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Duncan talks reform, “green” schools

Visiting Denver on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hailed the education system in Colorado for its spirit of “tough-minded collaboration,” in which people are working together and “there is a real sense of trust.”

Duncan made his remarks this morning during a town hall discussion at the Denver School of Science and Technology-Green Valley Ranch campus, the first of several public appearances on his calendar for his visit to the metro area on day two of what has been declared Colorado Literacy Week.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan / File photo

Education Secretary Arne Duncan / File photo

Joining Duncan at DSST were Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, state Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

After brief prepared remarks, Duncan answered questions for about 30 minutes from an audience of several hundred students, educators and education officials.

Brother Jeff Fard, who runs a cultural center based in the Five Points neighborhood, asked Duncan what is being done to address the ethnic achievement gaps in public education, or whether a discussion of racial issues was “a taboo subject.”

“We have to talk about race,” said Duncan. “We can’t have anything that is taboo or off the table. When you talk about achievement gap, by definition, we have to talk about race. I wish there was an easy answer. There isn’t one.”

Duncan said any solution has to be multi-faceted, starting with greater investment in early-childhood education, to improve kindergarten readiness, as well as a greater focus on “wrap-around” programs, enrichment opportunities that will keep children in school once they get there.

And, he said, “We have to get the most talented and effective teachers and principals into those communities. In many communities, there have been incentives for the most talented to go to the wealthier communities and no incentive to get them to go to the communities who need them the most.” That, he said, needs to be reversed.

One young male student asked for the secretary’s thoughts about paving the way to higher education for undocumented students – an issue Colorado is tackling with the legislature’s consideration of Senate Bill 12-015, the so-called ASSET bill.

“I think right now as a country we’re just crazy on this issue,” said Duncan, who said it was “insane” to create roadblocks to college after educating undocumented students at from kindergarten through high school.

“I have been desperately frustrated by the lack of progress we have had on this in Congress,” he added. “This is one where right now, quite honestly we don’t have the support in Congress to get the right thing done. We need their talents in this country. We are cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

Garcia used the occasion to announce a program dubbed One Book 4 Colorado, an initiative aimed at providing one new book to every four-year-old in Colorado, and simultaneously supporting parents as their child’s first teacher.  The program was developed in partnership between Reach Out and Read, the Colorado State Library, public libraries, the private sector and numerous foundations.

Duncan celebrates environmental literacy

After the town hall, Duncan stopped by the Green Schools National Conference to promote the department’s Green Ribbon Schools program and to praise environmentally-conscious educators who he said have toiled in obscurity for too long.

“For too long, greening our schools, developing environmental literacy, have been afterthoughts in education,” he told the gathering of several hundred students, educators and others at the Colorado Convention Center. “This gathering today is a powerful testament that the green movement is no longer a sidelight in schools.”

In 2001, fewer than 19,000 American high school students took the Environmental Science Advanced Placement exam. Last year, nearly 100,000 did.Duncan said the evidence shows that investing in eco-friendly school buildings and programs doesn’t have to mean de-funding other programs.

“You’re helping to debunk the zero-sum myth,” he said.

In fact, green schools use roughly a third less energy than conventionally-designed schools, and on average save $100,000 per year on operating costs.

“That’s enough to hire two new teachers or purchase 5,000 new textbooks,” he said.

He noted that it isn’t just new school buildings that are racking up big savings on energy bills. Even old buildings can take simple steps to promote environmental stewardship and save money in the process.

Indeed, Boasberg, who introduced Duncan, noted that by replacing less-efficient water fixtures, DPS has managed to reduce water consumption by 40 percent, saving more than 50 million gallons of water annually.

Duncan said that environmentalists have changed the culture of American schools, just as they’ve changed the culture of America.

He noted that in 2001, fewer than 19,000 American high school students took the Environmental Science Advanced Placement exam. Last year, nearly 100,000 did.

“That’s an amazing movement in the right direction,” he said.

Duncan said the Green Ribbon Schools program, recently launched to recognize schools that excel in promoting healthy and environmentally-friendly learning environment, came about because schools requested it. He said it marks a sleeker, more partnership-driven model of initiative.

“This represents a departure from the usual way of doing things,” he said. “We didn’t have to wait for a dysfunctional Congress to act, and we didn’t have to hire a lot of new staff to administer this program. You didn’t ask us to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we brought together some underused resources into one coherent program.”

Q and A with Duncan on current events

With the news that three children are now dead in the wake of the shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio, Duncan commented on the tragedy in a brief morning press conference:

“Obviously, your worst nightmare. My wife and I have two children in public schools and you never, ever, ever want to see something like this happen. So there will obviously be a thorough investigation. Our team has been in touch with local school officials there, to provide whatever assistance we can. But it’s a devastating tragedy.”

One reporter asked Duncan why such incidents are happening “more and more.”

“We actually just had a recent report that came out that said school violence is down so big picture, trends are going the right way; but obviously any incident is unacceptable, and when these kinds of things happen, it’s absolutely devastating.

“It’s something we have to learn from, we have to be more vigilant, we have to push hard to reduce bullying and to understand what’s going on there. Folks will be looking very, very carefully at what can be learned here, so that these kinds of things never happen again.”

On a day when Republicans in Michigan and Arizona were going to the polls in those states’ presidential primaries, Duncan was asked to respond to candidate Rick Santorum’s recent remarks on the campaign trail that President Obama was a “snob” because he “wants everybody in America to go to college.”

Duncan didn’t even let the question finish, cutting it short with, “I’m not political, so I’m not going to comment.”

Then he commented:

“Everyone here knows that the unemployment rate for college-educated folks is less than half that of those who don’t have a college degree,” he said. “Lifetime earnings are dramatically higher.”

His non-comment comment continued:

“There are no good jobs – none – in the legal economy today for a high school drop-out, nothing out there. And there are almost none if you just have a high school diploma,” Duncan said.

“Some form of higher education – four-year universities, two year community colleges, trade, technical, vocational training, whatever your dream, whatever your passion is, whatever your interests, some form of higher education has to be the goal for … every single young person around the country.”