Endless Possibility

Secretary Duncan greets graduates at NTC

Secretary Duncan talks with students before commencement at Navajo Technical College. Official Department of Education photo by Paul Wood.

Endless possibility. That’s the motto of the Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint. N.M., and it’s more than just a catchy slogan: The students there are proving that with education, possibilities are endless.

Secretary Duncan visited NTC last Saturday to give the commencement address at graduation and to see the great work of NTC students. Duncan left the visit inspired to learn that NTC graduates are working in digital manufacturing, supercomputing and DNA research and are employed on contracts for NASA, Boeing and others.

While many other higher ed institutions that serve mostly minority populations often fail to graduate even half of their students, NTC graduates more than 85 percent. Prior to the graduation ceremony, Duncan visited NTC classrooms and even danced during a reception later in the day.

Visiting Native American reservations “are easily among the most rewarding and uplifting things that I have done over the past 3½ years,” Arne said at commencement. “I have walked in beauty with the Navajo people in this land, and it is an opportunity I will never forget.”

Click here to watch Secretary Duncan’s commencement speech, and watch a short summary below:

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

In America, Education Is Still the Great Equalizer

“In America, education is still the great equalizer,” Secretary Duncan told a group of graduates at Fayetteville State University’s Winter Commencement on Saturday. Duncan described the importance of education in today’s economy, and that education is, in the long run, one of the best investments one can make for the future.

On average, Americans who have earned a bachelor degree will earn roughly one million dollars more over their lifetime than students with only a high school diploma, Duncan explained.

Secretary Duncan noted that the Obama Administration is taking big steps to keep student debt manageable through the recently introduced Pay As You Earn proposal. For those who qualify, the proposal would cap monthly student loan payments to what people can afford. “In practical terms,” Duncan explained, “1.6 million Americans could literally see their loan payments go down by hundreds of dollars a month.”

“We want people to be able to follow their heart and passion—and not just chase a big paycheck because they have to pay back loans. America can’t afford to lose that talent,” Duncan said.

Click here to read more about the Pay As You Earn proposal.

Additional Resources:

  • Find the right college for you with the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator.
  • Click here to visit ED’s College Affordability and Transparency Center for information about tuition and net prices at postsecondary institutions.

Making History for Students with Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (far right) listens as (from left) Shandale Brown, Vander Cherry, Michele Hines, Ronald Covington, Tyree Jones, Kevin Thornton, Juan Rivera present a poem written by the class at their graduation ceremony, June 15, 2011. (Photo by the U.S. Department of Education)

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

As high school seniors all across the country graduated this week, history was quietly being made in Washington, D.C. at the Department of Education for 23 D.C. public school students with developmental and intellectual disabilities. They, like their peers across the country, were graduating too. They all participated in a program called Project SEARCH. The 15-year-old program now operates in 39 states and four foreign countries, but this is the first year that the federal government has hosted the project in three agencies including the Departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services.

The goal of Project SEARCH is to prepare high school seniors with developmental and intellectual disabilities for employment. Instead of attending classes in a regular high school, the participating students reported to work every day in one of the federal agencies. They received vocational training from a special education teacher for part of the day, and then worked as interns in different offices, learning skills that would prepare them for paid employment in the government or private sector. Job coaches who were part of the Project SEARCH team accompanied the students to their assigned offices to teach them the specific job skills needed to fulfill each task.

Unemployment and under-employment rates among young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities are unacceptably high. Without the opportunity Project SEARCH offers students to develop work skills, gain experience, and find a job, these young people might wait a long time for their first opportunity to earn a living wage.  Or worse, they might not have a chance to enter the job market at all.

The federal government’s experience with Project SEARCH has been so successful that all three agencies will host a new class this coming school year. But what matters most is the change it has brought about in the lives of the students and how it has helped them prepare to meet the challenges of the work world. Some of the students shared their thoughts on their experience in Project SEARCH and what they learned from the program. Shandale Brown said, “I thought the program was going to be hard for me, but because there was a lot of support from the teachers and the job coaches and my supervisors, it turned out to be okay.”

Kevin Thornton shared:

In my job, I’ve liked filing, copying, and delivering mail, and I like that I get to meet people and talk to people all over the building. I’ve been able to ask people questions, both in the classroom and at my job. Learning to ask for help was very hard; I wanted to do things by myself, and I found out that I needed to ask other people to show me what to do.

The words of Vander Cherry express the hope and the promise that Project SEARCH offers to young people with disabilities. He is one of three interns who will be transitioning to competitive integrated employment at the Department of Education.  When asked what graduation meant to him and what’s next, Vander summed it up this way:

Graduation was life-changing for me – I always wanted to walk across the stage and graduate with people striving for the same goal.  And it happened!

I feel we made history – this was the first graduation ceremony held at the Department of Education.  It is amazing how much all of us have grown through the program.  And there in the audience was everyone who has helped us grow…our families, teachers, job coaches, supervisors, mentors and friends.  They all helped us get through the program and get ready for the “real world.”

I am sad to miss seeing my classmates and teacher every day, but I am very excited about my new job.  I will start on Monday at the Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA).  I worked there as an intern for the past three months, but now I’m going to be a real employee.  It’s kind of scary, but I’m really looking forward to it. When I started this program, I wanted to put my heart into it.  When you really put your heart into something – and open up your mouth too – you will get something back.  Now I want to give back to FSA, to do my best, so they will never regret their decision to hire me.  This program has given me a future.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan perhaps summed it all up the best when he told the students, just before they received their certificates from the D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson:

I’m extraordinarily confident in your potential because of what I’ve seen. Your work ethic, your commitment, your willingness to learn and to be team players, have been simply remarkable.  We have been honored to have you with us…Keep working hard, keep growing, and never, ever let anyone tell you what you can’t do!

Rayna Aylward is Project SEARCH coordinator at the Department of Education.

Tune In to the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge TV Special

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

Three weeks ago President Obama traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to deliver the commencement address to the graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School, the winner of this year’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.  Booker T. Washington High School beat out over 400 high schools from across the country with their efforts to prepare students for college and career and help meet the President’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

In a new television special premiering this week, viewers will have the chance to follow the experiences of students at Booker T. Washington High School, as they win this year’s competition and the opportunity to host President Obama as their commencement speaker.  The Race to the Top Commencement Challenge Special, produced by Viacom and the Get Schooled Foundation in partnership with the White House, will air on Viacom’s cable networks over the next week. Get a sneak peak in an interview later today on BET’s 106 & Park with Christopher Dean and Cassandra Henderson, the two seniors profiled in the special.

In the meantime, check out this behind-the-scenes video of President Obama surprising students at Booker T. Washington right before the commencement ceremony.

Lauren Paige is Director of Message Planning at the White House

And the Winner of the 2011 Commencement Challenge Is…

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

Today, Vice President Joe Biden called Principal Alisha Kiner of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis Tennessee to tell her that her school had won the 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge! President Obama will travel to Memphis on Monday, May 16th to deliver the commencement for the class of 2011.

Check out Booker T. Washington High School’s finalist video:

The Race to the Top Commencement Challenge invited the nation’s public high schools to submit applications that demonstrate their commitment to preparing students for college and a career. Hundreds of applications were received and were judged based on the schools’ performance, essay questions and supplemental data. The six finalists were selected for their creativity in engaging and supporting students, academic results, and progress in preparing students to graduate college and career ready.

Congratulations to Booker T. Washington High School and all the finalists in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge!

Your Turn to Weigh In on the 2011 Commencement Challenge

Cross-posted from the White House Blog

Do you remember your high school commencement speaker?  Neither do I.

This year, one lucky high school will have an unforgettable commencement speaker – President Obama – and we need your help to determine which school it will be.

As part of the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, public high schools around the country submitted an application earlier this year that describe how their school is preparing students for college and a career. We’ve narrowed down the schools to six finalists and now it’s your turn to weigh in.  Each school produced a short video with help from the Get Schooled Foundation and essay. You can review and rate each school on a scale of 1-5 (5 being the highest) between today and Friday April 29 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Your ratings will help us narrow down the pool to three finalists and President Obama will select the winning school from one of these three.

Check out this video of President Obama asking for your feedback on the Commencement Challenge finalists, and then head over to WhiteHouse.gov/Commencement to rate each finalist.


The Commencement Challenge gives public high schools a chance to demonstrate how their school best prepares students for college and a career, helping America win the future by out-educating our competitors and achieving President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Each of the six finalists schools are an excellent example of the best America’s public schools have to offer.  Take a moment to watch their videos, read their essays and rate each school.

Melody Barnes is the Director of the Domestic Policy Council