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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ED Hosts First-Ever Educator Equity Lab

The first-ever Educator Equity Lab was held on March 29th at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where more than one hundred education stakeholders made commitments to ensuring equal access to excellent teachers for the state’s students of color and students from low income backgrounds.

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The Lab was part of the Department of Education’s broader efforts to support states in closing persistent nationwide “equity gaps” in access to great teachers. Last fall, then-Secretary Arne Duncan announced the approval of the first batch of state plans submitted under the Excellent Educators for All Initiative. And, he tasked the Department’s Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows with leading a series of labs to help with their implementation.

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No, You Won’t Be Arrested For Falling Behind On Your Student Loans

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Today, more than ever before, a college diploma or job-training credential is one of the best investments you can make in your future. By some estimates, a bachelor’s degree is worth an average of a million dollars over the course of your lifetime.

But college also has never been more expensive, and far too many Americans are struggling to pay off their student loan debt.

Maybe you haven’t quite landed that dream job in your field of study yet. Or you decided to go into public service instead of taking the highest-paying offer. Your reward for investing your time and money in the skills and knowledge needed to secure your future shouldn’t be a sky-high monthly payment.

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The Value of Classroom Diversity

ED TAF Patrick Kelly with students in his classroom in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Patrick Kelly)

ED TAF Patrick Kelly with students in his classroom in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Patrick Kelly)

I am in my eleventh year teaching but often find my greatest educational epiphanies as a parent. One such moment occurred last spring when my daughter’s first grade class discussed de jure racial segregation of American society during the first half of the 20th century. When she came home, she shared what she had learned and asked this poignant and powerful question, “Daddy, does that mean I couldn’t have gone to school with my best friend?” At that moment, as she contextualized the reality of segregation in her head and heart, the power of classroom diversity became crystal clear.

However, the value of diversity is currently being unrealized at a rate unseen in the last 50 years. Abundant data points to resegregation of America’s schools, such as a 2012 report from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA that noted, “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority nonwhite schools.” As an educator, these statistics are alarming, since I’ve seen the value of a diverse classroom in three key ways.

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A New Vision for Serving Student Loan Borrowers

For Sarah, streamlining student loan repayment for easy access to affordable repayment plans is critical. Sarah teaches second grade in Minnesota, and works to ensure that all her students have hope for their futures and “know that the possibilities are endless for them.” After paying her monthly loan balance, she lives paycheck-to-paycheck. Public service loan forgiveness options are available to help make debt more manageable and affordable, but many teachers like Sarah struggle to learn about whether or not they qualify. The Obama Administration knows that families across the country are working hard to pay off their loans. This Administration wants to ensure that students do not have to choose between a job that serves their communities and paying their debt, and that borrowers like Sarah do not struggle to navigate student loan repayment. That’s why the US Department of Education is taking steps to reinvent customer service for federal student loan borrowers to ensure that every borrower has the right to an affordable repayment plan like Pay As You Earn (PAYE), quality customer service, reliable information, and fair treatment as they repay their loans – objectives the President put forward in his Student Aid Bill of Rights.

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Focusing on Financial Literacy for Students

April is National Financial Capability Month. Decisions about paying for higher education can have lasting impact on individuals and our economy. In keeping with our ongoing efforts to increase financial literacy among college-bound and postsecondary students, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is working with Treasury’s Financial Literacy and Education Commission (FLEC) to teach students how to save and manage money for their postsecondary education.

The Far-Reaching Impact of Financial Literacy

Financial literacy, which can be defined as an understanding of how to earn, manage, and invest money, has a critical impact on students’ ability to make smart choices about which institute of higher education to attend, what to study, how to pay for college, and how to manage student loan debt after graduation.

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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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The 2016 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge is Here!

Cross-posted from the Let’s Move! Blog.

It’s that time of year again – we’re inviting kids across the country to create healthy lunch recipes for a chance to win a trip to Washington, D.C., and the opportunity to attend the Kids’ “State Dinner” at the White House!

Check out a special message from First Lady Michelle Obama announcing the fifth annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge:

The First Lady is once again teaming up with PBS flagship station WGBH Boston, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to host the fifth annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge to promote cooking and healthy eating among young people across the nation.

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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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Strengthening Accreditation to Protect Students

As I wrote back in February, accreditation plays a critical role in protecting students and taxpayers. Students and families trust that approval from an accrediting agency means that a school or program prepares its graduates for work and life. The federal government also relies on accreditation to affirm that the education provided by that institution or program is a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars.  Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve seen far too many schools maintain their institutional accreditation even while defrauding and misleading students, providing poor quality education, or closing without recourse for students. This is inexcusable. Accreditation can and must be the mark of quality that the public expects.

That’s why the Department has been working to strengthen the accreditation system. We have published information about accreditors’ standards and the student outcomes at the institutions and programs they have approved. We are taking steps to increase transparency around accreditors’ reviews of institutions and resulting actions. We will soon publish guidance to encourage accreditors to use the flexibility they have in order to target their resources to problematic and poorly performing institutions and programs. And we are increasing our focus on outcomes in our own process of recognizing accreditors.

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Socioeconomic Diversity as a School Turnaround Strategy

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The world that we’re preparing our kids for is diverse—our workplaces and our society reflect an enormous range of backgrounds and experiences. Succeeding in that world requires having had the experience of diversity in its many forms, particularly socioeconomic diversity. Mounting evidence shows that diversity is a clear path to better outcomes in school and in life. Exposure to other students from a wide array of backgrounds can boost empathy, reduce bias and increase group problem-solving skills. In short, it helps prepare students – regardless of their backgrounds – for the world in which they will live and work.

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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.