A day that included a super-fun stop at space camp and a bedtime story with preschoolers at a 24-hour child care center started first in Birmingham, Ala. There, on Tuesday, Secretary Duncan joined Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Mayor William Bell and 10 young men and women for a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
Participants and the audience of more than 100 that watched came from youth-serving organizations from around the Birmingham area. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Department of Education’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, moderated the conversation.
“Education is a shared responsibility,” Rev. Girton-Mitchell said as she opened the discussion, “and whichever organization you represent today, you are already a part of improving outcomes for young people.”
Sitting in a circle in the wood-paneled library of John Herbert Phillips Academy, the young men and women credited their organizations with providing them with mentors and with teaching them test-taking and public speaking skills, as well as exposing them to work opportunities in finance, auto mechanics, computer science and physical therapy.
Secretary Castro, who recently came to Washington after serving as mayor of San Antonio, Texas, pointed to the opportunities that can be created for young people when all levels and sectors of government work together, including housing, education, public safety, economic development and transportation. That’s the theory of Promise Zones, a cross-administration initiative to support high-poverty urban, rural and tribal communities.
“We want to hear from you — what do you need from us?” Castro said to the students in the circle.
Their responses echoed what we often hear from students — more extracurricular activities and access to better technology. One young man wished for professional development for teachers to help them work with students’ different learning styles. Another asked for more funding for scientific research, pointing out that American society seems to place more value on professional sports and entertainment.
President Obama established My Brother’s Keeper to ensure that all Americans — including young boys and men of color—can reach their full potential. The President recognizes that partnership is essential to improve the lives of youth, and that all members of the community need to have a role.
“Whether it’s Birmingham, Ferguson, Mo., or my hometown of Chicago,” Arne said, “we have young men — black, Latino — who have extraordinary talents, extraordinary gifts, and somehow we as a society have not let those gifts flourish.”
Huntsville’s Amazing Backyard
From Birmingham, the big blue bus rolled to Huntsville, Ala., where Arne toured the U.S. Space and Rocket Center — where Space Camp happens — and joined more than 250 middle and high school students and educators for a discussion about the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM.
Joining Arne and two STEM-focused students on the panel was astronaut Ricky Arnold, who taught middle and high school science before joining NASA. Managing a classroom was great training for Arnold’s 2009 space shuttle flight to the International Space Station, he recalled, because as a teacher, “you’ve got to be able to do a lot of things. At once. Well.”
Along with three local school districts from Madison County, Madison City, and Huntsville City, NASA and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center show students that the STEM fields offer the opportunity to invent, and reinvent, their career goals and aspirations.
“So many of the good jobs of the future…are going to require not just an understanding but a real passion” for STEM, Arne said in a hangar-like hall full of NASA memorabilia, spacecraft from past missions and simulators.
In Chattanooga, Child Care That Never Closes
We finished the tour’s second day with an evening event in Chattanooga, Tenn., where educators, community leaders and parents gathered for conversation and dinner at the Chambliss Center for Children. Chambliss has run a 24/7/365 child care program since 1969. The program serves parents who are either working or in school, and is designed to provide educational opportunities and increase school readiness for Chattanooga’s youngest learners.
After reading an e-book to kids seated on the rug of a cheery preschool classroom, Secretary Duncan and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke joined parents and teachers for a town hall. There, speakers talked personally about the benefits of high-quality early learning. Years ago, Candice Corneliussen put her children in Chambliss’ program while she — a single mom — studied to become a teacher. Now she brings her high school students to volunteer there.
Quality child care and preschool “doesn’t just help the children,” Corneliussen said. “It helps the families. We need these places all across the country.”
Indeed, the Obama administration is providing greater access to high-quality infant and toddler care through Early Head Start-child care partnership grants and has invested more than $1 billion in new federal funding for preschool. Preschool Development Grants, a new $250 million program, will help expand preschool in states and reduce waiting lists. To be awarded in December, they are a down payment on President Obama’s vision to provide quality preschool to every 4-year-old in states that want to partner on this important investment.
“I haven’t been to a state yet that doesn’t have waiting lists, sometimes in the thousands,” Secretary Duncan said at the town hall in Chattanooga. Chambliss serves 300 children and has 250 more on its waitlist, longtime director Phil Acord said.
Melanie Morris, a teacher in Hamilton County Schools, testified to the value of preschool — it gets children ready for kindergarten and, research shows, sets them up for success much later in life.
“Our kindergarten teachers fight over the students that have been in our prekindergarten programs, [because those students] are ready. They’re excited about school,” Morris said.
The key question for policymakers to ask, Arne said, is: “Do we think of education as an investment or do we think of education as an expense?” For community partners making progress in Chattanooga, as well as the working families they’re helping, the answer to that question is clear. Investing in early childhood education is the smartest investment we can make.
Meredith Bajgier is a member of the Communications Development Team in the Office of Communications and Outreach.