Working with Community Leaders to Improve Educational Outcomes for AANHPI Students


Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who chairs the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, meets with community leaders from across the country to discuss educational challenges among AANHPI students. (by Bernadette Rietz)

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time for us to celebrate the accomplishments of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs) and their contributions to this great nation. This year’s theme for the month is “I am Beyond,” which captures the aspirations of the American spirit and how Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have always sought to excel beyond the challenges that have limited equal opportunity in America.

As chair of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it is important that I hear directly from AANHPI leaders who work with our students and their families every day. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to meet with community leaders who came from as far as Guam and Hawaii to discuss important issues that face AANHPI students around the country and in the Insular Areas. I was honored to have many key leaders at the Department of Education who have made working with AAPI populations a critical part of their work.

I heard important updates and requests on data disaggregation, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs), bullying and harassment, English Language Learners, boys and young men of color through the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and native languages and culture-based education. Leaders emphasized that aggregated AANHPI data mask critical issues such as the alarmingly low college graduation rates for Southeast Asian Americans (12 percent of Laotian, 14 percent of Cambodian, and 26 percent of Vietnamese American populations) and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders at 14.8 percent. I also heard about the high rates of bullying and harassment in these communities and that the Department could be helpful by helping raise awareness of AANAPISIs as Minority-Serving Institutions.

Knowing how important these issues are, I committed to continuing the conversations beyond this roundtable discussion, to explain our position on many issues, and to learn from the community on how the Department can improve our efforts to ensure equity for all. Members of the Education team will continue to meet with the AAPI community in the upcoming weeks and months to work on these issues, and I look forward to an update at the end of the year.

With the support of the Initiative, we have made progress on many of these issues, but we have more work ahead as we strive to improve educational experiences for AANHPI students.

Arne Duncan is Secretary of Education and Chair of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Inspiring the Next Generation of AAPI Public Servants

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

When I ask my Dad about his childhood, he has little to say.  He says he grew up poor in a small Koreatown in rural Manchuria.  His father was a logger.  He was the youngest of seven children.  That, to him, is pretty much all there is to tell.

But there’s much more to his story.  With support from his family, he moved to Seoul in 1955 – just two years after the end to the Korean War – to attend college.  In Seoul, he met several Americans who encouraged him to dream bigger and move to the United States.  There, they told him that you could receive a world-class education.  There, intelligence and hard work mattered more than connections or your family name.  One of these Americans, a generous Minnesotan, bought my Dad a plane ticket to the U.S.

After a journey that took nearly three days, he stepped onto U.S. soil on January 20, 1961 – the day John F. Kennedy was sworn into office.  In Seattle, waiting for his connecting flight to North Carolina, he witnessed President Kennedy’s inaugural address on television.  Like millions of Americans watching that day, he was inspired when he heard JFK ask what we can do for our country and what “together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Those words led him to a career in public service.  First, though, he knew he needed an education.  Working full-time during the day and attending classes at night, he graduated from Wake Forest in 1963, became a U.S. citizen in 1974, and completed his PhD at Temple University in 1979.

In 1983, he founded the Korean Community Development Services Center in the Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia.  Originally established to help newly-arrived Asian immigrants adjust to life in their new country, its mission evolved over the years to address the needs of clients from diverse ethnic backgrounds – from African American to Hispanic.  The Center now provides a wide range of free services to its clients – social services, legal advice, after school programs, career and technical education programs, a neighborhood revitalization project, housing counseling and development, and an early learning center.

I spent my childhood observing my Dad serve low-income, minority clients in Philadelphia.  He always underscored that people who lead privileged lives have an obligation to help provide opportunities to those who do not.

Nearly 50 years after my Dad witnessed JFK’s inaugural address, on January 20, 2009, I witnessed President Barack Obama deliver his inaugural address.  Today, I am privileged to carry on my Dad’s work at the Education Department under Secretary Arne Duncan, who has focused our efforts on providing a world-class education to our nation’s students.  During the Secretary’s tenure, the Department has helped secure funding to save hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs, increase Pell grants, raise academic standards across the country, prepare students for the jobs of the future, and focus support to help transform struggling, high-poverty schools.

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’ll be honoring people like my Dad, whose story and commitment to public service has been an inspiration to his son and others.

Don Yu serves as a Special Advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.