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Nearly 500 educators, community leaders, business leaders and Bradley University students attended the Transforming Public Education symposium held at the Peoria Civic Center on April 21st. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was joined by national, state and regional education experts and Illinois mayors to discuss the challenges and opportunities that currently exist in reforming urban public education. This national public policy symposium was sponsored by Bradley’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service, the City of Peoria, The Dirksen Congressional Center, Bradley’s College of Education and Health Sciences, and the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce.

Marcus Belin, a senior education major at Bradley University, was given the honor of introducing Secretary Duncan, and did so with humor, suggesting that “with scores of superintendents and principals in the audience that he considered the event a job fair and, as an aspiring teacher, he brought his resume.” He added that, while he was looking forward to teaching in the classroom, his ultimate goal was to become the U.S. Secretary of Education, and he smiled at Secretary Duncan and said, “I want your job.” By the end of the symposium, Belin had received numerous job offers from school districts throughout Illinois.

Secretary Duncan opened up his remarks by joking that following high school, he wanted to come play basketball at Bradley University and came to campus to meet with an assistant coach, but “his heart to play basketball at Bradley far exceeded his ability.” Duncan went on to state how excited he was to participate in an urban education symposium that brought together elementary and secondary educators, universities and community colleges, mayors, community leaders and business leaders: “Our worlds do not meet enough, and we need to get out of our silos and set aside our egos and work together for our children’s sake.”

Secretary Duncan spoke passionately about our nation’s education crisis and the need for innovation and reform in our public schools to ensure that every child receives a world-class education. Currently, one third of our children drop out of public education, a statistic which is “economically unsustainable and morally objectionable.” The Obama Administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes:

  1. Raising standards for all students so that every child graduates from high school ready for college and a career
  2. Broadening the curriculum to include not only math, science and reading, but art, theatre and social studies
  3. Assessing the effectiveness of teachers and principals and rewarding schools and classrooms that show progress in achievement scores
  4. Encouraging and supporting local innovation
  5. Training for teachers and principals in high-need schools.

The Secretary said that there is bipartisan congressional support for reforming public education, and that by 2020, the United States must once again lead the world in college graduates.

Secretary Duncan also discussed his strong support for community schools and charter schools: “Schools need to become the centers of our communities, students need to stay in school longer, after-school programs need to be encouraged, and families need to feel welcome at schools with GED and literacy programs for adults.” When Secretary Duncan led the Chicago Public Schools, 150 community schools were actively providing expanded services to families and neighborhoods. Finally, he stressed that “school districts cannot be successful by themselves, but that all of the assets of a city need to rally around public education,” and that includes mayors, police, business and community leaders, and higher education all partnering and collaborating.

Dr. Kenneth Wong, director of the Urban Education Policy Program at Brown University, then led a fascinating panel discussion on the unique challenges of urban school districts with Secretary Duncan, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, and Peoria School District 150’s new superintendent, Grenita Lathan. Importantly, Mayor Ardis and Superintendent Lathan pledged to get outside of the “silo mentality” to work together to truly make a difference in ensuring that all children in Peoria public schools succeed. An energized Superintendent Lathan said, “It isn’t about turf, it’s about working together…The school board, the community and the mayor have laid the groundwork for us to be a successful school district….We are going to make a difference in Peoria if you are ready to make a difference.”

At the symposium’s lunch, Garfield Primary School Principal Kevin Curtan spoke of the incredible collaboration that was taking place in his school among social service providers, faith-based organizations and Methodist Medical Center, which is resulting in improved student achievement and increased parent involvement. Bradley’s Dean Joan Sattler spoke about the many ways that Bradley University College of Education students were helping out in our public schools. The keynote luncheon address was given by Superintendent Pastorek, who talked about the key role that principals play, how they need to be education leaders and fiscal managers, and that they need to be given autonomy to do their job. Pastorek also said that rigorous assessment and accountability are needed in public schools for both principals and teachers. In the afternoon session, distinguished panels of experts discussed charter schools, full-service community schools, and the new Race to the Top program.

Those attending the symposium left with renewed hope that if we boldly work together, we can truly transform public education and see significant progress in student achievement. iBi

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