Looking Back at 5 Memorable School Visits of 2013

Bret Tarver

Secretary Arne Duncan received a daily weather forecast from students during his visit to Bret Tarver Education Complex in Phoenix.

I visit a lot of schools each year, and it is probably the greatest highlight of my job. Getting out of Washington and into classrooms provides me with the opportunity to talk with students, teachers, parents, and college leaders on what is working and what we still need to accomplish. Their voices are the driving force behind improving education in our country.

In 2013, I visited my 49th state as Secretary of Education, and with each classroom and school visit I walk away with meaningful and memorable lessons. As 2014 gets underway, now is a good time to reflect on 2013, and particularly on five schools that left a lasting impression.

  1. Columbus Elementary, Columbus, N.M.

Secretary Duncan speaks with a Columbus Elementary School student on a bus ride to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Columbus Elementary, situated just a few miles from the Mexico border is unlike any school I have visited before. Of the approximately 700 students, from Pre-K to 5th Grade, roughly 400 students wake up before the sun rises to cross the border for school each day. All the students are U.S. citizens and during the afternoon bus ride back to the border, listening to their stories inspired me.

The experience shed new light on educational challenges and youthful grit—not to mention a need to fix our broken immigration system that affects even our youngest learners. Read more about my visit to Columbus during our annual back-to-school bus tour.

  1. Macomb Community College, Warren, Mich.

Community colleges have never been more important. They are the cornerstones that will help us build the best-educated, most competitive workforces in the world. Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., is a shining example of a community college that is providing students with an affordable high-quality education that meets the needs of local employers.

Macomb inspired me and my hope is that more community colleges will follow suit and become regional economic engines. Read more about my December visit to Macomb.

  1. Northwest Middle School, Salt Lake City, Utah

After years of struggling, Northwest Middle School is now ranked number one in its district and is making exciting progress with the help of a School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the Department of Education.

During my recent visit I received candid feedback from the students, parents, and teachers about the challenges the school has overcome and the work that lies ahead. Like all turnaround successes, I am hopeful members of this school community will continue to share their successes with school leaders across the country. Read more about my December visit to Northwest.

  1. Ecole St. Jean de Dieu, Port-au-Prince, Haiti


    Secretary Duncan speaks with community members outside of Ecole St. Jean de Dieu in Haiti.

The first school we visited during a recent trip to Haiti was Ecole St. Jean de Dieu. The school is part of the Haitian Minister of Education’s initiative to promote access for vulnerable school-aged children who are outside of the education system.  Most of the students at this school are homeless and live on the streets during the day but attend classes in the afternoons.  

Set in one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods, the school’s bare walls and dusty classrooms were filled with bright-eyed students and commanding teachers. The students that attended this school, many lost parents or guardians in the earthquake and are trying to get a basic education to hopefully live a productive life on their own. I was inspired to see their commitment to receiving an education and working towards a better life. Read more about my trip to Haiti.

  1. Bret Tarver Early Education Complex, Phoenix, Ariz.

The Bret Tarver Education Complex in Phoenix was a vivid reminder of not just the importance of high-quality pre-k but the need to expand it. The staff at this preschool facility is doing a tremendous job of serving over 300 kids in the community, yet another 200+ remain on a waitlist.

It is encouraging to see Arizona make such a crucial investment in our children, but more than a few lucky children deserve a high-quality pre-k experience like the one offered at Bret Tarver. If we plan to meet the long-term educational challenges, we must place greater emphasis on what happens to children during their most formative years from birth to the early grades, and make high-quality early learning available to all students. Read more about my September visit to Bret Tarver.

Arne Duncan is Secretary of Education

Baltimore High School Beats Odds with Help of SIG Program

The odds were stacked against Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School.

Partners in Progress LogoThe nation’s second oldest historically integrated public high school faced a steep dropout rate, scores of students repeating multiple grades and dismal test scores. But with the help of a $4.2 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), the 900-student school has cut that dropout rate in half and seen test scores rise dramatically since 2011.

Dr. Antonio Hurt, who took the helm at Douglass during the first year of the school’s SIG program, opened a night school where students can get tutoring or take credit recovery classes so they can graduate on time. He expanded a recording and media production studio and began a law program where career and technical students can train. He created a dual enrollment program where his high school students earn college credit at nearby Baltimore City Community College. Hurt removed more than half the school’s staff in the first year and hired staff focused on creating a college-going culture for every student.

Students at DouglassHurt split the school into two academies: the Academy of Innovation where students develop the courage and intellectual habits to be creative, and the Academy for Global Leadership and Public Policy, designed to graduate future leaders of government, industry and communities.

“We dug into the data. We wanted to make certain we had programs to meet the entire population of kids,” Hurt said.

After the first year of turnaround efforts, the school increased proficiency rates in English language arts from 41 percent in 2011 to 53 percent in 2012. Math proficiency rates rose from 32 percent to 44 percent. While there’s still plenty of work to be done, Hurt says the school’s 2013 numbers are promising, too.

The SIG program is a key component of the Department’s strategy for helping states and districts turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. Under the Obama Administration, more than 1,500 schools like Douglass have implemented comprehensive turnaround interventions aimed at drastically improving achievement. Despite difficult learning environments, SIG schools have increased proficiency rates in math and reading since 2009, demonstrating the importance of targeted investments over time.

Dorie Turner Nolt is press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education

Youth Succeed with Great Educators, Help from ED

Think back to that moment when you decided to pursue your dream. Who influenced your decision? A mentor? A parent? Or maybe a friend? For many people, their moment was sparked by an educator.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education (ED) welcomed four individuals to participate in an ‘ED Youth Voices’ panel discussion that introduced students, teachers, and communities to the policies and programs that the four youth credit with helping them succeed.

Let us introduce you to these inspiring individuals:

Student speaking

Linda Moktoi, senior at Trinity Washington University

Meet Linda Moktoi. As a current senior at Trinity Washington University, Moktoi is proud to say she’ll be achieving her dream of graduating college in just a few short weeks.  “I chose to pursue knowledge over ignorance,” she said. Moktoi did so with the financial support provided by Pell Grants from ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid. Moktoi’s grace, confidence, and determination shined through and will no doubt lead her to succeeding her next dream of becoming a news broadcaster.



Student speaking about GEAR UP program

Nicholas Robinson, junior at Potomac High School

Meet Nicholas Robinson. An enthusiastic junior at Potomac High School (Oxon Hill, Md.), spoke of how the early awareness college prep program GEAR UP, changed his “mind & heart” in 8th grade about whether to go to college. “Before I got involved in GEAR UP, I didn’t think I was going to college, but they were always asking me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go and who I wanted to be.” That extra support and guidance has helped Nicholas stay on track to graduate and focus on his future goals.


Educator speaking about IDEA Act

Scott Wilburn, teacher at Pulley Career Center

Meet Scott Wilbur. As a current teacher and former student that struggled with learning disabilities, Wilbur shed light on how programs funded by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) helped him as a student and continues to help him serve others with disabilities as a teacher at the Pulley Career Center in Alexandria, Va. “IDEA provided me with access to support, helped me graduate college,” Wilbur said. Each year the IDEA Act helps thousands of students with disabilities receive support to assure success in the classroom and that they have the tools needed for employment and independent living in the future.

Student speaking about School Improvement Grants

Carl Mitchell, senior at Frederick Douglass High School

Meet Carl Mitchell. Carl is just one of the many students that have benefited from the recent changes at Frederick Douglass High School spurred in part by an ED School Improvement Grant (SIG) which has helped turnaround their school and provide a better learning environment for students. Mitchell, a bright college bound senior who also doubles as the school mascot (Go Mighty Ducks!), attested to the sense of community that is fostered at Frederick Douglass. When asked what motivates him, he responded by saying “It’s not just about getting the degree for me, it’s for all the people that helped me. I owe them and don’t want to let them down.” An aspiring graphic designer, Mitchell will be the first in his family to attend college. His support team, including his principal, teachers, and peers joined him at ED as he proudly represented the Douglass community.

Linda, Nicholas, Scott, and Carl are just four of the millions of students and educators that are able to achieve their dreams with the help of great educators and federal programs from the Department of Education. Little do these individuals know though, that by sharing their story they are following in the footsteps of those who inspired them, and are inspiring us.

Kelsey Donohue is a senior at Marist College (N.Y.), and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Our next ED Youth Voices Policy Briefing Session will include students reforming education at the local level: teacher evaluations, DREAM act, school safety and more. Watch the session live on June 27th from 10-11:30am at edstream.ed.gov. 

Texas Turnaround Becomes a Model for Success

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

Secretary Duncan has said that we cannot rest until all schools are schools we would be proud to send our own children.  Unfortunately, for too many schools across our country, this imperative is not yet a reality.

However, in schools like Lee High School in Houston, TX, things are beginning to change dramatically.  As you will see in this video about the improvement story at Lee, too many parents were “scared” to send their children to school.  Too many students said things like, “I never thought I would actually go to college.”

Now, as one of over 1400 schools implementing a school turnaround model as part of ED’s revamped School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, Lee has used almost $6 million over the past three years to extend learning time for students, build a supportive college-going culture, and continuously improve instruction with a focus on enhanced achievement for all students.

In Houston’s unique Apollo 20 school turnaround model, schools also provide high-intensity, targeted support in key subjects from highly-trained and committed tutors.  The same is true of 19 other previously low-performing schools across the city that have partnered with Professor Roland Fryer and a team of researchers from Harvard University to implement and rigorously evaluate a series of specific turnaround interventions.

As I walked through the halls of Lee High with the Secretary during a visit this past February, it was hard to believe that only three years ago, students and parents had voiced serious concerns about the school’s safety and low expectations.  In the same classrooms where fights had once been regular occurrences, teachers and staff were collaborating to help students improve academically, and students were committed to reaching their dreams of college and beyond.

The results at Lee are beginning to speak for themselves: daily attendance has reached the school’s goal of 95% on average and the dropout rate has fallen by more than half (from 14% to 6%).

What is promising is that Lee is not alone. Across the country, many SIG recipients are beginning to see encouraging progress and we are beginning to notice some common threads among schools that are turning around:

  1. A strong, dynamic principal with a clearly articulated vision for a school that is designed for success;
  2. A talented staff who shares the vision and has a commitment to collaborate on the critical and complex work associated with improving instruction for all students;
  3. Ongoing use of reliable data to make informed decisions about instructional improvement and student support;
  4. Community and family engagement strategies that treat these important stakeholders as accelerators of achievement rather than as barriers.

In order to sustain these positive changes, schools and districts are partnering with local community organizations, non-profits, and businesses to continue the momentum and critical resources necessary for sustained improvement.  In Houston, for example, local philanthropic leaders have provided $17 million to support the Apollo 20 school turnaround efforts.

Because of the incredibly inspiring work of leaders, teachers, parents, and students at schools like Lee High, more parents like Jessica Broadnax can say, “A child just definitely cannot fail in this place, they just can’t!”  What we offer to our children tells them what it is we value.  When we provide support for students and we offer them hope for a brighter future, we tell them that we value them and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Deb Delisle is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

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.

Recognizing “Champions of Change” School Turnaround Leaders

Earlier today the White House welcomed more than 100 state, district, and school leaders and educators to honor 12 distinguished school turnaround leaders as “Champions of Change.”

Champions of Change logoThe educators were recognized for their roles in building a culture of high expectations, improving instruction, creating safe environments for learning, and fostering professional collaboration among many other notable efforts to elevate the quality of education in their schools.

Click here to see all the Champions of Change, or click on the names below:

Brett Bernard, Kansas City, KS

David Cicarella, Northford, CT

Kevin Gay, Hyden, KY

Jessica Gogerty, Des Moines, IA

Tanya Green, Baltimore, MD

Kristen Hayes, Washington D.C.

Carren Poff, Ontario, OR

Lusia Requenes, Kansas City, KS

David Romick, Dayton, OH

Linda St. Andre, Lewiston, ME

Wendell Waukau, Menominee, WI

Edward Wiest, Pryor, MT

Today’s event gave local leaders the opportunity to share their stories with colleagues from across the country, and included a briefing on the transformative efforts underway in struggling schools nationwide through the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) program.

The SIG program invests in locally driven efforts to turn around our nation’s persistently lowest-performing schools. These schools are characterized by consecutive years of low attendance rates, low student achievement, low graduation rates, as well as high rates of staff turnover and student disciplinary action.

Read more stories about SIG schools and the improvements they are making.

Sitting Higher Upon Camelback

As with any good school, it’s all about the students. At Imagine Elementary at Camelback in Phoenix, Marcos, a 7th-grader, says, “Being in this school really helped me out with my future . . . becoming a better student, becoming a better me.”

If you said that Imagine Elementary has made progress because of its School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the U.S. Department of Education, you would be right. You’d also be making a major understatement – kind of like saying that Phoenix’s July sunshine is warm. It’s true, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

Imagine Elementary at Camelback teachers Ivan Panchenko (left) and Ben Abel join Principal Freddie Villalon (right) and three 7th-graders inside the school’s main entrance.

Imagine Elementary at Camelback teachers Ivan Panchenko (left) and Ben Abel join Principal Freddie Villalon (right) and three 7th-graders inside the school’s main entrance.

In November 2010, Imagine Elementary’s new Principal Freddie Villalon arrived. “When I walked in,” Villalon recalls, “only 10 percent of the kids in the 3rd grade had passed the test in reading. We were identified as a failing school, one of the 15 most challenging schools in Arizona. We were looking at being closed down.”

But fall 2010 was also when SIG money from the U.S. Department of Education arrived through the Arizona Department of Education, which awarded Imagine Elementary at Camelback $2.3 million to turn around over the next three years.

Principal Villalon’s strategy was to add rigor to the curriculum while giving positive reinforcement to teachers and to students. Now half-way through the SIG timeframe, the school has a new academic culture – one of high expectations by school leadership, faculty, support staff, community, parents and, perhaps most of all, by students.

The turnaround gained momentum when Villalon noticed that a 3rd-grade reading teacher, Chandni Varma, raised her class’s performance so that 52 percent of her students met the reading standards. The principal took action. “We asked Mrs. Varma, ‘How did you go from 10 percent to 52 percent?’” Varma described her approach as one that included the art of teaching with the creative application of a commercial reading product. Villalon shared the results with other teachers and highlighted the success, demonstrating that Imagine students are capable of success.

Teachers throughout the school responded to the new culture of rewarding success in the classroom. “We highlighted those teachers that did well, we reinforced them with some bonuses, with some recognition, with some awards,” Villalon said.

Villalon is quick to point out that the success belongs to what he calls “this awesome team,” which includes his students’ parents. One strategy is to send home quarterly assessment results with certificates for students who are meeting or exceeding standards. “In our newsletters,” Villalon said, “we show bar graphs of how we did in the previous year. How we’re doing in comparison to other schools.  Every parent in my school has my personal cell phone number, so they can call me about any issue, any question.”

Angela Denning, deputy associate superintendent for school improvement and intervention for the Arizona Department of Education, worked with Principal Villalon from the start. “Before the SIG monies were awarded, there wasn’t a focus on student learning,” Denning said. “Kids would come in; kids would go out. There wasn’t pride in the school as a whole, and that came out in behaviors and test scores, and dramatic drops in attendance and participation.”

Denning believes the SIG award made the critical difference in the school’s turnaround. “Since the SIG money has been awarded, one of the biggest changes was that the charter holder itself – Imagine – came in and swarmed the school. They started to put in a support system that was absolutely necessary for students to start learning.”

The state department of education has maintained an active role from the start. “We assigned two education specialists to each one of our School Improvement Grant schools, and they came out on a regular basis, giving feedback, monitoring their progress,” Denning said.

Student Christian says that the secret to the school’s success is no secret. “It’s the hard work and dedication that the teachers put into it.”

Perhaps the most heartfelt assessment of the Imagine at Camelback success story came from Denning. “This elementary school cares about children, and they care about student learning,” Denning said. “If I had children, they’d go here.”

Editor’s note: Angela Denning has begun a new assignment as deputy associate superintendent for exceptional student services for the Arizona Department of Education.

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

Arne Duncan Gave Me Homework!

Last Wednesday, I found myself invited to a meeting at the White House with Secretary Arne Duncan and some of President Obama’s advisors.  I didn’t know I would walk away with homework!

Eleven colleagues and I were invited to discuss the Obama administration’s proposed STEM Master Teacher Corps. Previously Steve Robinson (a former science teacher and Special Assistant in the White House Domestic Policy Council) and I had shared a conversation about how my work as a teacher leader at North High School was being transformed after receiving a School Improvement Grant (SIG).  As Robinson described the Master Teacher Corps, I noticed parallels to the work I’ve been doing for the last two years.  Needless to say, I was enthusiastic about the proposal.

Jessica Gogerty, sandwiched between Arne Duncan and Presidential advisor Roberto Rodriguez, attended a White House conversation to discuss the STEM Master Teacher Corps. Photo courtesy of White House intern Bobby Dresser.

Jessica Gogerty, sandwiched between Arne Duncan and Presidential advisor Roberto Rodriguez, attended a White House conversation to discuss the STEM Master Teacher Corps. Photo courtesy of White House intern Bobby Dresser.

Empowering teachers and building their leadership capacity is critical to improving science and mathematics education in our schools. Government policy and programs can inspire and incentivize, but the people in the school must do the real work of school reform. For example, without the additional manpower and resources that North received from the SIG grant, reform would have happened much more slowly or not at all. It is easy to let tradition carry us—to allow our unchallenged belief in our capacity to determine what we will achieve—for good or ill.   SIG gave us the impetus for the necessary introspection required to improve our school.   The Master Teacher Corps has that same potential because it invests in the people, not in new or particular programs.

So, when I found myself seated between Secretary Duncan and Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the President for Education, I told the story of my school, and how the most important cultural change I see is a shift to genuine teacher collaboration around instructional practices.  In 2010, when teachers went into their own classrooms and did their own thing, we were the lowest achieving high school in the state of Iowa.  Ours is a very diverse high school with 25% of the students learning English, 29% special education students, and nearly 80% on Free and Reduced Lunch.  One year into the SIG grant, our students had gained 19 points in Reading, 19 points in Science and 11 points in Mathematics on the Iowa Test for Educational Development.  The school had the same demographics and largely the same teaching staff.  But now we had “One Vision, One Mission, One Destiny” as the instructional leadership harnessed the collaborative power of the adults in the school. We changed the master schedule twice in the first year, creating new classes, bell times and embedded times for staff collaboration and support.  We changed the attendance policy, discipline policy and the grading policy.  Teacher Leaders taught the staff how to collect and analyze data on student performance and led discussions about strategies to address deficiencies.  Teachers became empowered to help the students rise to their destiny instead of falling to their fate.

After the meeting, Secretary Duncan asked me to write up our story and send it to him. I had plenty of time to think about it at the airport since storms delayed travel.

This is what I want him to know:  The themes emerging from our national focus on school reform are reverberating at the state and district level.  The idea of teacher leadership and collaboration around instructional practice is changing the way we educate our children.  We’ve got to continue to develop an educational system that allows teachers to collaborate across the hall, across the building, across the district, across the state and across the nation.  We’re in this together and that’s the only way we will become the best educational system in the world.

Secretary Duncan, I’ve turned in my homework. I see it as extra credit though. My real assignment is to make sure all of my students get the education they deserve.

Jessica Gogerty

Jessica Gogerty is a National Board Certified Teacher, a Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and a School Improvement Leader now serving at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Duncan Kicks Off “Let’s Read! Let’s Move!”

Secretary Duncan talks with students at Vashon High in St. Louis

Secretary Duncan visited students at Vashon High School in St. Louis to kick off Lets Read! Let's Move! Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Secretary Duncan kicked off this summer’s Let’s Read! Let’s Move! series yesterday at Vashon High School in St. Louis. The program, which supports First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to fight childhood obesity, promotes summer learning and reading, as well as healthy lifestyle choices and nutrition. Duncan joined students in a summer school reading exercise, toured classrooms, and shot hoops with students in the school gym.

Secretary Duncan plays basketball at Vashon High

Duncan stopped to shoot some hoops with Vashon students. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Vashon High School is one of eleven schools in the St. Louis Public Schools undergoing a turnaround with the support of the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Vashon High School will enter its third year of turnaround this fall, and under Principal Derrick Mitchell, the school has made some encouraging progress. Once on the brink of closure, Vashon’s discipline incidents are down, attendance is up, and from 2009-10 to 2010-11, student achievement increased by 15 percentage points in both reading and math.

Other SIG schools in the St. Louis Public School district are also making noteworthy progress on these key indicators of success. The district has implemented an Office of Innovation to oversee turnaround work in its SIG schools and to provide professional development, leadership training, data tools, and other resources where they are needed most.

Click here to read more SIG stories from around the country, and click here to read about last year’s Let’s Read! Let’s Move! series which included local officials, celebrities and area elementary students. ED’s next Let’s Read! Let’s Move! event will be in early July in Washington.

Alexandra Strott is a student at Middlebury College and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

School Sees ‘Turnaround’ Progress in Just Two Years

Those questioning whether a school can dramatically turn around should look no further than Emerson Elementary School in the Argentine community of Kansas City, Kan. The school recently opened its doors to a group of local, state, and federal education officials, including Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary for policy and the head of ED’s Office of School Turnaround.

Following a tour of the school and conversations with school leadership, teachers, and students, Snyder said: “Our goal here is to understand what’s working and share that success with other schools across the country. The progress at Emerson is very encouraging.”

Just three years ago, Emerson was identified as the lowest-performing school in Kansas and was awarded a grant through the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program to implement one of four turnaround models. At Emerson, where 90% of the students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunches, over 43 percent of its students were performing in the academic warning area in math and 45 percent in the warning area in reading (compared to the state average of six percent in both subjects).

Jason Snyder visiting Emerson

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder visits Emerson Elementary in Kansas City, Kan.

Enter new principal Brett Bernard, a revamped staff, and a strong vision focused on student achievement. The school today is barely recognizable from where it was two years ago when the SIG program was first implemented. Students are engaged in meaningful instruction because of the school’s new focus on literacy instruction, data-based classroom decisions, and increased learning time connected closely to the school’s curriculum.  Moreover, thanks to robust outreach efforts by a new parent-community specialist, the community is engaged in the turnaround efforts.

But the sweeping change wasn’t without its challenges – especially early in the process.  After learning that their school was the lowest-performing in Kansas, Emerson’s teachers felt a wide range of emotions: from anger and embarrassment to uncertainty and fear. Bernard worked to convince them that they were up for the job through positive reinforcement and a can-do/no-excuses attitude. Bernard said he realized that if true change were to happen, “it had to come from within them – and from within the PLCs (Professional Learning Communities).”

Through the turnaround process, test scores have risen dramatically: newly released 2012 scores show that barely two percent of Emerson students are now in the warning area in reading.  Just as telling: enrollment has increased from 130 students to 195 students in two years, as word of the dramatic improvements has spread across the local community.

Norma Cregan, of the Kansas Department of Education, who toured Emerson along with other education officials, noted that she had witnessed a “remarkable change” since her first visit to the school in 2010. It is a change that she continues to observe in other SIG schools throughout the state.  “What we see in all our SIG schools is strong leadership and strong growth,” she said.

Superintendent Lane expressed her appreciation for the additional resources provided through the SIG grant process. “We know what works to turn around struggling schools,” Superintendent Cynthia Lane said, “and Emerson demonstrates that, with support, districts can assist struggling schools to achieve at high levels.”

Ultimately, it is schools like Emerson that serve as models for other struggling schools across the country.  “It’s encouraging to see courageous leaders, like those at Emerson, improve outcomes of students and share their strong work with others,” said Snyder.

–Patrick Kerr is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Regional Office in Kansas City

Leaders and Teachers ‘Go the Extra Mile’ to Transform Milwaukee’s Hamilton High

“Turning around schools is one of the toughest, and important, challenges we face in education,” said Jason Snyder, a deputy assistant secretary from ED, as he toured Milwaukee Public Schools’ Alexander Hamilton High School in May.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder discusses the transformation of Milwaukee Public Schools' Alexander Hamilton High School.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder discusses the transformation of Milwaukee Public Schools’ Alexander Hamilton High School with some of its students.

The school is in the midst of a transformation supported by a $750,000 federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) that began at the beginning of the school year.  The SIG has funded multiple programs to improve academic outcomes for Hamilton’s diverse, 2,000-plus student population. The projects have included an extended school day learning opportunities, professional development for educators, literacy coaching for teachers, and teachers who specialize in assisting students who are struggling with reading and math.

Hamilton also has a new leader. Principal Rosana Mateo has focused her firstyear focus on building stronger relationships with students, staff, parents and community organizations.

“Leadership is about relationships. If you don’t have strong relationships, you don’t have anything,” she said.

The early results are promising. Over the past year, proficiency for Hamilton’s 10th graders increased by nearly 16 percentage points in reading and 9 percentage points in math. Student attendance has increased, and suspensions have decreased. While Snyder agreed with Mateo’s assessment of the turnaround effort as a “work in progress,” he noted that “this is never easy work – especially in large, comprehensive high schools like Hamilton.”

“With courageous leadership and strong collaboration among staff, Hamilton is making a real difference in the lives of its students,” Snyder said. “What I heard from students is that they are more engaged and are being given an opportunity to succeed.”

For example, one of the benefits of Hamilton’s large size has long been its substantial Advanced Placement offerings, which enable high school students to learn college-level material and possibly earn college credits. Among Milwaukee schools, Hamilton has the 2nd highest number of students taking AP classes. Through SIG funding, AP students now have the opportunity to get extra support at school to succeed in those rigorous classes.

Violeta Curiel, a Hamilton senior, credited teachers for helping to inspire student growth over the past year. “They go the extra mile. They’re here on Saturdays, mornings and after school when we need extra help. They care about us, and it makes us really care about school.”

Visit Milwaukee Public Schools’ website for more information and to see more photos.

–Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office.