#RethinkSchool: Rethinking Education in the Wake of Devastation

For me, and for many, the Back-to-School season evokes nostalgia.  It is not unusual for adults and children alike to remember their first days of school as students.  As a former school teacher and principal, I recall the Back-to-School season as the most exciting time of year!  I am pleased that in my role as the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, the season continues to be full of the hope and promise of the opportunities that lie ahead.

In an effort to celebrate and commemorate this year’s return to schools, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (Initiative) visited Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of the larger U.S. Department of Education’s Rethink School Tour.  During the trip, we specifically set out to explore schools that were implementing innovation in areas including, but not limited to, STEM and workforce development with Hispanic student populations.  Over the course of 6 days I visited 5 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, 2 junior high schools, 6 high schools, 1 community college and 3 universities!  I learned a great deal, and am pleased to provide a glimpse into a number of my noteworthy experiences.

Aimee Viana visits with a student at St. Brendan High School in Miami, Florida.

In Miami, Florida, I visited a charter school, a traditional public school and a faith-based school. Each demonstrated areas in which innovation was occurring in education. For instance, at Doral Academy of Technology, school Principal Mr. Carlos Ferralls highlighted the collaboration between their high school and middle school in STEM, which had resulted in improved academic performance. I visited with students in two robotics classrooms, and saw the projects created by “future cities engineering” students, as well.  At Southwest Miami High School, school Principal Dr. Carlos Rios showcased the school’s Academy of Finance, a banking and finance program which includes a student-run credit union. At the school, I was also fortunate to visit the Florida International University (FIU) Teach program, a secondary STEM teacher preparation initiative that is a dual enrollment partnership between FIU and Miami-Dade County Public schools. At St. Brendan High School, I met the school’s principal, Dr. José Rodelgo-Bueno, and learned how the school empowers both teachers and students through innovative learning in their STEM, Medical Sciences, Law and International Business and Performing Arts Academies. During this visit, I also met with the Archdiocese of Miami Catholic Schools Office team, which included Superintendent Dr. Kim Pryzblyski, and held a roundtable discussion on the impact of innovative learning with STEM and Medical Science Academy student representatives, as well as school administrators and faculty.

At Miami Dade College and Florida International University (FIU), officials shared their latest initiatives in STEM, apprenticeships and other work-based learning opportunities.  Upon meeting with President of Miami Dade College Dr. Eduardo Padrón and members of the administration and faculty, I gained a glimpse into their MDCWorks initiative, a next-generation career center focused on career and technical education, as well as on facilitating internships and professional development opportunities.  Through MDCWorks, additional access will be provided for students to engage in career-ready apprenticeships.

My visit to FIU had numerous highlights.  Accompanied by Dr. Elizabeth Bejar, Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, I met with students, staff and faculty members and toured many of FIU’s innovative initiatives, including the STEM Transformation Institute, Tech Station, Mastery Math Lab, learned about their new Law Enforcement Apprenticeship Program and visited the Florida Power and Light Call Center, an apprenticeship partnership between FIU and Florida Power and Light Company.  Following a conversation with President of FIU Dr. Mark Rosenberg and additional senior staff and faculty, the Initiative participated in a regional convening on apprenticeships – featuring representatives from FIU, Miami Dade County Public Schools and local business leaders – where we discussed the importance of collaborative relationships between public and private sectors in creating an apprenticeship and work-based experiences pipeline in their local community. The visit to FIU concluded with a roundtable dialogue with aspiring Latina educators, who are in preparation to be STEM teachers through the FIUteach program.

Aimee Viana visits with a student at University Gardens High School in Puerto Rico.

I then traveled to Puerto Rico to visit schools in San Juan and Bayamón. In conjunction with the Department of Education of Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Dr. Julia Keleher and I visited various schools with a focus on STEM and innovation. At University Gardens High School, school Principal Denise Valderama and students were eager to share their work in astrophysics, robotics and engineering. In addition, I visited the Design Thinking program at Escuela Francisco Manrique Cabrera in Bayamón and learned more about how teachers are being empowered and trained to reshape their school environment. Led by school Principal Mrs. Rebeca Fuentes Rivera, this school is collaborating with Design Tech High School in Redwood City, CA in an exchange program, where they send teachers and students to learn more about innovative approaches to education.

While in Puerto Rico, I also had the opportunity to meet with the new president of the University of Puerto Rico, Dr. Jorge Haddock, and interim Vice President Dr. Ubaldo Córdova-Figueroa.  During this meeting, I learned about the E-ship Network being developed at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez campus, the goal of which is to expose students to entrepreneurship and innovation.  I also met with senior leadership and faculty members at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus and learned about the latest initiatives being offered for both traditional students and adult learners. Despite the impact of Hurricane Maria, I was amazed by the resiliency, adaptability and determination of the students and educators in Puerto Rico.

My Rethink School tour concluded by visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands. In coordination with the Department of Education of the U.S. Virgin Islands, I visited schools on St. Croix and St. Thomas.  During this visit, I was able to learn how the schools were managing the recovery from the damage sustained by two hurricanes last year, as both Hurricanes Irma and Maria had devastating effects on the islands.

Aimee Viana visits with preschool students at the Granny Preschool program, a pilot preschool initiative for 4 year olds in the US Virgin Islands.

In St. Croix, I was accompanied by Insular Superintendent Ms. Colleen Williams and learned more about how the schools serve Hispanic students and support the needs of English learners.  Together, we visited Alfredo Andrews Elementary School, Claude O. Markoe Elementary School and Pearl B. Larsen Elementary School.  I also had the opportunity to visit the sites of their pilot preschool initiative, Granny Pre-school Program for 4 year olds, and learned about how this new program serves their youngest students and their families.  I also had the opportunity to visit John H. Woodson Jr. High School and learn about ways in which they support English learners and motivate their students through participation in the AVID program.

In St. Thomas, accompanied by Insular Superintendent Dionne Wells-Hedrington, I visited Joseph Sibilly Elementary School, and learned more about how teachers and students are utilizing the iReady Program to determine individual student progress and monitor improvement.  I also had the opportunity to witness how school campuses were being created from the ground up through modular classrooms and other temporary structures at the Charlotte Amalie High School campus for Addelita Cancryn Junior High School and Lockhart Elementary School.  The effort to adapt and innovate in order to provide students with a safe learning environment while recovering from the devastating effects of last year’s storms was noteworthy. For instance, officials discussed how teachers played a role in designing their modular classrooms to best meet their needs.

The final stop of the Back-to-School Tour was the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas Campus.  There, I had the opportunity to meet with Vice President for Business Development and Innovation Dr. Haldone Davies and other administrators and faculty.  While Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused widespread damage on the U. S. Virgin Islands, I was impressed by their commitment to innovate and utilize their rebuilding efforts to rethink the ways in which the university supports its students and impacts its local economy.

Despite the extensive recovery process, I was impressed by the tenacity and perseverance of administrators and teachers as they worked tirelessly to get schools ready for teaching and learning.  While they have much work to do in recovery, they have seen an opportunity to innovate as they rebuild and the Initiative looks forward to see their continual progress.

Our Back-to-School tour allowed us to highlight ways in which schools are rethinking their approaches to serving and supporting students.  At each of the site visits, I was pleased to see that teachers and students were provided with opportunities that recognize their promise, potential and hope to succeed.  I witnessed first-hand innovation and commitment by schools to ignite love of learning through education within a variety of school options, from pre-school through postsecondary education.  I look forward to seeing the continual progress of these inventive programs and initiatives as they work to ensure pathways to prosperity are open and accessible for Hispanic students – and all students.


Aimee Viana is the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics at the U.S. Department of Education.

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Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.