An Empty Desk is an Opportunity Missed

When students miss class, not only do they lose out on important instructional time, but they also miss opportunities to build critical connections with other students and adults. While students are identified as truant when they miss multiple unexcused days of school in a row, students who miss many non-sequential days (excused or unexcused) can fly under the radar. When these absences add up to more or a month or more of school, students are considered “chronically absent.”

At a national level, an estimated 7.5 million students are considered chronically absent each year. In some states, this translates to 1 in 5 students that do not regularly attend.

While missing one or two days of school each month may seem like a non-issue, time away can quickly accumulate and negatively impact mathematics and reading achievement during that school year as well as in the years that follow. For example, chronic absence in kindergarten has a negative impact on academic performance and socio-emotional skills, critical building blocks to success.

“Students cannot learn or develop or demonstrate how brilliant they are if they are not in school on time every day,” said David Johns, executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. “It is essential that all caring and concerned adults help ensure our students show up, feel safe and are engaged in the spaces they need to move through daily.”

African American youth are more likely to miss school as they face more barriers to attendance, such as logistical challenges (think unreliable transportation), school suspension/expulsion or residential instability (consider homelessness or frequent moves). Fortunately, there is an old proverb that guides us to the solution: it takes a village to ensure that all children, especially African American children are present in order to learn and develop on a consistent basis.

To increase attendance and reduce the impact of chronic absence we must identify students who are or may be at risk of chronic absence and  design an intervention that best meets their need.

A new report from Attendance Works and Healthy Schools Campaign, Mapping the Early Attendance Gaps, found that chronic absence is a problem in every state, with kindergartners missing nearly as much school as teenagers. The study also found that excused absences contribute to many of these missed days. For example, students miss 14 million days a year to asthma, a condition that afflicts African American students at higher rates than other students. Dental problems lead to another 2 million missed days each year.

“Too often, absences aren’t seen as a problem as long as they’re excused,” said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works. “Or schools and families only worry when a child misses several days in a row and fail to recognize the cumulative impact of missing a day every couple weeks. In fact, research shows all absences matter for student success.”

“As a school leader we constantly had to remind parents that high school was not the time to be hands off with their scholars.” said Khalilah Harris, deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. “It was critical for us to use tools like advisory and restorative circles to ensure every student felt safe and had at least one, if not more, adult who knew them well enough to notice and intervene when something was wrong and to celebrate when something was really right.”

Reaching the 7.5 million students who aren’t in their seats is possible and change begins with each of us. Tell your schools to collect data and identify students who need our support. Reach out and form a relationship that can make a lasting difference. Once you have made that connection, reach out to another caring and concerned adult to do the same. An empty desk is an opportunity missed, but the opportunities in a filled classroom with adults monitoring and championing students behind the scenes are limitless.

Lauren Mims is a graduate student at the University of Virginia and a fellow with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: How IDEA Public Schools is Closing the Gap

Cross-posted from the Office of Innovation and Improvement blog.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and Secretary Duncan’s visit to South Texas, today we are highlighting IDEA Public Schools, a Texas-based Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) grantee that’s been recognized for helping Latinos, particularly English language learners, make strong achievement gains. Just last month, the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics named IDEA a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education.

In 2012, IDEA won a Race to the Top – District (RTT–D) award aimed at personalizing student learning and closing achievement gaps. IDEA is also a past recipient of an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant and grants from OII’s Charter Schools Program. IDEA’s network serves approximately 24,000 students in 44 public charter schools across Texas. More than 90 percent are Hispanic, and a third are still acquiring English speaking, reading, and writing skills.

For nine consecutive years, 100 percent of IDEA’s graduating seniors have been accepted to college, and achievement scores have consistently been above the state’s average. We checked in with Tricia Lopez, IDEA’s Director of Special Programs, about what’s behind the network’s success and how the RTT–D grant has been helping the network meet its goals.

Meeting Local Needs and Personalizing Learning

Author and illustrator Patricia Polacco speaks to IDEA Public Schools students in Texas’ Mid-Valley.

Author and illustrator Patricia Polacco speaks to IDEA Public Schools students in Texas’ Mid-Valley.

The 2012 RTT–D grant came during a critical period for the network. Around that time, IDEA was experiencing increased demand for its schools, particularly from students with limited English proficiency, according to Lopez. “The grant came at an important time, and it helped us to really step back and think strategically about how we were serving this population,” she said.

To help their English language learners, IDEA educators and leaders have created personalized learning experiences that differentiate instruction for each English language learner. IDEA uses adaptive technology designed for kids learning English and assesses their individual reading, writing, and speaking skills and helps them improve at the appropriate pace.

“This differentiation is critical. I could have 50 English language learners in a grade. They can range from having not one word of English to being pretty far along in terms of their language acquisition, but not quite fluent. It only makes sense to vary their instruction, but that doesn’t always happen in schools,” Lopez said.

Supporting Teachers

The RTT–D grant has also helped IDEA with teacher training, particularly making sure educators have the tools and background they need to close gaps between English language learners and their peers. The grant has helped pay for teachers across grades to receive in-person and online training in “sheltered instruction,” which gives general education classroom teachers specific training in working with students still acquiring English language skills to access grade-level content.

“It touches on things like: what kind of materials you should have in your classroom; what kind of strategies you should use for math; the value of word walls; having more frequent checks for understanding; and giving students more time to answer questions,” Lopez said. “These are common sense but not necessarily intuitive, especially for teachers early in their careers. It has to be on your radar, and the training helps with that.”

These efforts are paying off. Scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) for ELL students rose by double digits over the past two years, faster growth than for any other subgroup of students in the network. As it continues to progress, IDEA is proving that when given the right supports, all students—no matter their background or first language—can learn and succeed.

Every Student, Every Day

Danny wasn’t coming to school. When he would come, he sat quietly in his seat, eyes downcast. His academic advisor had noticed he was in school less and less and was disconnected. She followed a ladder of intervention, which guided her to reach out to his teachers and the guidance counselor. As his advisor, she knew her students well, because she cycled with them for all four years of high school. When Danny wasn’t in class, the entire school team engaged in supporting his return.

Today, the U.S. Department of Education—in partnership with the US Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice—launch Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism to raise awareness about our national chronic absenteeism problem and to support states, school districts, communities, and schools that are committed to solving this problem. Typically defined as missing at least 10% or more of school days in a year for any reason, excused or unexcused, chronic absenteeism affects as many as 7.5 million kids a year and is a strong predictor of low academic achievement and high school drop out.

It is common knowledge that in order to learn, kids need to be in school. Yet, Danny’s story is familiar to all of us. Many of our children are not attending school on a regular basis, causing them to fall further behind.

Children cannot be anonymous. Oftentimes, if a child has been away from school for an extended period of time, they fear returning. When they enter class, they are so far behind, it seems impossible to catch up. And so the cycle continues. They no longer return to school – they are further removed from learning, disenfranchised and lost.

The teacher action plan is one example of how a school provided guidance to all educators in the building to support students. The counselor worked with social services and arranged home visits. We learned that Danny was a homeless gay youth, struggling with his identity and his family. There were many obstacles stopping Danny from coming to school.

In the end? Danny graduated and went to college. He emailed his advisor and guidance counselor, telling them “you saved my life. Thank you.” For a young man who was lost in the world, school gave him an anchor. His teachers noticed, and his counselor provided supports.

This approach is critical to combatting chronic absenteeism. It wasn’t just that his teachers cared. It was that the school had a comprehensive, clear system to help all stakeholders support this child. Teachers could follow a plan that they had a voice in crafting.

It truly takes a village to raise a child. We talk a lot about college and career readiness, but if the child is not sitting in his seat in school, he cannot learn. This story is the story of my school, and how through teacher leadership, a team approach, and a commitment to teaching the whole child, we were able to help this young man achieve his potential. What’s your story? How can we help all our children get to school, and stay there, every day?

To learn more about Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism, please visit:

 Alicia Pérez-Katz is a Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Calling All Dads: Nationwide Efforts Highlight Ways Fathers Can Get More Involved in Their Children’s Education

With another school year underway, student success in the classroom depends in large part upon family engagement. Children thrive when parents and caretakers are more involved in their child’s education. Throughout the country, state and local governments, organizations, and schools are working hard to involve parents – and fathers in particular – in the success of all students.

Fathers of PS 37Q students.

Fathers of PS 37Q students.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Family and Community Engagement team released a new parent checklist to give families the right tools and appropriate questions to ask as they become more engaged. To the extent that it’s possible, it is important that both parents – mothers and fathers – are involved during this process.

Fathers of students at PS MS147Q.

Fathers of students at PS MS147Q.

President Obama has frequently stressed the importance of “responsible fatherhood” in remarks about his own personal experience and the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. Other tools such as are valuable resources to dads who want to become more involved.

In New York, the New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) has partnered with HHS, ED and other federal partners to sponsor the annual Dads Take Your Child to School Day. The yearly September event reaches hundreds of schools and thousands of fathers and father figures throughout the State and provides them with the tools they need to become active partners in their children’s lives and education.

Through this initiative, fathers and mentors participate in various motivational training sessions that help build a strong bond between father and child. Fathers are introduced to leaders in the national, state and local “responsible fatherhood” movement and learn about resources that will help them support the positive educational growth for their children.

The saying that “It takes a village to raise a child” continues to resonate because there is real truth in those words. When fathers are more engaged in the education of their children, these same children have the opportunity to become the nation’s next great leaders.

For additional information, visit the Dads Take Your Child to School Day website or view the 2015 public service announcement.

Taylor Ramsey is an Education Program Specialist in the Department of Education’s Region 2 and Scott Leach is Director of the Fatherhood Initiative, NYC Department of Youth and Community Development.

An Inspiring New Leader for Our Extraordinary Team

Earlier today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent the following email to U.S. Department of Education staff:

Dear colleagues,

I’m writing to tell you two things. First, what is for me some bittersweet news: after several months of commuting between my family in Chicago and my job here in DC, I have made the decision to step down in December.

Second, and very happily, President Obama has asked our delegated Deputy Secretary John King Jr. to step into my role when I leave. An announcement to that effect went out from the White House a few minutes ago. President Obama will give a press conference on the transition at 3:30 this afternoon, and you’re invited to watch the live stream.

Serving the President in the work of expanding opportunity for students throughout this country has been the greatest honor of my life. Doing so alongside people of the brilliance, ability and moral conviction of the team here at ED has been nothing short of thrilling. We have been lucky to have an amazing team here from Day One, but I honestly believe our team today is the strongest it’s ever been. So it’s with real sadness that I have come to recognize that being apart from my family has become too much of a strain, and it is time for me to step aside and give a new leader a chance. I haven’t talked with anyone about what I’ll do next, and probably won’t for a little while – I’m simply returning to Chicago to live with my family. I imagine my next steps will continue to involve the work of expanding opportunity for children, but I have no idea what that will look like yet.

What gives me peace with this decision, and I hope comes as a reassurance to everyone here, is the extraordinary talent of John and our leadership team. John comes to this role with a record of exceptional accomplishment as a lifelong educator – a teacher, a school leader, and a leader of school systems, most recently as Commissioner of Education in New York State before he joined our team. Over the years that I have known him, and especially in the months we have worked together here, I’ve come to recognize John as one of the most passionate, courageous, clear-headed leaders in our field. His talent is such that he will become one of the youngest Cabinet members in American history. (I encourage you to read his remarkable personal story, which he laid out in a Huffington Post article a few years ago.)

The team here is extraordinary. Each of our offices is headed by a genuine national leader from whom I’ve learned enormously, and at the center of that team is a senior leadership I’ve depended upon daily – in addition to John, our Under Secretary Ted Mitchell, a visionary whose ideas and moral force are helping to change the landscape of opportunity in higher education; and my Chief of Staff, Emma Vadehra, who understands how to accomplish change in education as well as anyone else in this country. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to announce a replacement for John to carry out the duties of Deputy Secretary soon, and I owe this team enormous thanks for their dedication and sacrifice.

I owe a similarly profound thanks to each of you. The work of this Department is exceptionally ambitious – to ensure that every student in this country enjoys genuine opportunity to learn, to grow, to excel. As a comparatively small team, often under challenging conditions and timelines, our staff has continued to offer example after example of dedication beyond the call of duty. I’m honored to have led you, and delighted by what good hands this Department will be in. I ask each of you that you offer John and his team the same commitment I’ve witnessed from you.

As I think about our shared work here, and about what it has meant to spend seven years serving the President and the country, I think about two students I’ve met in recent years. The first is Brandon, a young man I met at a round table discussion in Denver as part of My Brother’s Keeper. Brandon told a story I will never forget, about how his life had slipped off the tracks in elementary school. He had scrawled graffiti in a bathroom stall when he was 11 years old. His school, which had zero tolerance discipline policies, called the police, and he ended up being sentenced to pick up trash along the highway alongside adult criminals. He also ended up with a criminal record, and years later, when he tried to become a police officer, the department turned him away because of that record. For me, Brandon will always be a reminder of the distance we have to go as adults, to do right by our young people.

The second person is Russhaun Johnson. Russhaun had the deck stacked against him growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. His dad wasn’t around; he lived with his mom, who was a drug addict, until she was incarcerated for more than four years while he was in middle and high school. No one in his family was there for him, and many nights, he slept on park benches. He described himself as “two steps behind” from the start in school. What got Russhaun on a track to success, he says, was his teachers and counselors, who helped him see himself as the brilliant young man he is. He’s now an accomplished poet, and the president of his senior class. A few weeks ago, the whole country had the opportunity to witness his brilliance, as he introduced President Obama to a cheering crowd on the first day of our bus tour. Russhaun told the audience he is planning to go to college to become a teacher, because he wants to offer a next generation of young people the possibility that the caring educators around him helped him see in himself. He is an example, to me, of what can go right for our children when our schools understand who they can become – and act on that knowledge.

When I think about the life paths of these two young people, I know that no one will fight harder for students like them than John King and the team he will lead here. I thank you for being part of that team, and promise you that you are in good hands.


HBCU All-Star Reflects on the 2015 National HBCU Week Conference: A Movement of Change, a Message of Hope

The recent White House initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Conference Week (Sep 21-22) was a gathering of institutions, organizations, agencies, and supporters committed to academic excellence and sustainable growth for African American institutions of higher learning. Government officials, college and university presidents, as well as student leaders gathered from around the world for the cause of HBCU advancement.  There was an undeniable electric sense of hope in the air during the event. In spite of financial hardships, HBCU’s continue to produce first class scholars in fields such as STEM, Medicine, and Liberal Arts.

The conference is more than just an annual gathering.   It represents a movement that will poise our nation to better compete in the global economy. During an intimate conversation with this year’s HBCU All-Stars, Secretary Arne Duncan encouraged us to return to our campuses and our homes with a mission to invest in our educational communities as agents of change.

Vice-President Biden continued the same sentiment in his speech as he reminded us of the unique privileges that extend far beyond the classroom for HBCU students. HBCUs, he said, help build character, produce great leaders, and instill hope.

It is truly my honor to be selected amongst my fellow scholars as a 2015-16 Student Ambassador for the White House Initiative on HBCUs. I am excited to not only represent the Interdenominational Theological Center, but also continue the legacy of promoting educational excellence, sustainable growth and social consciousness for our academic communities. Through this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we are given the chance to being the change we desire to see, and using our education and experiences to better our campuses, communities, and ultimately the world.

Click here to learn more about the HBCU All-Star Students Program.

Nathalie Nelson is a 2015-2016 HBCU All-Star and attends the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Ga.

New Tool Kit Provides Resources to Teach Children Learning English

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the completion of the English Learner Tool Kit, designed to support educators in ensuring equal access to a high-quality education for English Learners (EL). This tool kit complements the English Learner Guidance that was released in January 2015 by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to remind states and school districts of their civil rights obligations to EL students and Limited English Proficient parents.

The tool kit was unveiled at Bruce Monroe Elementary School at Park View in Washington, D.C. On hand at the event were Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department; District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson; and John King, the Education Department’s senior advisor delegated duties of deputy secretary of education.

As teachers who work at the Department of Education as Teaching Ambassador Fellows, we are excited about the access this tool kit gives educators to clear-cut guidance and research on best practices in the field.

The EL Tool Kit is divided into chapters on topics such as identifying all English Learners, addressing English Learners with disabilities, and evaluating the effectiveness of a school district’s program. Each chapter can be downloaded separately and information is grouped into easy-to-find topics. For each chapter, there are key points and examples, as well as adaptations of and links to resources created and maintained by public and private organizations. By bringing together all these resources into one easy-to-use location, teachers, principals, and districts have an accessible tool kit full of free resources.

ED's John King talking with educators about the Tool Kit.

ED’s John King talking with educators about the Tool Kit.

Across the country, public school teachers serve more than 5 million ELs. As teachers ourselves, we can attest that being given a tool that provides support for closing the achievement gap between ELs and native English speakers is invaluable. Looking at this new resource, we are reminded of the many EL students who have sat in our classrooms, bringing with them a rich diversity of languages, cultures, and experiences. As educators, we are hopeful that this new resource will make it less complicated to find answers about how to best meet the needs of our students and provide them with every opportunity to reach their fullest potential.

Aman Dhanda and JoLisa Hoover are Teaching Ambassador Fellows with the U.S. Department of Education.

College Programs for Students with Disabilities Are “Changing Culture”


For too many kids in classrooms like mine in New Haven, Conn., disabilities can be sources of shame, indicators of what students can’t do, instead of what they can. As part of the Department’s Ready for Success bus tour, I got to see two universities where students with disabilities are not just enrolled in college, they’re thriving, finding success academically and socially in a way that many never could have imagined.

Staff at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Central Missouri go beyond procedural compliance to provide, what Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs, called an “on-ramp to the rest of our kids’ lives.” Federal data suggests that students with disabilities are less likely to attend four-year colleges than their peers; these examples prove that doesn’t have to be the case.

Meridith Bradford said college counselors at her New Jersey high school “said I was crazy” when she shared her plan to attend a four-year college. With the support of the University of Illinois’ Beckwith Residential Support Services program, Bradford, who has cerebral palsy, is now a senior and one of the student managers for the university’s wheelchair basketball teams.


“When I was in high school, I had an aide follow me everywhere whether I liked it or not,” Bradford said. “When I get my college degree, I know it’ll be me getting it under my own power.”

The 26 students with severe physical disabilities in the Beckwith program live in an accessible dorm and hire a team of personal assistants who help them with daily living tasks like eating and dressing. “If I would’ve gone anywhere else, I would’ve had to have lived at home,” said Dan Escalona, a sports columnist for The Daily Illini who has muscular dystrophy. “The independence aspect is a big reason why I came.”

Today, students with disabilities at the University of Illinois graduate at about the same rate as others in their same programs, according to Tanya Gallagher, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences.

Meanwhile, at the University of Central Missouri, students with intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities are learning to lead independent lives.

Julie Warm knew she wanted her daughter, Mary, who has Down syndrome, to attend college ever since Mary was in first grade. She also knew that no appropriate program existed.

She reached out to 19 area universities before she connected with Dr. Joyce Downing, a professor in UCM’s College of Education, who was enthusiastic about designing a program.

Today, Mary, 23, is an alumnus of the university’s THRIVE program and is studying to be a preschool assistant teacher, so she can “teach kids to accept people and not grow up to be bullies,” she said.

Students in the THRIVE program live together and take a range of classes, both in the university and customized to their needs. They also take on two internships in fields of interest and experience counseling to develop their life and social skills.

“In the past, schools would’ve put them in a vocational role,” said Michael Brunkhorst, one of the instructors with the THRIVE program. “I say, raise those expectations because all of our students have proven that they can do much more than was thought they could do.”

Programs like these involve “changing a culture,” said Michael Yudin, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the U.S. Department of Education.“It’s more than just providing services to students with disabilities,” he said. “It’s about the value and talent that these individuals can contribute to our society.”

After these visits, one of my first tasks upon returning to school was to welcome a new fifth grader with an individualized education plan. My experiences at these universities left me hopeful that by the time he graduates, more universities will have programs like these that go above and beyond to harness students’ talents for the good of us all.

Matt Presser is an Instructional Literacy Coach at King/Robinson School in New Haven, Conn., and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

During Hispanic Heritage Month and Every Day, #LatinosTeach!

Today, nearly one in four students in our nation’s public elementary and secondary schools is Hispanic. Yet, less than one in 10 teachers—or roughly just 8 percent of America’s teaching force—is Hispanic. As the Hispanic population grows, it’s critically important that our teacher workforce reflects our increasingly diverse nation. Hispanic children can benefit by being taught by educators who share their experiences and culture. But it’s also important for all students to learn from teachers who are diverse, dedicated, and passionate.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, during the week of Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics is launching a Latinos Teach digital campaign, highlighting Hispanic educators and encouraging more Latinos to consider careers in teaching.

Every parent knows the difference a great teacher makes. And research shows the enormous good that skilled, well-trained teachers can do. Throughout this week, the Initiative will feature online profiles of caring and committed professionals who serve in our schools and inspire young people to achieve their greatest potential.

As a part of this effort, Dr. Jill Biden and Erica Castro, wife of U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro—both teachers themselves—have spoken about the important work that educators do each day. In a video released today, Dr. Biden and Mrs. Castro encourage Latino teachers to tell their story and ask others to share the story of a Latino teacher in their lives, using the hashtag #LatinosTeach.

Watch the video, engage in the discussion on Twitter, and consider becoming involved in the Latinos Teach movement by committing to a career in education.

“A teacher can have a powerful impact on Hispanic students; not just sharing knowledge and helping them grow, but also serving as a role model,” noted Alejandra Ceja, executive director of the Initiative. “We are grateful for the leadership and dedication of the many talented Hispanic teachers in our nation’s schools; and through the #LatinosTeach campaign, we hope to inspire even more Latinos to consider the teaching profession as a way to give back to their communities.”

For more information about the Initiative and other efforts celebrating its 25th Anniversary Year of Action and Hispanic Heritage Month, visit

White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans Launches Film Screening and Discussion Series at the White House


On September 21, nearly 100 high school students from Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia gathered at the White House to participate in the launch of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans’ (Initiative) Screening and Discussion Series (AfAmEdFilms). Panelists who spoke during the event include: Robin Hauser Reynolds, Director of Code: Debugging the Gender Gap; Dr. Kimberlyn Leary, Senior Advisor to the White House Council on Women and Girls; Dr. Kamau Bobb, Program Director and Directorate for Computer and Information Science & Engineering at the National Science Foundation; and Chiamaka Okoroha of Microsoft.

AfAmEdFilms will highlight films and multimedia that disrupt negative stereotypes and depict positive and compelling stories of African American students, families, and communities striving for academic excellence. AfAmEdFilms will also encourage active engagement and showcase resources to facilitate opportunities for caring and concerned adults to support the learning and development of African Americans. The first film, Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, discussed racial and gender disparities in STEM programs and careers and provided a platform for a solutions-oriented discussion of ways to increase access and opportunity to the STEM pipeline for Black youth. The film supports several priorities of President Obama’s administration including efforts to increase access to and success in STEM courses and careers and supporting women and girls of color.

Megan Smith, United States Chief Technology Officer Policy, provided opening remarks, encouraging students to see the “magic in technology, math and science.” Kimberly Bryant, Founder of Black Girls Code, addressed the audience, arguing that the solution to increasing the number of Black women and girls in STEM is to, “get girls interested in coding early on, so we can change the pipeline. The future is literally in your hands, and it will be written in code. There is no knowledge gap, just an opportunity gap,” she said.

During the panel discussion following the screening, of CODE David Johns, Initiative Executive Director, highlighted how the Initiative is increasing STEM success, including by collaborating with the National Science Foundation to ensure that students have access to Computer Science, Algebra, and other gateway courses required for success in STEM.

Miaela N. Thomas, M.S., School Counselor of Frederick Douglass High School, watched a transformation in her student as the youngest panel member, recent Computer Science graduate Chiamaka Okoroha, spoke on the panel. “The look in her eyes was something I’d never seen before and when she said, ‘I want to take a picture with her and meet her, I knew then that she had finalized what she wanted to major in when she goes to college,” she said.

Johns closed by reminding the students they are obligated to graduate from college; find their passion by celebrating and creating things that interest and move them; and use their brilliance for good—to improve our communities and our country.

Each month, the AfAmEdFilm Series will highlight an important theme in the field of African American education. For more information visit

Additional Films included in the AfAmEdFilms Series are as follows:

He Named Me Malala
The Souls of Black Girls


The Rule

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete



The E-Word: A Documentary on the Ebonics Debate

MPAA: American Promise

The Homestretch

(Please note: This list is not exhaustive and subject to change.)

Federal Agencies Moving Hispanics Forward

Throughout his time in office, President Obama has called on leaders from all sectors to help ensure our country’s future. In the spirit of this shared responsibility, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics this week released a series of commitments, a new report and a set of education data plans outlining the Obama Administration’s work to improve the lives of the 55 million Hispanics who live in the United States—whether through increased access to high-quality early learning and STEM education, more grants to Hispanic-serving colleges, more opportunities to participate in the internships or greater apprenticeships with small businesses.

These efforts highlight over 350 activities, programs and initiatives supporting the educational attainment of our country’s students, including Hispanics. The announcement of Commitments to Action signifies the federal agencies’ steadfast dedication on behalf of the largest, youngest and arguably the fastest-growing population in the nation. The report summarizes the Federal Interagency Working Group on Educational Excellence for Hispanics’ efforts to help ensure federal investments, programs, and opportunities are effectively shared with the Hispanic community, assess and suggest improvements to federal policies, regulations and programs that apply to Hispanic students and communities, and ensure efforts and funding reflect the diversity of the nation’s population and the growing number of Hispanic Serving Institutions while strengthening the link between the Federal government and the nation’s Hispanic communities.

Today, nearly one in four students in our nation’s public schools is a Hispanic youth. Making sure these young people have the opportunity to achieve their dreams isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s also a matter of our shared success as a country. In just the next few decades, Hispanics will represent nearly one in three American workers. It’s clear; the future of our nation is closely connected to the future of our Hispanic communities.

To help move the Latino community and the nation forward, the Initiative issued a national call of action to the public and private sectors. Recognizing that Latinos must continue to graduate from high school college and career ready, and in even greater numbers, having access to quality, well-rounded learning experiences in our public schools with support at the federal, state, and local levels is critical.

This Hispanic Heritage Month marks the 25th anniversary of the existence of the Initiative. The Initiative was originally established by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 to address the educational disparities faced by the Hispanic community. Since then, the Hispanic community has been recognized by multiple presidents and more recently by President Barack Obama through the renewal of the Initiative.

Maribel Duran is the Chief of Staff for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and leads the Federal Interagency Working Group on Educational Excellence efforts.

Starting Early: Connecting Culture and Language to Student Success


During my recent visit to Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u Iki Public Charter School on Hawaii Island, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with students of all ages, teachers, parents and administrators. As is normally the custom, I was greeted by the students and teachers with a welcome protocol (chant and song). I have visited a few Hawaiian immersion and medium schools over the years, and I am always touched by this expression of “aloha.” The school’s entire program from infant and toddler through grade 12 is an integrated laboratory school program for the state’s Hawaiian language college in Hilo. The entire system and similar schools statewide grew out of the community-driven Punana Leo Hawaiian language preschools. Nawahi is a Hawaiian medium school and the students are taught in Hawaiian.

— Kiran Ahuja (@KiranAhujaAAPI) September 21, 2015

In March 2014, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao Public Charter School in Waianae on Oahu Island – his first trip to Hawaii as Secretary. He met with Native Hawaiian educators and learned about the incredible efforts to not only preserve the Hawaiian language, but also link language and culture to improving educational outcomes for Native Hawaiian students. Another important component for improving outcomes for Native Hawaiian students is investing in early education. Hawaii was awarded a $2 million Preschool Development Grant this year as part of their four-year $15 million plan to develop a state preschool system and provide high-quality preschool for children from families at our below the 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line. The preschool funding also targets unique preschool efforts that focus on Hawaiian language and culture, and Nawahi is one of the first sites utilizing this grant to draw more students into their current preschool Hawaiian medium program. The state has plans to provide high-quality preschool in 18 classrooms in high-need communities throughout the state for approximately 900 children from low-income families by the end of 2018, if funding is not cut by Congress.

Expanding access to high-quality preschool is critically important to ensuring that every child in America has the opportunity for lifelong success. Despite the evidence showing the importance of early learning, House and Senate committees have authored spending bills that eliminate Preschool Development Grants, a program that is in the middle of building and expanding high-quality preschool in over 200 high-need communities across 18 states that span the geographic and political spectrum.

Eliminating the Preschool Development Grants program would mean a loss of high-quality preschool for more than 720 children from low-income families in Hawaii over the next two years. In Keaau, and throughout Hawaii and our nation, there is still a huge unmet need for high-quality preschool for all our children. Our hope is that every child, regardless of circumstances, succeeds in school and in life. High-quality preschool programs, like the one I saw at Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u Iki Public Charter School, provide the benefits of early education – proven to be an important first step in improving the life trajectory of a young person’s life.

Kiran Ahuja is Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.