Teachers@ED: Lisa Vazquez, Information Resource Specialist

A passion for empowering individuals guided Lisa Vazquez’s teaching career throughout a broad range of schools and subjects. Her diverse skill set and varied teaching experiences enabled her to develop novel, “outside-the-box” techniques for empowering students and encouraging them to take on challenges in creative ways. This spirit was evident in one of Vazquez’s more creative lessons, which challenged one of her Chicago classes to combine writing, community service, performance and activism into a single project.

Teachers@ED Logo“For me, it’s important to understand that, no matter what your age is, you have the ability to act, to accomplish something, to effect change,” Vazquez said in an interview for Teachers@ED, an occasional series on the ED Blog that highlights current and former teachers working at the Department of Education.

Vazquez’s students were required to find, in her words, “some topic, some issue that they knew about from personal experience, something they cared strongly about.”

“They needed to figure out who their audience was, what their message was, and they had to write or create original poetry that spoke to that experience.”

These poems were then performed in each student’s community. The students also had to incorporate community service into the project, record their service hours, and present an account of their final project to the class.

Lisa (second from the left) holds a discussion with her 7th grade class.

“I wanted them to understand how poetry, or art, could effect change,” Vazquez said. “It could be a tool in and of itself. “

Originally from Chicago, Vazquez has taught English, writing and drama at all levels of education, from kindergarten to graduate-level university students. A former teacher in the Chicago public school system, Vazquez also has taught English and helped students conceive and write theatrical productions in Uruguay. Vazquez was especially adept at forging relationships between her Uruguayan students and exceptional individuals from the country, including the survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crash that inspired the film Alive.

At ED, Vazquez works in the Information Resource Center (IRC), where she handles customer inquiries, complaints, questions, comments, problems, or, as she says, “anything to do with the Department of Education, from every constituent.” Vazquez works to answer questions from education stakeholders—including parents, teachers, administrators, congressional offices, and general taxpayers—and to connect those stakeholders with accurate and accessible resources.

“We really work to provide information in a way that is easily accessible to whoever the [stakeholder] is,” Vazquez said. As a self-described “communications person,” she also works on teacher outreach and helped organize the Summer Seminar Series for Teachers.

Just as she found ways for her students to communicate their ideas through writing or performance, Vazquez works to ensure ED’s work is transparent and available to the public. Her background as a teacher helps her bridge the knowledge gap between education stakeholders and ED.

“I can relate to educators or parents because I’ve been in a similar situation before,” Vazquez said. “I have a context for understanding what someone’s talking to me about, so I can articulate the Department of Education perspective to them from within that framework.”

While Vazquez says she enjoys her work here at ED, she does miss some aspects of her old job—in particular, helping students empower themselves.

“Everyone needs to have that ‘a-ha moment,’ ” she said, “that moment that brings that sense of accomplishment—the belief that ‘I am doing something,’ which propels someone to move forward in life.”

Duncan Greets Students on First Day of School

(Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover)

For many high school students, the first day of school usually involves shuffling through the halls trying to find next period’s classroom and comparing class schedules with friends, but for students at Eastern High in Washington, DC, the first day also involved a warm welcome from Secretary Arne Duncan, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

After greeting the students and touring the school’s facilities, Secretary Duncan addressed Eastern’s student body with an inspiring address. In his remarks, the Secretary articulated how ED’s policies would affect schools in DC and nationwide.

(Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover)

As a Turnaround School, Eastern is eligible for additional funding from the federal government to raise expectations, improve the quality of teaching, and provide students with the help they need to graduate and be ready to go to college and enter the workforce. ED and the Obama Administration have made a significant investment – more than $4 billion – to help states turn around their lowest performing schools. Duncan outlined how more than 1,000 schools throughout the country are using Turnaround grant money to increase education outcomes.

Duncan emphasized that Mayor Gray, Chancellor Henderson and Principal Rachel Skerritt were committed to executing an effective turnaround plan for the school.

“Eastern’s turnaround is built around four key values: Excellence, Scholarship, Honor, and Service,” Duncan said, following Mayor Gray’s remarks about the vital contributions that Eastern alumni had made to Washington and to the world.

Duncan also discussed how excellence in Eastern’s curriculum was emerging through more rigorous academic offerings. The school is adding an International Baccalaureate program and is preparing to offer Advanced Placement programs when the Class of 2015 reaches the upper grades.

Additionally, Duncan praised the more than 60 students who joined the Health and Medical Sciences Academy, a program that will help prepare them to work in one of the fastest growing fields in America’s future economy.

The Secretary finished his remarks by encouraging the students to pursue a college education and to work hard in all of their future endeavors.

Duncan Praises All-American Volunteers

(Official Department of Education Photo By Leslie Williams)

Excelling in sports is no longer the only way to become an All-American. On August 9th, Parade Magazine announced the “starting line-up” of its second annual High School Service All-America Team, which it created in conjunction with the GenerationOn initiative of the Points of Light Institute. Secretary Duncan, who was a member for the blue-ribbon panel that selected the winners, addressed the 15 Service All-Americans and commended them for bringing hope and inspiration to their communities.

“I think we all know that when young people are actively engaged in the community doing great service, they’re also engaged in the classroom,” Secretary Duncan said in his remarks.

“Young people who are doing real service—they’re not dropping out of high school,” Duncan added. “They’re successful in the classroom. When our young people see the ties between their academic work and the real world, when they’re engaged, great things happen.”

Citing the inspiring work of the volunteers, as well as his own experiences working on community service programs in Chicago’s South Side, Duncan took the opportunity to call for America’s school districts to increase their support for youth community service opportunities.

“The more we can provide these concrete opportunities for all of our young people—rich, poor, black, white, Latino, urban, rural, suburban—the more young people have these kinds of opportunities, the better people they’re going to be, and the better our country will be,” Duncan said.

Three of the All-American Service Team members were commended for exceptional service in the field of education. Grace Li, 16, co-founded the We Care Act nonprofit, which has organized disaster relief efforts with students and faculty at 80 schools across the country. Dylan Mahalingham, 16, used social media to help the Under the Acadia foundation build a school in rural Kenya. And Mary-Grace Reeves, 16, created the American Girl Book Club in the wake of Hurricane Ivan, which has provided over 900 students in Pensacola, Florida, with lessons in reading and history. Accepting her award, Reeves told a story that exemplified the innovative spirit Secretary Duncan deemed “inspirational” in his remarks.

Said Reeves, “When the manager of the children’s department [of the local library] said ‘We can’t do it,’ I said four words that would change my life forever: ‘I will do it.’”

More information on the 15 Parade Service All-America Team can be found in last Sunday’s edition of Parade magazine.

Duncan on the Importance of Play

Secretary Duncan recently responded to a couple of comments from his Facebook page regarding the importance of play for young children.

Arne emphasized the need for innovative and reasonable assessments of children’s cognitive and social skills as they transition from early learning programs into kindergarten. However, the Secretary made clear these assessments need not interfere with schoolchildren’s play.

“It can be done very, very thoughtfully, unobtrusively,” Duncan said. “It doesn’t in any way compromise the importance of play and having students simply learn through those experiences.”

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

Continue the conversation on Secretary Duncan’s Facebook page, on Twitter and in the comments below.

Teachers@ED: Brad Jupp, Senior Program Advisor on Teacher Initiatives

With fifteen years of classroom experience under his belt, former English teacher Brad Jupp now finds himself in Secretary Duncan’s office as a senior program advisor on teacher initiatives. In that role, Jupp uses his on-the-job knowledge of the profession to help keep Secretary Duncan and the rest of ED better informed of the “classroom and schoolhouse perspective.”

“I think about teaching and learning problems every day,” Jupp says of his work at ED. “I also think about the way teachers understand policy. And then finally, and most importantly, I think about what students need to do to succeed in school every day.”

Jupp’s “dream job” remains the work he did as an English teacher at an alternative middle school for at-risk 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students.  Asked to recall the story of a single student, he told about John Chacon,  who had been expelled from school twice before sixth grade and was sent to Jupp’s school in lieu of a third expulsion.  Over the course of three years, Jupp and his colleagues collaborated with the boy’s family, school officials, and community health organizations to support Chacon and prepare him for high school.  It wasn’t easy.  Chacon was academically behind because of his frequent suspensions, and in his eighth grade year, after two years of escalating mental health attention, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nevertheless, Chacon completed the eighth grade, and improved in both reading and math on state tests.  In 2004, Jupp had a chance meeting with his former student at a pet store, where the young man was now working the cash register.

Brad Jupp, Senior Program Advisor on Teacher Initiatives

“He told me that he’d graduated from high school and that, had we not stuck with him during middle school, he never would’ve graduated,” Jupp said. “I think about that case all the time when I’m at work. It’s a case of all of the things that we as teachers work to make come together in the single life of a student.”

Jupp entered teaching after reading Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age. ”I wanted students to be able to experience difficult and beautiful literature, even though they might be struggling readers when they were 11 or 12 years old.” He found success by encouraging his students to understand their reading assignments as part of a broader and more rewarding process of problem-solving, not as boring and repetitious practice.  For example, in his first year of teaching, Jupp assigned Ezra Pound’s version of the Old English poem The Seafarer to his sixth-grade students.

“You don’t have to pander to kids by choosing superficially relevant literature,” he said. “You actually can get the kids to bring their own lives and relationships forward as they discuss a tough poem, in the terms that it gives you. The Seafarer is about being lonely and outlawed from your community, and it’s a terrific poem that sixth-graders can understand.”

Now at ED, Jupp advises the Department’s leadership on how teachers approach policy matters. “Every day I’m here, I ask, ‘what would a teacher think when he heard this come out of our mouth?’” Jupp said. “Or, ‘what would a teacher do when he saw the signal we sent?’”

Jupp’s presence of mind and commitment to effective problem solving have made him a crucial player in ED’s efforts to reform education in real time. However, his best asset may be his unwavering commitment the true goals of public education. “Ultimately we’re not just in this because of teaching and learning problems or because we need to shape the world of teachers and principals and other educators that work in the schools,” he said. “It’s really, we’re here to get kids to grow academically and as people, then complete school and succeed in life.”

Ed. Note: This post is the first in a series of blog posts that will highlight teachers at the Department of Education who offer invaluable expertise and continue their commitment to education, the teaching profession and students.

Why Summer Reading Pays Off Year-Round

Attention parents: even though summer is almost over, it’s not too late to help your child become a better reader before the new school year begins. Summer is an important time for students to keep reading and improve their language skills. If your child hasn’t been reading regularly this summer, they may be in danger of the “summer slide”—a decline in their reading ability.

Numerous studies indicate that students who don’t read or read infrequently during their summer vacation see their reading abilities stagnate or decline. This effect becomes more pronounced as students get older and advance through the school system. The situation for economically disadvantaged students is especially grim: if students from low-income families don’t read over the summer, they are much more likely to fall behind their more privileged peers, widening the “achievement gap.”

“It’s like if you play an instrument but put it down for three months,” said Laurie Calvert, a teacher who is working as the Director of Teacher Outreach at ED. She wrote an academic thesis on improving summer reading programs at her North Carolina high school. “You’re not going to be as good as a person who continues to play the instrument over those three months.”

However, this “summer slide” can be avoided by ensuring that children are as engaged as possible in whatever they choose to read—just as long as they’re reading every day.

“Anything that keeps students reading works,” Calvert said. “The more engaged you are in the text, the closer you’re going to read it. The closer you read it, the more you comprehend. And that process grows your skill.”

The best ways to keep your child from becoming a “rusty reader” over the summer are:

  1. Encourage your children to read books they enjoy for at least 30 minutes per day. Your child will likely be more engrossed in material they choose themselves than material that is forced on them.
  2. Provide incentives for reluctant readers. For example, if your child enjoys basketball, agree to take them to the local court if they do their “daily reading.”
  3. Make reading a social act. Establish a time during the day when all members of the family gather and read on their own, or take turns reading the same book aloud.
  4. Connect your reading to family outings. If you take your kids to an aquarium, consider reading a book about fish or the ocean with them later that day. The outing can help place the reading into a broader context.

There’s still time for kids to pick up a book this summer. Take your children to your local library or bookstore and let them pick out a book they’re going to love today. They will be better readers tomorrow for it.

Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Secretary Duncan joined Attorney General Holder yesterday for the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention forum to share the results of a groundbreaking study on school discipline and to announce the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. The Initiative is a new step in improving school discipline procedures and ending the “school to prison pipeline” that affects far too many of the nation’s students.

School Crosswalk SignThe study by the Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute examines the disciplinary records of all Texas seventh-graders for a six-year period beginning in the year 2000. First, the study found that almost 6 out of 10 students, a disproportionate number of them African-Americans or students designated as suffering from an “emotional disturbance,” were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grade. These students were subsequently more likely to be held back a grade level or to develop criminal records. However, the study also showed that discipline varied significantly between schools, even if the schools had similar ethnic or economic demographics. All told, the report revealed the urgent need for more thoughtful leadership in determining school discipline policies.

“When our young people start getting locked up and getting criminal records, they start getting locked into poverty,” Secretary Duncan said. The Secretary attributed the disparity to a lack of information about effective ways of disciplining students.

Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder emphasized that juvenile delinquency could be corrected by providing schools with more information on how to improve troubled students’ behavior, without causing them to drop out of school and end up “falling through the cracks.”

Duncan and Holder then outlined the goals of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. The goals are to:

  • Build the consensus for action among federal, state and local education and justice stakeholders;
  • Collaborate on research and data collection;
  • Promote positive disciplinary options to both keep kids in school and improve the climate for learning; and
  • Promote awareness and knowledge about evidence-based and promising policies and practices among state judicial and education leadership.

Duncan and Holder called for more leadership and collaboration in producing sound disciplinary policies in America’s classrooms.

“So many of these young people need a helping hand, need assistance, but also need clear boundaries and clear guidelines,” said Secretary Duncan. “What they don’t need is to be pushed out the door or to start a criminal record. We need to be a lot more thoughtful in how we address this.”

Secretary Duncan on Common Core Standards and the Next Generation of Assessments

Secretary Duncan recently responded to several questions asked via his Facebook page, including a question from Annie about Common Core standards. The Secretary praised the courageous work of states that are refusing to dumb down standards and are working to expand the depth and breadth of academic programs. Duncan encouraged states to not just focus on standards, but to “have a well-rounded curriculum to make sure all of our children have access to a wide range of subjects.”

The Secretary also answered a question regarding the need for a “new generation” of assessments to evaluate student progress. While improving assessments is a decision that will be made on the state and local level, Secretary Duncan emphasized that ED contributed almost $350 million in grants to 44 states who are collaborating on improved assessments.

Continue the conversation on Secretary Duncan’s Facebook page, on Twitter and in the comments below.

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

Ben Firke is an intern in the office of Communications and Outreach at the Department of Education

Finding an Affordable College Just Got Easier

Summer is here, and many recent high school graduates may still be weighing which college or university to attend during the upcoming fall semester. ED’s recently-launched College Affordability and Transparency Center is making that decision much easier by providing students and their families with an easy-to-use website that identifies the most reasonably-priced universities, as well as the institutions whose prices rise at the highest rates.

The Affordability and Transparency Center not only allows college applicants and their families to compare tuition rates at colleges and universities, but students can pinpoint their search on a variety of criteria, including whether the college is a two- or four-year program, public or private, or a for-profit or not-for-profit college. The site also allows comparisons of the cost of a year at college based on its listed tuition and fees or its “net price” (tuition and fees minus grant and scholarship aid). To find the cost of a specific vocational program, there is a search feature to compare the costs of similar career programs—such as nursing or computer science—across different schools. Finally, to keep students and families prepared for the future, the Affordability and Transparency Center lets you see which colleges have the highest annual tuition or net cost increases.

Higher education is a strong investment, and it is crucial that families and students are able to make informed decisions. Through the College Affordability and Transparency Center, ED is providing valuable data on which colleges are the most cost-effective. Students shouldn’t rule out college because they can’t find one that suits their budget—the Center will help students and families find the right school with the right program at the right price.

Get started by visiting ED’s College Affordability and Transparency Center.

Ben Firke is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the Department of Education