Back-to-School Bus Tour Visits the Grand Canyon State

Military Town Hall

The last stop of day four was at Yuma Marine Corps Air Station where Duncan joined military leaders, service members and their families to discuss the importance of supporting military-connected students and their families.

It was a beautiful and hot morning in Phoenix last Thursday at the start of day four of Secretary Arne Duncan’s back-to-school Strong Start, Bright Future, bus tour across the Southwest. The heat didn’t deter a day full of excitement and inspiration with stops in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Yuma, Ariz.

See a collection of social media posts from day four of the tour.


Student in ClassroomDuncan got an early start at the Bret Tarver Education Complex where he visited classrooms—even receiving a daily weather forecast from an early learner—and then participated in a town hall to discuss the President’s Preschool for All proposals and the need for high-quality education.

The town hall focused on the proven benefits of high-quality early education. For every $1 invested in high-quality preschool, taxpayers save an average of $7 in future costs due to reductions in remedial education costs, increased labor productivity, and a reduction in crime. “Education is the best crime prevention tool,” Aaron Carreon-Ainsa, Phoenix’s city prosecutor, said during the panel discussion.


The back-to-school bus kept on rolling and made a stop in Scottsdale for a meeting with tribal leaders to talk about the federal role in strengthening tribal education. Over the last four years, the Obama Administration has taken unprecedented steps to increase collaboration with tribal government and communities regarding Native students.

The Secretary addressed the negative impact sequestration is having on Native American communities. “They’re feeling it out here. DC let them down,” Duncan tweeted following the event.


The day continued in Yuma, Ariz., with a visit to the Yuma Community Food Bank where Duncan joined more than 400 volunteers who had gathered to fill backpacks with food to be delivered to disadvantaged students for the weekend. Yuma is home to the highest unemployment rate in the nation and Yuma County has the highest food insecurity rate in the state. It was an important reminder that students who show up to school hungry have a difficult time learning.

Following the Food Bank visit, Duncan and team stopped at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma for a town hall and discussion on the importance of supporting military-connected students and their families.

Military-connected students face unique challenges such as parents who deploy often and multiple moves through during their K-12 years. Abagail, a Yuma High School senior who has two parents connected to the military, told the audience that she has moved 11 times during her school years.

Listen to Secretary Duncan wrap up day four of the back-to-school tour below.

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

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy and blogged and tweeted his way from the bus during ED’s annual back-to-school bus tour.

Commitment to Tribal Collaboration

Duncan at Tribal Fair

In 2011, Secretary Duncan visited the Rosebud-Sioux Tribal Fair in Rosebud, SD. In a speech this week, Duncan said that visiting reservations is one of his most rewarding opportunities as Secretary. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

“In America, education must be the great equalizer,” Secretary Arne Duncan said during a speech at the fourth White House Tribal Nations Conference this week. “[It is] the one force that enables people to overcome differences of birth and bank accounts and of power and privilege.”

Each of the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes were invited to send a representative to the conference, which provided leaders the opportunity to interact directly with senior officials in the administration.

Duncan noted that the Administration is committed to tribes, citing such examples as President Obama’s Executive Order establishing the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, the launch of the State-Tribal Education Partnership, and help from ED’s School Improvement Grants. However, he said there is still a “distance we have yet to travel,” and that the conference is “an opportunity to take stock of our progress together, and to plan how we will address serious challenges that lie ahead.”

Secretary Duncan explained that visiting reservations has been among the “most rewarding, uplifting–and sometimes heart-wrenching–opportunities I have had since taking office.” He spoke of the real challenges that Indian Country faces, but that

Together, we must do more to nurture the next generation. Native youth need, and absolutely deserve, safe homes, safe communities, and an education system that prepares them for success in college and careers. They need and deserve an education system that prepares them for leadership and service to their communities, tribes, and country.

Education, Duncan said, “is the surest, most powerful path for breaking the cycle of poverty on tribal lands.”

We must prepare our students to preserve the proud heritage and vibrant cultures that have shaped America’s history for centuries. Your children are ready–they want to be challenged, they want to be successful. They just need a light to show them the way. And that is why we must be their champions now, so they can lead in the future. Children only get one shot at an education. They can’t wait for reform to materialize a decade from now.

Read the entire speech here, and read about his recent commencement speech at Navajo Technical College. You can also read more about the conference on the White House Blog.

Cameron Brenchley is Director of Digital Strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

Towards the Rockies – Bus Tour Day Two

ED's Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Director Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell facilitated a roundtable discussion with Brighton High School students and educators in Salt Lake City as part of our Back-to-School bus tour.

ED's Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Director Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell facilitated a roundtable discussion with Brighton High School students and educators in Salt Lake City as part of our Back-to-School bus tour. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Elko: Community collaboration is key

With only two days complete of ED’s cross-country bus tour, it’s already clear that education really does drive America. During Thursday’s first event at Great Basin College in Elko, Nev., we witnessed how communities can come together.

William Mendoza, director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education led the panel that featured Deb Delisle, assistant secretary for the office of elementary and secondary education, tribal leaders, Nevada’s state chief superintendent and community members.

ED officials listened to panelists as they described the challenges they are facing, but also how school districts and communities are working together to improve education for Native American students. Watch the video below for more from Elko.

Salt Lake City: Achieving success through turning around

Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the NEA

NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen speaks at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

The Education Drives America bus cruised through the Bonneville Salt Flats as we made our way to Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City. Glendale is a recipient of a School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the Department, and the school is a National Education Association (NEA) Priority School. Under Secretary Martha Kanter, ED Chief of Staff Joanne Weiss and Asst. Secretary Delisle met with NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen and Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker.

After a tour of Glendale’s classrooms, the group sat down with teachers and students to discuss what is working at Glendale. One of the reasons the school has seen such positive changes is the involvement of parents. Click here to read a recent story from the NEA on family involvement at Glendale.

While Glendale may have been the only Utah stop for the bus, over the past two days, ED officials have held 10 events in Utah.

The Education Drives America bus isn’t slowing down. Today it drives across Wyoming with stops in Rock Springs, Rawlins and Cheyenne. Stay connected by receiving email updates on our back-to-school tour across the country.

See what people were saying on social media about the tour during day two, and watch our video summary:

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

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital engagement and is blogging and tweeting his way from coast-to-coast during ED’s annual back-to-school bus tour.

Indian Tribal Leaders Give ED Input on Needs of Urban Indian Students

Named in honor of Chief Seattle of the Duwamish tribe, Seattle was a fitting site for a recent U.S. Department of Education (ED) learning session on improving urban Indian education.

Arlie Neskahi

Arlie Neskahi, Native American Education Program Manager for the Seattle Public Schools and a member of the Diné Nation.

William Mendoza, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indians and Alaska Natives, and Joyce Silverthorne, Director of ED’s Office of Indian Education, listened as tribal leaders, Indian-education stakeholders and the general public spoke from their experience and their hearts about the priorities for urban Indian youth in Seattle’s schools.

“These urban, Native consultations are historic,” said Arlie Neskahi, Native American Education Program Manager for the Seattle Public Schools and a member of the Diné Nation. “The majority [consultations] in the past have been done just with tribes.”

Moderator Ross Braine, the University of Washington’s acting tribal liaison and member of Apsaalooke Nation led the day’s session. Braine ensured that every speaker was heard and maintained the right pace with insight and humor.

Key participants at the session spoke about the importance of having ED in the room. “As educators, we’ve gone to tribal settings, and we sat in the back of the room, listening,” said Neskahi. “So now we’re getting to stand before these federal representatives and share as Native educators. It’s beautiful to me.”

Mary Wilber, Title VII Coordinator for Washington State’s Lake Washington, Bellevue and North Shore School Districts, also saw great importance in the session. “I know the needs for our children…I also know the successes. And those successes need to be shared with people from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Indian Education, and Mr. Mendoza,” she said.

Mendoza agreed with Wilber. “Our learning session in Seattle is critical to the White House initiative, because each of these areas that the initiative relates to…brings to the initiative a certain uniqueness that we couldn’t otherwise garner through the reservation lens,” he said.

Joyce Silverthorne explained that for ED’s Office of Indian Education, “it’s been critical… to look at what [Seattle’s urban-Native community] have learned and what they are seeing as the most important issues, and to help them to share that with other people across the country.”

This Urban-Native Education Learning Session was a continuation of federal roundtable discussions that began this year to offer tribal leaders and others a chance to provide substantive feedback on the goals and strategies of an Executive Order by President Obama entitled: “Improving American Indian Education and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities.”

As the session wound down, Mendoza reflected on the day. “We’re very optimistic that today was further validation that we can better help educators at the state and the tribal level make more meaningful connections to their students,” he said.
For more information on ED’s tribal consultation and learning sessions, please go to

Joe Barison is the Director of Communications and Outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.

Duncan Announces Pilot Program to Increase State-Tribal Collaboration

Providing the tools and flexibility to bolster successful education reforms at the community level has been the goal of the Obama Administration. From Race to the Top to NCLB flexibility, the Department of Education knows that one-size-fits-all policies don’t meet the needs of every school, student, teacher and parents.

This same approach is taken in a new pilot program announced this week by Secretary Duncan. The new program, “State-Tribal Education Partnership,” or STEP, will award $1.9 million in competitive grants to tribal education agencies to perform some state-level functions for certain federal grant programs.

When announcing the pilot program, Secretary Duncan noted that, “tribal leaders, teachers, and parents, are best-suited to identify and address the needs of their children.”

The STEP pilot program application is available at (search for CFDA number 84.415) and will be due on July 13, 2012.

Click here for more information, and watch Secretary Duncan announce the pilot program:

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

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.

American Indians with Disabilities Benefit from ED Grant

Charles Sleeper knows firsthand that one federal grant can change lives. Before becoming a counselor for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he was a recipient of the services offered as a result of the “Vocational Rehabilitation Service Projects for American Indians with Disabilities” grant from ED.  “This program changed my life by making me see that I could go beyond my disability and be better than anyone who might mock me,” he said.

Vocational Rehabilitation counselor Charles Sleeper

Vocational Rehabilitation counselor Charles Sleeper in the center’s computer lab.

As a counselor, Sleeper saw many people who wanted to work, but who needed help and direction along with skills training. “Sometimes there is so much against them, Indians with disabilities just give up,” according to Sleeper. In working to address stereotypes and challenges, Sleeper said, “Some say that Indians don’t want to work, but we can see beyond that.”

In Oklahoma, nine tribes received federal Vocational Rehabilitation grants to help target specific needs in their communities. Currently, the community receives $412,000 a year with a 10 percent tribal match to cover 11 counties which are able to serve about 50 tribal members with disabilities. “The program provides assessment, counseling, tuition, college expenses, training and job placement, but the most valuable outcomes are building relationships of trust and instilling a sense of confidence, responsibility and self-sufficiency,” according to Sleeper. “It is part of our cultural tradition to be self sufficient,” he said. “We help people realize that they are in charge of their own destiny; no one else is.”

Through partnerships with other tribes, local colleges and the community, individual plans for employment are developed, and participants work jointly with the counselor until they reach their employment outcome. “Even after that, people come back to check in and let us know how they are doing,” said Sleeper. Drug and alcohol counseling is also provided when needed. “Sometimes people have a fear of success because others have put them down for so long. That’s when communication and trust become so important. It’s not just the physical and material needs we have to address for Indian people; we must address the whole person, as well,” Sleeper said.

Over the years, there have been strong successes. One young man with severe asthma was able to get a Master’s degree and now works as an accountant.  “A young woman we worked with was labeled ‘special education’, but went on to have a career in the military,” Sleeper noted. Others have gone on to become educators, truck drivers, cashiers, sales people, manufacturers, and medical workers.

Art projects made by consumers in the Vocational Rehabilitation center

Art projects made by consumers in the Vocational Rehabilitation center

“The highest level of attainment has been that of a person with a disability who attained a Juris Doctorate and is now the attorney for the tribal council,” said Bryan Sykes, director of the American Indian Vocational Rehabilitation Services program. Sykes, who has worked in the field of rehabilitation for over 28 years wrote the grant. He co-wrote the first grant in 1996. He emphasizes the need for federal funding: “If we don’t have the federal funding, our people will suffer in poverty,” he said. “It’s poverty that can breed disability.”

What motivated Sykes initially was working with people who were rated as “mentally incompetent” by a court of law, where he supervised their financial affairs. “They were at a point of no hope, but with this funding and philosophy of vocational rehabilitation, we could change the structure of services and guide them to options. This is often the last option that they have to become self-sufficient,” he said. “We don’t just prepare people for dead-end jobs; we prepare them for careers where they can advance,” said Sykes.

Another measure of success is that younger people come for services. “They realize early that they don’t have to deny their disability; they have options,” Sleeper explained. “Years ago, people just gave up and never realized that there was something they could do. Tribal members see the successes that we’ve had and know they have access to the services.” That’s what keeps Sleeper motivated. “I get lots of satisfaction and happiness from seeing others succeed. People can do more than you think; they just need a chance.”

Helen Littlejohn is Regional Director for Communications and Outreach, Western States

Providing Native American Students a Great Education

“If we give our Native American young people a great education, I’m wildly optimistic about what they can accomplish,” said Secretary Arne Duncan at a public meeting of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education (NACIE) yesterday morning in Washington, DC.

The 15-member council, composed of American Indian and Alaska Native leaders from across the country, advises Secretary Duncan on the funding and administration of ED programs that impact Native American and Alaska Native children and adults. The two-day meeting gave NACIE members a chance to hear from ED staff, prepare their annual report to Congress, and continue developing recommendations for Secretary Duncan.

Opening the morning session, Secretary Duncan thanked the council members for their tremendous service and said that he looked forward to their continued input in the coming months and years.

“I encourage NACIE to be bold in their recommendations to the Department of Education,” said Duncan. “I’m not interested in incremental changes; I’m interested in exponential changes, and if we don’t see improvements in the academic achievement of Native students during my time as Secretary, I will feel personally accountable for that.”

Secretary Duncan sounded a similar message in his remarks last year at a town hall event with tribal leaders, in which he discussed ED’s ongoing efforts to improve educational opportunities in Indian Country. As a Department, that means continuing regular, meaningful consultation with tribal leaders; supporting Indian Education programs in ESEA; allowing more flexible use of Indian Education funds for Native language immersion and restoration programs; and strengthening tribal education agencies.

To read more about NACIE’s membership and work, click here. You can also learn about ED’s Office of Indian Education here.

Rob Friedlander is a confidential assistant in the Department of Education’s Office of the General Counsel