National Domestic Violence Awareness Month: A story about survival through education

“My life would be so much better if you were dead.”

The hate slurred its way out of his drunken mouth. His eyes were small, squinting with rage and disgust. It was a typical day – typical then was grossly defined by insults, tears, anxiety, panic attacks, and fear. In spite of the level of creativity he had employed with his words and my increasing numbness to his behavior, this felt different. I was scared. I was broken.

Today, as a survivor of emotional, verbal and psychological abuse, and in honor of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I share my story in an effort to shine a light at the still misunderstood, overlooked, under-reported, and under-resourced topic of domestic violence.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), every 9 seconds in the U.S. a woman is assaulted or beaten, and on a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. One of those calls was mine. There are many reasons people, in particular women, do not leave their abusive partners – from being afraid of being alone to feeling pressure from family and/or the community. This is especially of concern for women of color and the LGBT community. For the one in three Hispanic women who experience domestic violence in their lifetime, cultural and societal values and pressures, limited education and/or financial resources, language barrier, lack of support and immigration status can all play a role in their ability to report and survive the abuse.

I struggled with labeling myself as a victim. Many others do too. The lack of awareness and education about the issue can mask and hinder someone’s ability to recognize the warning signs and subsequently, ask for help. Furthermore, understanding what abuse is, is as critical as recognizing the different types of abuse that exist. Implications of domestic abuse are significant, including the impact this has on children. NCADV states that 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year. Little is still known about the full extent of the issue but key findings highlight the many risks and challenges that can last throughout their lives. For many others, including me, this is the hardest aspect throughout and after separation. Survivors of domestic violence, who are parents, will need to navigate the justice system for child custody or child support. This severely nuanced issue is often exacerbated by the manner in which police responds (reactive, not incredibly helpful), how abusers are prosecuted (if at all), and how victims of domestic abuse are treated in the court (often dismissed, at times demeaned). Much work still needs to be done on all fronts to increase the awareness of the serious, long-term consequences domestic abuse has on victims and their families.

What helped me survive? Put simply, education saved my life. The day of the beginning of my new chapter, I wrote notes to Arne Duncan and Alejandra Ceja, two of my friends and mentors. They, and a few others close friends, helped me reframe my narrative by believing in me and looking past my muted self. Through the empowerment that was linked to returning to school to finish my undergraduate degree and helping lead an ambitious educational, national agenda on behalf of the nation’s Latino community, I was able to see that I was more than I was made to believe. I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and work my way towards peace and forgiveness. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and while I navigate through the residue, I cannot overstate the life-changing meaning of having people see YOU, for whom you are and can be.

The work I do has given my children and me the confidence to withstand what comes next. This is also at the core of what President Obama and his administration, have done for not just me, but for millions of others – helping ensure everyone has a chance to succeed and providing people with second chances to live up to their full potential. Ensuring all children, including girls and young women, have access to an education will have an impact for generations to come. For my children, it already has:

As a survivor, guilt can set in frequently. One day I apologized to my son for working long hours, spending endless nights on homework that inevitably take me away from being present. For me, the commitment to education, both on a personal and professional level, is what will bring us out of a lingering despair and into a world of opportunity. He looked at me and said, “Mom, I’m okay. It’s okay. What you are doing…that’s far more important. You are trying to help millions of other kids who have it worse than we do.”

Recommendations for policy and service providers addressing this issue exist. It is also deeply encouraging that the Obama administration continues to address this topic through its “It’s On Us” Public Awareness Campaign to help prevent campus sexual assault, its efforts on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, a new online resource center, which includes grant opportunities, for Institutions of Higher Education, where women continue to outpace men in enrollment, federal resources and outreach activities, and its work through the establishment of the Council on Women and Girls, where I’m also a taskforce member.

What can you do to help? The National Domestic Violence Hotline features ways to get involved, including volunteering and donating to organizations that provide support for survivors. For me, working with other survivors and with advocates has been instrumental and inspiring. Every day, people are abused, dismissed, shamed and judged and it is up to all of us, to be part of the solution. Please share the resources found throughout this piece, help someone by empowering them, or simply listen or talk about the issue. It can make a world of a difference.

To learn more, including statistics, warning signs, and resources and/or if you or someone you know needs assistance, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit

Maribel Duran is a mother of two;
Chief of Staff, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics;
Member, White House’s Council on Women and Girls;
Domestic Abuse Survivor

Afro-Latin: The Many Faces of Black America

Growing up in a family of immigrants is a special experience shared by many Americans. As a child of Costa Rican and Jamaican immigrants, I learned firsthand how important it is for schools and community organizations to build bridges to new American families.


Khalilah Harris and her father Frank Nugent

I grew up with the pulse of merengue and salsa, reggae and soca music flowing both through my household and the windows to the city streets of Brooklyn, New York. Spanish was spoken fairly regularly at home and only spoken during visits to cousins and grandparents. Thankfully, in my neighborhood, just about everyone was from somewhere and building bridges between school and home designed to support the cognitive, social and emotional development of all students was a part of the fabric of the community.

We know the Black community in America is rich with many cultures and languages and has been evolving in the past few decades. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, the United States presently has the largest number of foreign-born Black people in history—a number that continues to increase. Navigating household, community and school culture can be a difficult situation for young people and it is critical schools are prepared to support our youngest new Americans.

The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (Initiative) is releasing the first in a series of tools developed in partnership with the US Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) to support educators and communities who work with Black students and families from around the world.

The fact sheet we are releasing today highlights key demographic data about where Black immigrants who are English learners are from, with careful attention to identifying languages spoken in their homes. Over 40% of students who are Black immigrants and primarily speak another language, speak Spanish. Many school district leaders are taking important steps to equip teachers and school leaders with the tools necessary to be thoughtful and effective. It is our hope this fact sheet, in addition to the forthcoming tools in the series, will support educators as they work to support the learning and development of ALL students.


Khalilah Harris during a summer visit with family in Limon, Costa Rica

During Hispanic Heritage Month and beyond, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans celebrates the richness of Latino people and culture in the United States. Like my grandmother who came to the United States with little education, leaving her children behind, temporarily, to create a safe and supportive space for them and my father who followed years later, many new Americans come to this country with a clear understanding of how education can increase access to opportunity and strengthen families in the process. The Initiative looks forward to continuing to provide tools to and partner with communities across the nation to expand educational opportunity and accelerate achievement.

Khalilah Harris is the Deputy Director, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans

Strengthening Inter-Faith Cooperation – For a Better World

Washington, Sept. 2015: Four years ago President Barack Obama launched an initiative entitled “The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge“. As the name indicates, the President challenged the Institutions of Higher Education of his country to sound out new opportunities for inter-faith dialogue and to initiate multi-faith projects for the welfare of society. So far more than 500 universities and colleges with over three million students have followed this initiative. Some of these projects are impressive examples of inter-faith cooperation, working for instance with schools in underprivileged areas or with refugees. For this year´s conference in Washington, for the first time 50 international guests from across six continents joined the 450 delegates from American universities and colleges. Altogether, 30 different nations and as many different religious backgrounds were represented. At the invitation of Dr. Kenneth Bedell from the U.S. Department of Education, Achim Härtner, E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Reutlingen School of Theology (Germany), participated, representing the United Methodist Church in the German-speaking part of Europe. At the receptions in the White House and in the Turkish Embassy, as well as in lectures and panel discussions at Howard University and George Washington University, the urgent need for cooperation across religious borders in community service was strongly emphasized. Above all, the migration crisis caused by people fleeing from war and terror are creating increasing challenges world-wide. This calls out for refugees to be supported in their distress and for new perspectives to be offered in countries far from home. During the engaging discussions, there was widespread realization that a reinforced inter-faith effort for better living conditions for as many people as possible cannot be achieved without intentional efforts. This includes the willingness to leave one’s comfort zone and to practice, in current Methodist terms, “radical hospitality”. Melissa Rogers, Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, reminded the conference of Barack Obama’s fundamental conviction: “Instead of driving us apart, religion should bring us together, for the welfare of all.“ The President himself addressed the delegates in a video message and concluded: “It’s going to take all of, as Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, believers and non-believers, to meet the challenges of the 21st century. With your help, I know we will!”

Achim Härtner,

E.-Stanley-Jones Professor of Evangelism & Christian Education Theologische Hochschule Reutlingen / Reutlingen School of Theology, Germany

Learn more about the interfaith service | |

Die Zusammenarbeit der Religionen stärken – für eine bessere Welt

Washington, Sept. 2015: Vor vier Jahren startete U.S.-Präsident Barack Obama die Initiative „The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge“, mit der er die Hochschulen seines Landes herausforderte, neue Möglichkeiten des interreligiösen Gesprächs auszuloten und religionsübergreifende Projekte zum Wohl der Gesellschaft anzustoßen. Inzwischen sind mehr als 500 Universitäten und Hochschulen mit ihren über 3 Millionen Studierenden dieser Initiative gefolgt. Manche davon können unterdessen eindrucksvolle, ja vorbildliche Beispiele interreligiöser Zusammenarbeit vorweisen, etwa in der Arbeit an Schulen in sozialen Brennpunkten oder in der Flüchtlingsarbeit. Zur diesjährigen Tagung Anfang September waren neben den rund 450 Delegierten amerikanischer Hochschuleinrichtungen erstmals auch rund 50 internationale Gäste aus allen Kontinenten gekommen; vertreten waren 30 Nationen und gerade so viele religiöse Beheimatungen. Auf Einladung von Dr. Kenneth Bedell vom U.S.-Bildungsministerium nahm der Reutlinger Religionspädagoge Prof. Achim Härtner als Vertreter der Evangelisch-methodistischen Kirche in Deutschland teil. Bei den Empfängen im Weißen Haus und in der Botschaft der Türkei, ebenso in den Vorträgen und Podiumsgesprächen an der Howard- und der George-Washington-Universität wurde die Dringlichkeit, mehr noch die Notwendigkeit eines verstärkten Miteinanders der Religionen unterstrichen. Vor allem die immer größer werdenden, weltweiten Probleme im Zusammenhang mit Migrationsströmen, ausgelöst durch Krieg und Terror, rufen dazu auf, den betroffenen Flüchtlingen in ihrer Not gemeinsam beizustehen und ihnen in der Fremde neue Lebensperspektiven zu erschließen. In den engagiert geführten Diskussionsrunden wurde allen bewusst, dass ein verstärktes interreligiöses Engagement für bessere Lebensbedingungen für möglichst viele Menschen nicht ohne eine bewusste, täglich zu erneuernde Entscheidung hierfür zu haben sein wird. Dies schließt die Bereitschaft ein, nicht in der eigenen Komfort-Zone zu verbleiben, sondern stattdessen, methodistisch gesprochen, „radikale Gastfreundschaft“ einzuüben. Präsidentenberaterin Melissa Rogers erinnerte an eine Grundüberzeugung Barack Obamas: „Anstatt, dass unsere Religionen uns auseinandertreiben, sollen sie uns zusammenbringen, zum Wohl aller.“ Der Präsident selbst wandte sich in einer Video-Botschaft an die Delegierten und schloss mit folgenden Worten: „Es braucht uns alle, Christen und Juden, Hindus und Muslime, Glaubende und Nichtglaubende, um die Herausforderungen des 21. Jahrhunderts zu meistern. Ich bin überzeugt, mir Ihrer Hilfe werden wir es schaffen!“

Achim Härtner,

E Stanley Jones Professor für Evangelismus und Christliche Bildung Theologische Hochschule Reutlingen, Deutschland

Weitere Informationen | |


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.