The Key to Our Success? A Well-Rounded Curriculum, Each and Every Day

When I first came to Acacia Elementary School as the turnaround principal in 2003, I noticed three things: first, we had excellent teachers – but student performance was struggling and parent involvement was lagging. While many struggling schools in similar situations make the decision to boost up their reading and math interventions at the expense of classes like art and music, we did not.

Acacia first graders have talent! They performed songs for a production of 'Stone Soup'. The arts are an integral part of the well-rounded curriculum. (Photo courtesy Christine Hollingsworth)

Acacia first graders have talent. They performed songs for a production of Stone Soup. The arts are an integral part of the well-rounded curriculum. (Photo courtesy Christine Hollingsworth)

Walk through our school today and you’ll see monthly special events with standing-room only attendance; kindergarteners excited to apply what they learned in reading class to P.E., like using patterns, for example; and a third grade music class where students are learning about beats, syllables, and counts so they can write powerful haikus in their writing classes.

While other districts debated whether to cut classes like music and art, the Washington Elementary School District Governing Board stood up for us because they understood that these “specials” are vitally important to the whole child. And our board has seen that as a result of that investment, students are doing better than ever.

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Relationships Help First Generation Students Reach Higher

Reykdal, a finalist for the American School Counselor Association ‘s 2016 National School Counselor of the Year award visited Washington, D.C. with Steffany Heredia, a senior at Olympia High School. (Photo courtesy Kim Reykdal)

Reykdal, a finalist for the American School Counselor Association ‘s 2016 National School Counselor of the Year award visited Washington, D.C., with Steffany Heredia, a senior at Olympia High School. (Photo courtesy Kim Reykdal)

Every spring, as March Madness heats up, it’s not just basketball brackets bringing on the fever pitch of competition. In many high schools, March Madness is about college acceptances; who’s gotten them, and who hasn’t. Information about the “have’s” and the “have not’s” in the ever-increasing race to be branded a “success,” travels instantly along the hallways and social media highways.

For first generation college students, this annual “race to nowhere”, as a recent documentary termed it, often ends before it even begins unless someone outside of their nuclear family guides them through the college application process. In many public schools, overwhelming caseloads leave school counselors without the time and resources necessary to provide students with adequate career and college guidance. Administrators must rely on teachers and other staff, or specific college preparatory programs like AVID, to help prepare students for a variety of 2 and 4-year college options, and other post-high school pathways.

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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Financial Aid Award

Generally, the first step in applying for financial aid is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The schools you listed on the FAFSA will take that information and use it to calculate the financial aid you’re eligible for.  Your financial aid awards may vary from school to school based on a number of factors including: your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the number of credits you will take each term, your cost of attendance (COA) at each school, your eligibility for state and institutional aid at each school, and your year in school. Keep in mind that many schools have a priority deadline, so the sooner you apply each year, the better. Here are 5 things that will help you better understand how financial aid is awarded:

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“When You Look, Make Sure You See”

Dwayne, Julian, Martina and Jared Ballen. Dwayne Ballen was a featured speaker in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services’ recent Google Hangout on Inclusion in Early Learning Programs. (Photo courtesy of the Ballen family.)

Dwayne, Julian, Martina and Jared Ballen. Dwayne Ballen was a featured speaker in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services’ recent Google Hangout on Inclusion in Early Learning Programs. (Photo courtesy of the Ballen family.)

A few years ago my sons Julian and Jared attended tennis camp at the University of North Carolina. During the camp’s awards ceremony, tennis coach Sam Paul announced that counselors and campers unanimously agreed Julian clearly won the category for best attitude.

Coach Paul quickly realized during the camp that Julian, who has autism, was not at the same athletic level as other campers, many of whom were younger and more skilled.At the same time, he had something valuable to contribute.

Coach Paul took the time to not just “look “but “see” Julian, and what he witnessed, he later told me, left an impact. No matter the task facing Julian, it was always carried out with a smile and cheerful readiness. He also noticed the positive effect Julian’s presence had on other youngsters.

A number of the campers began to take attitude cues from Julian. In a couple of instances, a potential tantrum was replaced with a more reflective, and productive reaction. It was the Julian effect in full flower.

What Coach Paul engaged in that week was inclusion. He had no professional training for it, nor was he necessarily pre-disposed to do so. He simply wanted Julian to have the same experience as the other children attending camp. Inclusion should be practiced throughout society and not just confined to those areas where special programs and trained professionals are in place.

My brother Michael provided another clear example of inclusion during our family’s 2013 Thanksgiving gathering at his house. During a post-meal trivia game, Michael announced that he wanted Julian as his partner. The subject of the afternoon was Disney trivia. Michael was acutely aware of Julian’s passion for all things Disney, especially the animated movies and theme parks.

Julian, full of excitement and a staggering amount of Disney knowledge, was the star as he and my brother destroyed a team comprised of five other family members. Michael, a municipal police department official, found a way to bring his nephew out of the corner and to the table of engagement. All it took was recognition and desire. That is inclusion.

My wonderful wife, Martina, and I have always believed that inclusion is a full family endeavor that takes all forms. Julian does the same amount of chores his brother Jared does. If one takes out the trash then the other is expected to roll out the recycle bin. Julian is expected to clear his dinner placement and put the dishes in the washer. He has responsibilities that fit with his capabilities, just like his brother. This too, is inclusion.

I’m hopeful that we all consider opportunities to practice inclusion in everyday life. It begins with the simple idea of, “When you look, make sure you see.” It’s also important to understand that inclusion is not just a one-way street. Those being included often have something to teach us about ourselves and the human community. I’m sure Coach Paul would wholeheartedly agree.

Dwayne Ballen is the author of ‘Journey With Julian’, an autism advocate and speaker, and a network television sportscaster with the CBS Sports Network. Dwayne Ballen was a featured speaker in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services’ recent Google Hangout on Inclusion in Early Learning Programs.

Developing ‘Secret Kindness Agents’ in the Classroom

One evening, a grandfather told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.” – From The Tale of Two Wolves

Pearson giving a TEDx talk on the importance of kindness projects. (Photo courtesy Ferial Pearson)

Pearson giving a TEDx talk on the importance of kindness projects. (Photo courtesy Ferial Pearson)

On December 12, 2014, Avielle Richman was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School along with 19 other young children. Avielle’s death hit me hard because she reminded me of my own daughter – the same age and curious eyes, loving nature, kind heart, and friendly spirit. Over the past 15 years, I have taught thousands of students and I will admit, there are few of whom I have found myself truly afraid. They would put their hands in their backpacks and I would think, “This is it. Today we die.” Luckily, that never happened.

Like many mothers, after Sandy Hook I had a difficult conversation with my own children who asked why someone would murder kindergarteners? My nine-year-old son said that whenever he was bullied in school, he would get angry and feel like lashing out, but then someone would be kind to him, and the feeling would go away. My daughter then asked, “What if people had always been kind to the shooter every single day? Maybe he wouldn’t have done it.”

Naïve as it may have been, when I returned to school, my daughter’s comment led me to devise a plan. I would give envelopes to my high school juniors, assigning them to specific acts of kindness in exchange for a prize. At my students’ suggestion, we agreed that we all had to draw an assignment every week, including me, without expectation of a reward. We brainstormed a list of random acts of kindness that could happen at school and didn’t cost any money. My students acknowledged the risk it took to perform these random acts – they didn’t want to stick out from their peers – so we gave each other Secret Kindness Agent names (mine is Agent Mama Beast) and kept the acts anonymous. Every week, we had a ceremony where I would play some cheesy song while each Agent came up to draw their assignment. We wrote an oath and acknowledged the risks and at the end of the week we would reflect on what happened, how we felt before, and how we felt after we did our assignments. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, not only did I see the culture of our school change, but I also saw the change within my students.

When I came across the Cherokee fable, The Tale of Two Wolves, I brought it to class. I asked my students if they had ever been bullied and every hand in the room went up. I then asked if anyone had been the bully and again, every hand went up, perhaps a little less eagerly. We realized that the idea that there are “good” or “bad” people in the world was a myth. As the grandfather says, both wolves dwell within us.

Through the Secret Kindness Agents, our good wolves were gaining on our evil wolves. With time now spent acknowledging the bad wolf and feeding the good wolves, I find that when a student reaches into their bag, rather than a gun, I expect a poem, a card, or some other random act of kindness.

Ferial Pearson is an Instructor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She started the Secret Kindness Agent Project with students at Ralston High School where she served as a Talent Advisor for the Avenue Scholars Foundation. She has since helped over 30 other communities start kindness projects, wrote a book and started a Facebook Page with the students. This week the Kennedy Center honored her as one of the winners of the Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.

Students Share College Completion Journeys

Students from a variety of socio-economic and racial backgrounds discussed the idea of belonging during this Student Voices Session. (Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Students from a variety of socio-economic and racial backgrounds discussed the idea of belonging during this Student Voices Session. (Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

“If you feel like you belong, you can achieve anything.”

This was the overarching sentiment expressed by many students during the latest Student Voices session, which focused on college completion at Minority Serving Institutions.

Both Secretary John King and Under Secretary Ted Mitchell were on hand to listen and engage students from a variety of socio-economic and racial backgrounds around the idea of belonging.

Many students present expressed a concern about the general lack of support from school counselors and said this made them feel as though they didn’t belong at college.

Other students said it was one unique relationship – whether with a teacher or professor – that enabled them to attend and complete college because this individual took the time to listen, work alongside them and help them navigate the system.

One Native student said she felt misunderstood and taken advantage of because her high school counselor took it for granted that she would be able to fill out the online FAFSA application without realizing that she lacked access to resources such as wi-fi.

As a DACA student myself at this session, I recalled how college personnel sent me to one office after another with disjointed pieces of advice when I was attempting to find resources to pay my tuition.

Hearing these concerns about the need to improve school and college advising, Secretary King emphasized how the Department of Education is trying to share best practices with universities to better support undocumented students. He also said that ED is attempting to increase funding to prepare more school counselors.

Evan Sanchez, another undergraduate at the session, explained that he thinks college personnel should alter their advising schedules to better meet the needs of working or non-traditional students who are juggling multiple responsibilities.

Joanna DeJesus, a CUNY Macaulay Honors College student, recommended more purposeful communication across departments so that students do not receive conflicting advice.

Finally, the students agreed on the importance of universities to exert greater efforts in aiding students beyond college, such as assisting with job placements and providing financial literacy guidance.

The session itself, which was only supposed to last 30 minutes, continued for more than an hour. The fact that Secretary King stayed to listen to everyone’s stories demonstrated how much he valued our perspectives and diverse experiences. It is not everyday that there are Native, Asian-origin undocumented, Black, and Latina and Latino students engaging in the same conversation.

I think it’s important to recognize that educational policy decisions cannot be made without student input since it directly affects us. Secretary King ensured that our voices were not only heard, but that we felt like belonged in such a space to be able to share our personal journeys and recommendations.

Syeda Raza is an E3! Ambassador at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department through which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Let’s Commit to Giving CTE Students the Opportunity They Demand and Deserve

Cross-posted from the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education blog.

Career and technical education (CTE) has changed a lot from the “old vocational education” that many of us know from our school days. For the better part of this century, States and local communities have worked steadily to build high-quality CTE programs that are academically rigorous and aligned with labor market demands. The whole idea of the artificial separation between academic and technical pathways is passé. Most professions and careers in the 2016 and future economies require strong academic foundation skills, considerable technical knowledge and skills, and well-developed employability skills and attributes. There is nothing about CTE today that is not rigorous, relevant, and worth it.

And, CTE programs work. Recent research shows that secondary CTE students are more likely to graduate from high school compared to non-CTE students. CTE graduates land great jobs that pay well for both men and women in all kinds of careers, including emerging fields like cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing. Perhaps most importantly, CTE puts students on a direct path to the middle class by giving them the academic, technical, and employability skills they need to enter and advance in the world of work.

In a sure sign that CTE has become a rigorous, viable pathway, students and employers have begun to demand it. All across the country, there are reports of too few CTE slots for the number of students who want to enroll. Just last month, an article ran in the Philadelphia Tribune indicating that Philadelphia had received 11,000 applications from its 35,000 high school students, but only had room and resources for 2,500. In spring 2014, Massachusetts released the finding of a wait list survey and found that about 4,600 youth wanted to get into CTE but couldn’t. And, that number underreported the problem, as only half of all schools responded to the survey. Clearly, students and employers understand the college and career potential of high-quality CTE programs. And, one only has to do a quick Google search to find dozens of examples of States—from New Jersey to Oregon—whose employers are experiencing shortages of qualified workers and are seeking the skills that CTE offers. As one reporter put it: “[These] schools’ wait lists are a drag on the economy.”

It is not just a problem that so many students are waiting for an opportunity that may or may not be there before they leave high school but who these students are. Massachusetts found that schools receiving the least funding had longer waiting lists. Those schools served communities with large most at-risk populations. The take away is that in communities where the need is greatest, access to good programs is a real problem. No access, no skills, no good jobs. These wait lists are constraining opportunity.

It is obvious that the demand for this “new CTE” is growing across the country. What is unfortunate is that there isn’t comparable supply to match that demand. Underfunding of schools preventing them from adding space is mentioned as the primary cause. This represents a lot of “missed opportunities” to put students on a path to college and careers.

Our country can—and must—do better to prepare all students for success. The first step is to create equal access to good programs. As Acting Secretary of Education John King says: “We must make 2016 the year that we recommit to ensuring that every child in America—regardless of background or circumstance—has access to a high-quality education.”

Certainly, no one entity can tackle this alone and we are beginning to see some great examples at all levels of government and in both the public and private sectors of resources and collaborations directed toward building more high-quality CTE programs. At the Federal level, we are stepping up our efforts to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which provides just over one billion dollars annually to improve CTE. And, just this week, the Administration released its FY 2017 budget proposal that includes a seventy-five million dollar innovation fund, the American Technical Training Fund.

States are responding, as well. There are some great examples in both the public and the private sectors that are beginning to address this CTE opportunity gap. The California Legislature recently authorized an additional $250 million in a California Career Pathways Trust to competitively fund partnerships among schools, community colleges, and employers to create career pathways aligned to high-need and high-growth sectors. Maryland just announced a $10 million initiative to launch a local version of a national program for students blending high school curriculum, college courses and work experience in four high schools in the state, including two in Baltimore. The Governor of Massachusetts proposed an additional $83.5 million for CTE, including a $75 million five-year capital program in a jobs bill set and an additional $8.5 million in his proposed annual budget for 2017.

National associations and the private sector are also stepping up to the plate. The AFT launched a $500,000 multi-city CTE initiative called Promising Pathways that will bring together local AFT affiliates, educators, school districts, community colleges, city governments and business partners in 4 cities—Peoria, Ill, ; Pittsburgh; San Francisco; and Miami—to expand CTE opportunities in line with employer demand. The Lilly Endowment, an Indiana foundation, pledged a $50 million gift to the United Negro College Fund to strengthen career pathways for students at historically black colleges and universities and others with large African American enrollment. And, JP Morgan Chase just launched a $75 million New Skills for Youth initiative to encourage states to develop more demand-driven CTE programs.

We need more of these efforts. As we enter CTE Month, let’s declare 2016 the year where we step up our efforts in working together at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels and across public and private sectors to ensure that students who seek access to high-quality CTE get just what they want and need.

Johan E. Uvin is the Deputy Assistant Secretary (delegated the authority of the Assistant Secretary) in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

Lul Tesfai is the Director of Policy in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

Sharon Miller is the Director of the Division of Academic and Technical Education in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

Interested in Education? Government Work? Intern at ED!

This winter I spent nearly 10 weeks as an intern for the U.S. Department of Education’s Press Office. As an undergrad studying political science and communications in my final year of college, my time here has been very rewarding. It may be cliché to say, but the people I’ve worked with at ED are genuinely interested in helping you make the most of your time here. Whether it is connecting you with people working in areas you may be interested in to resume editing and general career advice.


Andrew Chao was a spring intern here at ED.

So how did I get here? As senior year rolled on by, I learned of an opportunity offered by my university to receive academic credit and an internship at Washington, D.C. From the outset, I knew that I wanted an experience that would help further my career in journalism, building upon what I have done at my school newspaper. I considered ED because it was the best fit for me. Although I wouldn’t be working for a news organization, I was able to see how a major federal agency handled interactions with the news media, allowing me a unique perspective on public relations.

Why should you intern at ED, you ask?

Well, if you are even remotely interested at all in education, here is the place to be. As a press intern, you literally get a front row seat on new education policy developments. I was able to sit in on press conferences and press calls right across from the Acting Secretary of Education John King as he informed the public about new announcements.

And there’s room to branch out! Although I was a press office intern, I wasn’t confined just to duties related to the Press Office. My supervisors were extremely supportive in helping to connect me with other people in the department that worked on issues I was interested in, even giving me the opportunity to work with the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders.

There were also a lot of opportunities for socializing. The intern coordinator at ED does an excellent job in promoting various activities with other interns. From Washington Wizards tickets to a tour of the Supreme Court, there are plenty of opportunities to meet new friends. Moreover, every week there are brown bag lunches where you can speak with staff members from various ED offices, even the Acting Secretary of Education himself!

As a press office intern, I was able to learn a great deal about education policies and I can certainly say that my ten weeks at ED have been hectic and action-packed. It’s hard to narrow down what I enjoyed the most. Not only will you be entrenched in current education issues but you will be able to learn from talented and passionate colleagues. I highly encourage anyone considering an ED internship to give it a shot. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to work at different offices while acclimating yourself to a high-paced environment that would be valuable to any career path you may follow.

Andrew Chao was an intern with the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and is a Senior at the University of California, San Diego.

ED is accepting applications for Summer 2016 internships through March 15, 2016. Details on how to apply.

Restorative Justice Practices and Bullying Prevention

Cross-posted from the Stopbullying Blog.

States and districts are increasingly in support of policies and practices that shift school discipline away from zero tolerance, such as suspension and expulsion, to discipline that is focused on teaching and engagement. To this effort, districts and states are rethinking discipline and adopting both Restorative Justice Practices (RJP) and Bullying Prevention (BP) as school-wide efforts to provide school staff with a set of preventative and responsive strategies to supporting positive student behaviors.

What are Restorative Justice Practices?

Restorative Justice Practices are a set of informal and formal strategies intended to build relationships and a sense of community to prevent conflict and wrongdoing, and respond to wrongdoings, with the intention to repair any harm that was a result of the wrongdoing. Preventative strategies include community or relationship building circles, and the use of restorative language. Some responsive strategies include the use of Restorative Questions within a circle or conferencing format, again with the intention of repairing the wrong that happened as a result of the behavior. The Restorative Questions, while varied in exact language, ask the student to consider: what happened? who did it impact? how do you make it right?

What is Bullying Prevention?

Bullying Prevention involves explicitly teaching students how to treat each other respectfully (i.e. what respect looks like in their school)and how students, including bystanders and the student who is bullied, should respond when peers are not being respectful (i.e. Stop, Walk and Talk),. Also important, is how adults respond to bullying and they help reduce peer verbal and physical aggression (i.e. prompt the student to use the Stop, Walk and Talk response).

Both RJP and BP provide explicit guidelines for students and staff on their interactions with one another to prevent and respond to problem behavior in a dignified, problem-solving manner. They are also both in alignment with the preventative, research-validated framework of School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports and Interventions (SWPBIS). Within SWPBIS, school teams define, instruct, and reinforce appropriate social behaviors in the same manner they teach academic content. SWPBIS is data-driven; through regular review of student behavioral progress educators are equipped with real time information necessary for organize school resources to meet the social needs of all students. SWPBIS provides a strong platform for the adoption of RJP and BP because it allows educators to see the impact of both the preventative and responsive strategies within the school. Here are some examples of how schools are merging RJP and BP with SWPBIS.



Specific Strategies

Monitoring for Student Success

SWPBIS Define, Teach and Acknowledge School-Wide Expectations Reductions in discipline referrals

Improvements on Climate or perception surveys on staff, student, and family perceptions of school safety, support, and a sense of community

BP Define, teach, practice and acknowledge respectful student to student interactions
RJP Establish Community Building Circles in alignment with school-wide expectations.



Specific Strategies

Monitoring for Student Success

SWPBIS Define teacher responses to problem behavior. Reductions in discipline referrals

Improvements on Climate or perception surveys on staff, student, and family perceptions of school safety, support, and a sense of community

BP Define staff responses to bullying to consistently reteach and reinforce expected behavior.
RJP Define staff and administrative responses to problem behaviors to include Restorative Questions, Dialogue and Plans.

Jessica Swain-Bradway, Ph.D., is a former high school teacher and research associate at the University of Oregon and is currently the Research and Evaluation Director for Midwest PBIS Network Dr. Swain-Bradway’s main areas for training and evaluation include multi-tiered systems of behavior support in high schools, the alignment of academic and social supports for the secondary classroom and Restorative Justice Practices within a School-wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (SWPBIS) frame.

Teachers Campaign to Recover Love of Teaching

2014 National Teacher of the Year Sean McComb interacts with a student.

2014 National Teacher of the Year Sean McComb interacts with a student.

I learned a tough lesson my first year in the classroom – left to its own devices, my mind would focus with laser precision on my mistakes. Instead of celebrating the things that went well, I’d find myself sitting at my desk after dismissal stewing over a lackluster explanation, some mishandled mischief, or poor planning.

It’s good to be critical. It’s natural. In the big picture, it’s how we as humans evolved over the years. We’re the descendants of those cunning enough to survive long enough to have descendants themselves. But as a teacher, with all the challenges we face every day, an unchecked critical eye can become defeating.

A few weeks into that first year, I bought a fat stack of Post-it notes and started spending the first 10 minutes after school jotting notes to kids who had a good day, made a contribution, or conducted themselves with kindness. I chose to focus on the good, and it did me a world of good, too.

Last year I found myself, and many of my friends, caught up in the tempest surrounding the teaching profession. From viral resignation letters, to magazine covers, to court cases, our vocation seemed to be in everyone’s crosshairs. And for many, those narratives crowded out the joys, the laughs, the hard-fought victories, and the heart-wrenching challenges that give us such a deep love for teaching.

So last February a few friends and I decided to try to shine a light on our love for teaching. We asked our friends to join in. We also asked a few organizations to participate in the project. Those who were asked connected with others and pretty quickly there was a full-on campaign united by the #LoveTeaching hashtag. There were Twitter chats, and school “photo booths” and a flood of tweets and posts and pictures and blogs. Even Secretary Arne Duncan posted a video to say thank you and talk about what he loved about teachers. In the end, five million people interacted with the campaign—because, for all its challenges, there’s just so much to love about teaching.

This year, until Monday, Feb. 22, teachers – and friends – across the country are invited to join the #LoveTeaching campaign. I’ve used it as an opportunity to share a story about a student who changed my life. A Kentucky English teacher put together a list of twenty reasons she loves her work. What’s your story? Search the hashtag to gain inspiration from others, or just jump on and join in the love.

The teachers I admire start their day by thinking how they can do better for students. I urge you to take the opportunity to pause and remember the kids and colleagues, the personal champions and persistent challenges that make us #LoveTeaching.

Sean McComb is a high school English teacher in Baltimore, Maryland, and was the 2014 National Teacher of the Year.

Standing on the Shoulders of Many

The 2008 Metro Detroit General Election Obama Staff.

The 2008 Metro Detroit General Election Obama Staff.

With regards to August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Denzel Washington referenced their short but impactful time on this earth as “concentrated dose[s] of life” going on to say that “these people didn’t have water added to their lives…they were here and they were intense for a short period of time…but they live on…for generations, for centuries hopefully…”

This is what working for the Obama administration has felt like to me and so many Black appointees: an intense and purposeful eight years of work done for the betterment of our future generations.

I am a first generation college graduate who was a Head Start student and a Pell grant recipient. When I completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the first time and saw my “expected family contribution (EFC)” would be $0, my resolve to receive a college education was solidified. From the time of my birth until my first job after graduating from Howard University, I lived in a household at or near the poverty line, which qualified me for financial aid and allowed me to have a better chance to achieve the American Dream. Had it not been for the opportunity a college education afforded me, there is a real possibility that my own children would have been born into that same generational cycle of having the talent and will, but not the financial way.

Of the many incredible memories I have of serving this President, my favorite involves my nephew, Drake. Drake was four years old and spending part of the summer with my husband and me in 2013. While watching Independence Day, I noticed a confused look on his face. I asked him what was wrong. “Tee-Tee that is not the President.” “And how do you know?” “The President is Marack O’Momma”.

The author's nephew, Drake, at the White House Easter Egg Roll.

The author’s nephew, Drake, at the White House Easter Egg Roll.

Now eight, Drake can accurately pronounce the President’s name, but I will forever treasure that memory. The realization that there is a whole generation of young boys and girls whose only reality has been one where Barack Obama is the “real” President of the United States, has affected me deeply.What a mighty concentrated dose of life witnessed by young Drake and children all over the world.

There have been many historical celebrations during President Obama’s administration. In 2014, we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the 60th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Ruling. And in 2015, while celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights act-we also witnessed the passing of our beloved national treasure Julian Bond.

From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” blossomed Barack Obama who planted seeds for Acting Secretary John King, Tia Borders, Saba Bireda, De’Rell Bonner, Tenicka Boyd, Casimir Peters, Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Raymonde Charles, Denise Horn, Alise Marshall, Chris Robinson, Aketa Williams, James Cole, Kimberly Morton, Angela Tennison, Michael Brown, Ursula Wright, Monae White, Jim Shelton, Christina Cue, Tyra Mariani, Stephanie Sprow, Michael Smith, myself and countless other Black Appointees to grow. We dared to join the North Star journey of electing and serving the first Black President. We all started in different parts of this country. Some of us began this journey during the South Carolina primary in 2007, while others of us joined the “Obama” train further up the Ohio River in Kentucky.

As a field organizer working in my home city of Detroit in 2008, I welcomed neighbors from Canada that were eager to volunteer for the campaign even though they could not vote in our election to ensure Barack’s ascendency to the highest job in all the land. And when Barack Obama was elected President, we all made it to the White House. Not just those of us who had volunteered and mobilized to make history …but also those who came before us. The humanity of an invitation to work for the first Black president granted honor to our great grandmothers and grandfathers, and the spirits of our ancestors, whose shoulders we had to climb upon in order to make it to this extraordinary moment in time. And our humble service in the birth of this nation granted dignity to those who once served, unwillingly, building this country on their backs with their blood, sweat, tears and lives.

It has been an incalculable privilege to be of service to this President and our incredible First Family. I am forever grateful for this intense opportunity; this concentrated dose of time in my own life that I will one day share with my own children and their children as well.

Russella Davis-Rogers is Chief of Staff of the Office of Strategic Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education.

Girls and Coding: Seeing What the Future Can Be

From left to right, Gilliam Jacobs, Brittany Greve, Andrea Chaves, Noran Omar, Angela Diep.

At the White House for the White House Champions of Change for Computer Science Education! From left to right, Gilliam Jacobs, Brittany Greve, Andrea Chaves, Noran Omar and Angela Diep.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

This is a common expression that, perhaps like me, you’ve heard many times. For the girls at the Young Women’s Leadership school where I teach in New York City, this is – sadly — the case. My students couldn’t see themselves as women in STEM careers, and in fact, knew little about the opportunities offered within the field.

That’s why I made it my mission to bring computer science to our school.

My principal was excited at the idea of incorporating computer science (CS), but took me by surprise when she said I would have to teach it. As a certified Spanish teacher, I had no background in CS other than being digitally competent. But, after starting to learn through an online training program, I decided to blend computer science into my advanced Spanish speakers class because I figured why not have students learning Spanish dive into coding, too.

On the first day of class, I announced to the girls in Spanish that we were going to do tons of reading, writing and editing – but in a language called JavaScript. I made it clear that I wasn’t fluent in this language, but reassured them that we were on this journey together.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the gender gap is not due to women lacking STEM-related skills, but rather because young women are conditioned to believe that careers in technology and science are reserved for men. That’s part of why I also decided to start two after-school programs: a partnership with an existing organization, Girls Who Code, which works to inspire and educate women to pursue careers in technology and my own program, TechCrew – an internship program that exposes girls to coding, graphic design, animation and film.

Watch the girls in Chaves’ class who created the nutrition game, Healthy Bunch, which won the MIT-sponsored competition “Dream It. Code It. Win It.”

Each club started with eight girls, but TechCrew now includes 30 girls working collaboratively to create and produce technology-driven projects. Students have coded video games and apps about recycling, healthy eating habits, carbon footprints, space debris, learning Spanish and more. As one of my students, Brittany Greve, says, “Computer science has allowed me to look at a problem from multiple perspectives and use logic to come up with innovative solutions.”

My students have also become leaders within the CS community. We’ve worked together on all sorts of projects, such as a summer coding camp in Queens where girls learned to build apps that advocate for social justice. Additionally, my TechCrew is currently leading 50 girls in the creation of a Digital Dance, in which dancers, filmmakers, graphic designers and coders are bringing together their expertise to create a beautiful piece of art.

Watch Chaves’ students talking about why they love to code and how coding has influenced them (in English).

Watch Chaves’ students talking about why they love to code and how coding has influenced them (in Spanish).

I am a Spanish teacher by training, but I took a risk to integrate CS into my curriculum and learned that this language does not have to stand on its own. It can be infused into any subject in any classroom. All it takes is a little innovation, trust and risk-taking.

One of my students put it best, “CS has opened a new pathway in my life. It has made me discover a part of who I am that I didn’t know existed. I can now see what I would like my future to be,” she said.

Andrea Chaves is a Spanish and computer science teacher and creative director at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria, New York. She was recently named a White House Champion of Change.