On the island of Puerto Rico, home to the third-largest school district in the United States, Secretary Duncan on Monday brought a tough, but optimistic message to the “Investing in Our Future” Education Summit.
Puerto Rico, Duncan said to the more than 300 attendees, must choose “the path of embracing innovation, academic rigor, accountability, and effective strategies for accelerating learning for all students.”
In the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of Education to Puerto Rico in 18 years, Secretary Duncan delivered opening and closing remarks at the 7-hour summit.
Duncan’s message was summarized Tuesday in the front-page headline of Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, which read; “U.S. Education Secretary Sings the Truth.”
Convened at the recommendation of the President’s Task Force Report on Puerto Rico’s Status, the summit brought together local elected officials, teacher unions, nonprofits, Puerto Rico Department of Education stakeholders, mainland education experts, as well as the business community.
Participants in the summit included Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño; resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi; San Juan mayor Jorge Santini; Vadim Nikitine, founder of the Flamboyan Foundation, and Nelson Colon, President of the Community Foundation of Puerto Rico.
Summit panels included System Wide Education Reform; Labor Management Collaboration as Key to Student Success; Beating the Odds in Traditionally Failing Environments; and a Business and Philanthropy in Education roundtable.
Student achievement has floundered in Puerto Rico, and 63 schools have been identified as persistently low-achieving.
Duncan acknowledged the challenges, but pressed summit attendees to meet those challenges, including poverty, with a spirit of collaboration and optimism.
“I know that poverty is not destiny,” Duncan said. “We have all seen lives change because of opportunity, support, and guidance from great teachers and mentors.”
The summit’s panel on labor-management collaboration was the subject of particular attention, and Dr. Linda Lane, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent, and Nina Esposito-Visgitis, President of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, shared with the audience how they forged a strong working relationship.
“It all began when they asked me to participate in a teacher evaluation discussion, and I realized they were listening to me,” Vigisitis said. “That really is where things began.”
The Department of Education, along with the Task Force, will continue to follow-up on the recommendations and lessons learned from the Summit.
During his visit, Secretary Duncan also conducted a town hall with parents and teachers at a school in Bayamon, as well as a small meeting with high school seniors at a school in San Juan.