange of best practices. In the form below, tell us about a successful family engagement program in your community and we’ll share it with our readers.

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Note: Stories submitted through this web form along with your first name may be featured on and may be posted on ED's social media channels.

Vicki Myers is a Special Assistant in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

ParentCamp USA: Through My (Mom of 2 Military-Connected Kids) Lens

Cross-posted from the Families on the Home Front blog.


When I received an email about ParentCampUSA from my Managing Partner with the subject line “GO TO THIS,” I RSVP’d immediately. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to go to a camp for parents at the Department of Education? As I read more about the objective for ParentCampUSA, I realized I could not pass up the opportunity to go to a conference dedicated to helping me become more engaged in my children’s education. Really? Someone out there besides me thinks I should be engaged with the system that is responsible for my children’s road to success? Count me in!!

Truth be told I know schools want parents to be engaged in their children’s learning as well as active at their children’s school. As a school psychologist and a parent of school-aged kids, I feel I have a solid understanding of what parent engagement should be and why it is important. What I sometimes struggle with are the When, Where, and Hows of parent engagement in schools. This may be because as a military family we have moved eight times in 16 years, and when my oldest child started 7th grade, he was starting his 9th school. Transitioning between schools so frequently makes it difficult to get involved – to engage – because it isn’t always clear how a school promotes parent engagement beyond typical volunteering roles. I have found that if I take the initiative and approach educators with ideas for helping at the school they are receptive. It could be suggested if schools took the initiative to engage parents on multiple levels and invite them to schools, parents would dive in and get involved!


I went to ParentCampUSA to learn more about this initiative and determine how I can play a role in encouraging other military families to engage with their schools and learn ways to increase Parent Engagement in my school community. I left ParentCampUSA with a sense of empowerment and have already started reaching out to the school community. Keep these following takeaways from ParentCampUSA in mind if you want to join, or start, the conversation on When, Where and How you can improve Parent Engagement at your school.

  • Parent Engagement is about building a relationship between educators and families by connecting parents to the school in ways that have nothing to do with volunteering and everything to do with empowering families to play a major role in their child’s education.
  • Parents are stakeholders in the education system their children are in and entitled to a seat at the table, a voice in the discussion, and a vote in decision-making.
  • Parent Engagement efforts should be based on the needs of the families at the school. Many schools have subgroups of students with specific needs, and their parents have specific needs as well. For example, a school with military connected students should be engaging those parents at the school level, learning about their unique needs, and collaborating with these families to better meet those needs. (Note: These steps may be taken for any subgroup including ESL, immigrant populations, homeless families, families with special needs children, etc.)
  • Schools would benefit from providing the framework for parent groups. Let the schools act as the center of the community and bring parents and teachers together to discuss hot topics they are facing raising and teaching children in today’s world. Schools can bring in experts from the field from whom parents and educators alike can learn from.

I went to ParentCampUSA and put on my military family lens to determine how I can better connect the military community with the school community. I strongly believe the way to do this is to encourage parents and educators to partner together and determine When, Where and How improving Parent Engagement in a school takes place. If you are interested in bringing a ParentCampUSA to Northern VA, contact us, and we will work together to do so. If you are interested in exploring the unique needs of military families and want to include this in an upcoming ParentCamp, contact Families on the Home Front, we will help, we’re in this together!

Becky Harris is managing director of Families on the Home Front.

The Power of a Caring Adult in the Life of an Undocumented Youth

In December 1983, a 12-year-old girl was uprooted from her school, friends and neighborhood due to the El Salvadorian civil war. When she arrived in the U.S., her family faced acculturation, discrimination and struggled to make ends meet. Their support system became their local church and community center. For this girl, school was crucial for social interaction, academics, and guidance and she began to excel academically. Although her mother had not gone to school past the 8th grade, this girl’s dream was to attend college. During her senior year in high school, her future was uncertain due to her visa status. At the end of the school year a notice came in the mail announcing that the family’s green cards had been processed and — the biggest news — that she could attend college.

I was that girl.

My path led me to becoming a school social worker, serving a diverse group of students in the Washington, D.C., Metro area. Some are children, like me, who were forced to leave their country due to violence and abuse. I am on the front lines bridging school, home, and community. Immigrant children bring rich cultural backgrounds to our schools and expose their peers to different ways of understanding the world. It makes school a true global educational experience and encourages teachers to become creative in their differentiation strategies. But many immigrant children struggle with learning due to traumatic experiences, lack of resources and the daily fear that they or their parents could be deported.

Recently, for example, a young immigrant mother shared her story for the first time with me, disclosing that her five-year-old son had told her on several occasions that he wanted to die. She also told me about the violence she had experienced as a child and recalled the day she and her son witnessed her aunt’s murder. When she made the journey to the U.S., she had to leave her son with a relative where he was exposed to verbal and physical abuse. At age five, he crossed the border, and had to readjust to living with his mother, attending a new school, learning a new language, and living in a new country. In school he had difficulty remembering and staying focused. It was hard to find services, such as a mental health provider, for the family because of their immigration status and income. The family was eventually linked to a program that offers individual and family therapy. During this process the boy and his mother were facing deportation and were referred to an immigration lawyer.

The boy is now in fifth grade and has progressed socially and academically. He is reading on grade level and actively contributes in his classroom. His mother is attending English classes. She plans to study nursing and make sure her son attends college. He wants to become a police officer when he grows up. His dreams could become reality with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that allows undocumented individuals who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and who meet certain criteria to receive relief from removal or two years and work authorization (more information can be found here).

As school social workers we need to be up to date on immigration laws and have resources available for all families that enter our schools. It is our job as social workers, counselors, teachers, and administrators to ensure that all students and parents have access to the information and resources they need. I learned from a young age that schools are a safe haven for undocumented students. Let us become champions these students deserve.

Ana Bonilla is a social worker for Alexandria City Public School System and the 2014 National Social Worker of the Year.

Resources for serving undocumented youth can be found here. More information about educational supports for immigrants, refugees, asylees, and other new Americans can be found here.

National Domestic Violence Awareness Month: A story about survival through education

“My life would be so much better if you were dead.”

The hate slurred its way out of his drunken mouth. His eyes were small, squinting with rage and disgust. It was a typical day – typical then was grossly defined by insults, tears, anxiety, panic attacks, and fear. In spite of the level of creativity he had employed with his words and my increasing numbness to his behavior, this felt different. I was scared. I was broken.

Today, as a survivor of emotional, verbal and psychological abuse, and in honor of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I share my story in an effort to shine a light at the still misunderstood, overlooked, under-reported, and under-resourced topic of domestic violence.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), every 9 seconds in the U.S. a woman is assaulted or beaten, and on a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. One of those calls was mine. There are many reasons people, in particular women, do not leave their abusive partners – from being afraid of being alone to feeling pressure from family and/or the community. This is especially of concern for women of color and the LGBT community. For the one in three Hispanic women who experience domestic violence in their lifetime, cultural and societal values and pressures, limited education and/or financial resources, language barrier, lack of support and immigration status can all play a role in their ability to report and survive the abuse.

I struggled with labeling myself as a victim. Many others do too. The lack of awareness and education about the issue can mask and hinder someone’s ability to recognize the warning signs and subsequently, ask for help. Furthermore, understanding what abuse is, is as critical as recognizing the different types of abuse that exist. Implications of domestic abuse are significant, including the impact this has on children. NCADV states that 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year. Little is still known about the full extent of the issue but key findings highlight the many risks and challenges that can last throughout their lives. For many others, including me, this is the hardest aspect throughout and after separation. Survivors of domestic violence, who are parents, will need to navigate the justice system for child custody or child support. This severely nuanced issue is often exacerbated by the manner in which police responds (reactive, not incredibly helpful), how abusers are prosecuted (if at all), and how victims of domestic abuse are treated in the court (often dismissed, at times demeaned). Much work still needs to be done on all fronts to increase the awareness of the serious, long-term consequences domestic abuse has on victims and their families.

What helped me survive? Put simply, education saved my life. The day of the beginning of my new chapter, I wrote notes to Arne Duncan and Alejandra Ceja, two of my friends and mentors. They, and a few others close friends, helped me reframe my narrative by believing in me and looking past my muted self. Through the empowerment that was linked to returning to school to finish my undergraduate degree and helping lead an ambitious educational, national agenda on behalf of the nation’s Latino community, I was able to see that I was more than I was made to believe. I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and work my way towards peace and forgiveness. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and while I navigate through the residue, I cannot overstate the life-changing meaning of having people see YOU, for whom you are and can be.

The work I do has given my children and me the confidence to withstand what comes next. This is also at the core of what President Obama and his administration, have done for not just me, but for millions of others – helping ensure everyone has a chance to succeed and providing people with second chances to live up to their full potential. Ensuring all children, including girls and young women, have access to an education will have an impact for generations to come. For my children, it already has:

As a survivor, guilt can set in frequently. One day I apologized to my son for working long hours, spending endless nights on homework that inevitably take me away from being present. For me, the commitment to education, both on a personal and professional level, is what will bring us out of a lingering despair and into a world of opportunity. He looked at me and said, “Mom, I’m okay. It’s okay. What you are doing…that’s far more important. You are trying to help millions of other kids who have it worse than we do.”

Recommendations for policy and service providers addressing this issue exist. It is also deeply encouraging that the Obama administration continues to address this topic through its “It’s On Us” Public Awareness Campaign to help prevent campus sexual assault, its efforts on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, a new online resource center, which includes grant opportunities, for Institutions of Higher Education, where women continue to outpace men in enrollment, federal resources and outreach activities, and its work through the establishment of the Council on Women and Girls, where I’m also a taskforce member.

What can you do to help? The National Domestic Violence Hotline features ways to get involved, including volunteering and donating to organizations that provide support for survivors. For me, working with other survivors and with advocates has been instrumental and inspiring. Every day, people are abused, dismissed, shamed and judged and it is up to all of us, to be part of the solution. Please share the resources found throughout this piece, help someone by empowering them, or simply listen or talk about the issue. It can make a world of a difference.

To learn more, including statistics, warning signs, and resources and/or if you or someone you know needs assistance, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit

Maribel Duran is a mother of two;
Chief of Staff, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics;
Member, White House’s Council on Women and Girls;
Domestic Abuse Survivor

Strengthening Inter-Faith Cooperation – For a Better World

Washington, Sept. 2015: Four years ago President Barack Obama launched an initiative entitled “The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge“. As the name indicates, the President challenged the Institutions of Higher Education of his country to sound out new opportunities for inter-faith dialogue and to initiate multi-faith projects for the welfare of society. So far more than 500 universities and colleges with over three million students have followed this initiative. Some of these projects are impressive examples of inter-faith cooperation, working for instance with schools in underprivileged areas or with refugees. For this year´s conference in Washington, for the first time 50 international guests from across six continents joined the 450 delegates from American universities and colleges. Altogether, 30 different nations and as many different religious backgrounds were represented. At the invitation of Dr. Kenneth Bedell from the U.S. Department of Education, Achim Härtner, E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Reutlingen School of Theology (Germany), participated, representing the United Methodist Church in the German-speaking part of Europe. At the receptions in the White House and in the Turkish Embassy, as well as in lectures and panel discussions at Howard University and George Washington University, the urgent need for cooperation across religious borders in community service was strongly emphasized. Above all, the migration crisis caused by people fleeing from war and terror are creating increasing challenges world-wide. This calls out for refugees to be supported in their distress and for new perspectives to be offered in countries far from home. During the engaging discussions, there was widespread realization that a reinforced inter-faith effort for better living conditions for as many people as possible cannot be achieved without intentional efforts. This includes the willingness to leave one’s comfort zone and to practice, in current Methodist terms, “radical hospitality”. Melissa Rogers, Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, reminded the conference of Barack Obama’s fundamental conviction: “Instead of driving us apart, religion should bring us together, for the welfare of all.“ The President himself addressed the delegates in a video message and concluded: “It’s going to take all of, as Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, believers and non-believers, to meet the challenges of the 21st century. With your help, I know we will!”

Achim Härtner,

E.-Stanley-Jones Professor of Evangelism & Christian Education Theologische Hochschule Reutlingen / Reutlingen School of Theology, Germany

Learn more about the interfaith service | |