AmeriCorps Alum Shares Service Experience with White House Initiative

This was crossposted from the Corporation for National and Community Service blog


Through a program for first-generation college students during my undergraduate experience at Florida State University and the beginnings of my professional career, mentors have played a critical role in my personal growth. Their belief in me and support has paid dividends both professionally and personally. Because of this mentorship, being able to dedicate a year of service was a commitment I wanted to ensure I made to others. And after my Public Allies AmeriCorps experience, this commitment to service and being anally would be a continuous journey.

When asked to speak about my AmeriCorps experience with Public Allies AmeriCorps at a White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH) meeting, I leaped at the opportunity. Prior to this, I was familiar with the important work WHIEEH was doing for the Latin@ community, and as a member of this group, being able to share my experience working in a predominantly Latino@ community through my year with AmeriCorps was an honor. I was able to highlight my work with the Montgomery County YMCA Youth & Family Services and the Latin American Youth Center.

Through this program, I worked with the Montgomery County YMCA Youth & Family Services and with the Latin American Youth Center to help implement the Full Circle Brotherhood. This program uses a strengths based peer group mentoring approach to community development by utilizing current and former participants of the Montgomery County Conservation Corps to serve as mentors for local mentees. MCCC mentors have overcome many challenges in their life and are in the process of working towards their GEDs while servicing the many public green spaces in the region. Together these two groups learn about themselves and one another, bringing them closer to their families and in touch with their local community. The program focuses on the development of emotional intelligence and leadership for both mentors and mentees, and witnessing this cohesion was truly a special experience to be a part of.

Coupled with this direct service, the support that Public Allies staff provided for our cohort, and the constant learning we soaked up at our weekly Trainings & Learnings enriched my experience so much more. At these sessions, we were challenged intellectually, gained professional development, and had a safe space where we could discuss issues facing our communities. Speaking with WHIEEH and being able to share with them just an iota of the work that thousands of AmeriCorps members nationwide are doing in our communities was a wonderful privilege.


As the event came to a close, I reflected on the conversation with WHIEEH staff and how they plan to better their efforts to reach more Latin@s with the educational resources and opportunities of the Federal government, I felt a deep pride to see individuals who are dedicating their professional careers to our population group. Their efforts in ensuring that more Latin@s have access to civic engagement and educational opportunities is critical to the growth and development of our community.

Ivan Marchena is a Public Allies AmeriCorps Alum

Girls and Coding: Seeing What the Future Can Be

This is crossposted from the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom

From left to right, Gilliam Jacobs, Brittany Greve, Andrea Chaves, Noran Omar, Angela Diep.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

This is a common expression that, perhaps like me, you’ve heard many times. For the girls at the Young Women’s Leadership school where I teach in New York City, this is – sadly — the case. My students couldn’t see themselves as women in STEM careers, and in fact, knew little about the opportunities offered within the field.

That’s why I made it my mission to bring computer science to our school.

My principal was excited at the idea of incorporating computer science (CS), but took me by surprise when she said I would have to teach it. As a certified Spanish teacher, I had no background in CS other than being digitally competent. But, after starting to learn through an online training program, I decided to blend computer science into my advanced Spanish speakers class because I figured why not have students learning Spanish dive into coding, too.

On the first day of class, I announced to the girls in Spanish that we were going to do tons of reading, writing and editing – but in a language called JavaScript. I made it clear that I wasn’t fluent in this language, but reassured them that we were on this journey together.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the gender gap is not due to women lacking STEM-related skills, but rather because young women are conditioned to believe that careers in technology and science are reserved for men. That’s part of why I also decided to start two after-school programs: a partnership with an existing organization, Girls Who Code, which works to inspire and educate women to pursue careers in technology and my own program, TechCrew – an internship program that exposes girls to coding, graphic design, animation and film.

Watch the girls in Chaves’ class who created the nutrition game, Healthy Bunch, which won the MIT-sponsored competition “Dream It. Code It. Win It.”

Each club started with eight girls, but TechCrew now includes 30 girls working collaboratively to create and produce technology-driven projects. Students have coded video games and apps about recycling, healthy eating habits, carbon footprints, space debris, learning Spanish and more. As one of my students, Brittany Greve, says, “Computer science has allowed me to look at a problem from multiple perspectives and use logic to come up with innovative solutions.”

My students have also become leaders within the CS community. We’ve worked together on all sorts of projects, such as a summer coding camp in Queens where girls learned to build apps that advocate for social justice. Additionally, my TechCrew is currently leading 50 girls in the creation of a Digital Dance, in which dancers, filmmakers, graphic designers and coders are bringing together their expertise to create a beautiful piece of art.

Watch Chaves’ students talking about why they love to code and how coding has influenced them (in English).

Watch Chaves’ students talking about why they love to code and how coding has influenced them (in Spanish).

I am a Spanish teacher by training, but I took a risk to integrate CS into my curriculum and learned that this language does not have to stand on its own. It can be infused into any subject in any classroom. All it takes is a little innovation, trust and risk-taking.

One of my students put it best, “CS has opened a new pathway in my life. It has made me discover a part of who I am that I didn’t know existed. I can now see what I would like my future to be,” she said.

Andrea Chaves is a Spanish and computer science teacher and creative director at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria, New York. She was recently named a White House Champion of Change.

Hearing from First-Generation Immigrant Youth and Parents About Education

This was crossposted from the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to convene an intimate meeting at the Department of Education (ED) with a group of first-generation immigrant students and parents for a conversation with former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Acting Secretary John King to discuss their experiences as they try to assimilate to their new country and education system. As a first-generation American whose own family emigrated from Brazil sixteen years ago, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to shine a light on stories of other immigrant families. While their personal experiences and perspectives differed, they all shared a common thread: the desire to achieve the American Dream through obtaining a good education.

Immigrant students and their families face numerous hurdles in our nation’s schools including integration, English language acquisition and access, and cultivating quality parent/teacher relationships. Although ED has worked to ensure that all students have equal access to school resources and that all parents, regardless of the language they speak, are equipped with the information necessary for their children to fully participate in and benefit from their educational programs, some families still face hurdles in their quest to thrive within the education system.

Zoila Fajardo shared a story that was not much different than what my mother experienced when trying to matriculate my siblings and me into school. When she first arrived in the United States, Zoila attempted to enroll her kids in school. Her limited fluency in English, however, caused communication issues with school administrators. They told her that they could not understand her and therefore could not enroll her kids. Zoila was able to turn to her community for support and they directed her to a new school, where her kids were welcomed with opened arms. They not only provided Zoila and her family with all the information she needed to ensure her kids were successful in school, but they also continued to keep her engaged in her children’s learning.

During the meeting, former Secretary Duncan and Acting Secretary King also heard from local high school students, who, in addition to navigating the system with limited to no English proficiency, had to adapt to different social norms. Despite the challenges they faced while trying to assimilate to a whole new culture, the students said understood that their education was the foundation of their bright future.

Supporting immigrant families is crucial to ensuring our country’s long-term prosperity and is a key part of ED’s mission to ensure equity and opportunity for all of our nation’s children. We will continue to encourage students and their families to share their ideas on how to increase dialogue and the visibility of their experiences through future meetings, like Student Voices sessions, webinars and conversations with advocacy groups. These ongoing conversations have been the foundation of many resources, including the EL Toolkit, which we released with the Department of Justice in September, 2015.

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department through which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Melina Kiper is a confidential assistant in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.

Meet John King, Acting Secretary of Education

This was crossposted from the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom


Every New Year offers the chance for each of us to set new personal goals to make us healthier, happier, or more productive. In 2016, I hope you’ll join me as I recommit myself to ensuring that every child in America—regardless of background or circumstance—has access to an excellent education.

I’m honored and humbled by the opportunity President Obama has given me to build on the many accomplishments he and my friend Arne Duncan have achieved over the past seven years.

Education always has been a focal point in my life—both my parents were New York City public school educators. My father was a teacher and a principal. My mother was a teacher and guidance counselor. When I was 8, my mother passed away.  I then lived with my father who was suffering from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease and passed away when I was 12.

After that, I moved around between family members and schools. Home was an unpredictable and often scary place. But school, and the remarkable teachers who believed in my potential, offered me a safe haven. Because of them, I went on to become a high school social studies teacher, a middle school principal, and a state education commissioner—and now I have the tremendous privilege to serve you in this new role.

Watch a short video introduction from John King (Español)

Over the past seven years, we’ve made a lot of progress. More students than ever are being taught to college- and career-ready standards; dropout rates are at historic lows and graduation rates at all-time highs; and high quality preschool and higher education are within reach for more families.

But there is a lot more work to do. Our efforts in 2016 must be measured by the progress we make toward educational opportunity for all—so that no child’s fate is left to luck, no student’s destiny defined by circumstances.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be traveling across the country to visit with folks like you—students, parents, teachers, principals and community leaders—to highlight what’s working and hear about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

I’ll also be asking you to help us accelerate progress in more classrooms.

In the meantime, please follow me on Twitter @JohnKingatED and ask me a question anytime using #AskJohnKing. Here’s wishing you a wonderful New Year!

John King is the Acting Secretary of Education

Marking 15 Years of Improving Federal Access to the Limited English Proficient

Summary: This year marked the 15th anniversary of the landmark Executive Order 13166, and Doua Thor and Alejandra Ceja discuss the progress made over the past 15 years.


Did you know that more than 350 languages are spoken in the United States? In 2013, more than 60 million individuals in the country spoke a language other than English at home. While the majority of them are fluent English speakers, about 25 million are considered Limited English Proficient (LEP). Growing up with immigrant and refugee parents, our households were no different. Our families struggled to navigate the complex web of public programs and services in a language they were still learning to communicate in. This struggle is one that many LEP communities face. Hispanics continue to make up the vast majority (64%) of LEPs in the nation, but with changing trends in immigration patterns comes a growing need for in-language resources in other languages. Indeed, according to recent estimates, immigrants from Asian countries now outnumber Latin American immigrants.

LEP Americans

This year marked the 15th anniversary of the landmark Executive Order 13166, “Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency.” This Executive Order was issued in 2000 to ensure LEP individuals are able to receive information and services in a meaningful and accessible way from federal agencies and federal recipients of financial assistance. Since then, federal agencies have made great progress to improve in-language standards across the government. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division developed and maintains, a hub for agencies to share resources and house a variety of tips and updates for agencies and the public.

Agencies have also sought to leverage data and new technologies to better understand and reach LEP populations. For example, DOJ’s Civil Rights Division recently launched interactive and downloadable maps using American Community Survey data that identify the concentration of LEP populations at the national, state, judicial district, and county levels. Several agencies have also provided technical assistance trainings to federal recipients of financial assistance to ensure service and program providers are better able to engage with LEP individuals. In addition, agencies have improved their outreach, education, and communication with LEP populations by providing in-language materials and tools. For example, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has broadened its reach to LEP customers by increasing the number of in-language resources.

AAPIs speak over 80 different languages and dialects

Nevertheless, LEP individuals continue to face language-based barriers to accessing important benefits and services. As we look ahead, agencies must continue to prioritize the needs of LEP individuals and work to improve the delivery of federal services to LEP populations. To that end, the Limited English Proficient interagency working group, led by the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section within the DOJ Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, will meet today to share best practices and identify new approaches to ensure that all individuals have meaningful access to the services they need from the federal government. Agencies will also seek to build efforts to reach LEP populations into other cross-agency work. For example, member agencies of the Limited English Proficient interagency working group are also working with the White House Task Force on New Americans and with our White House Initiatives to reach immigrants and refugees as well as the larger AAPI and Hispanic communities.

For more on the federal government’s progress under this Executive Order, check out this fact sheet.

Doua Thor is the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and Alejandra Ceja is the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, both housed in the Department of Education.

Q&A: What You Need to Know About the Fix to No Child Left Behind

This is crossposted from the White House blog

Summary: Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council, lays out what you need to know about the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to fix No Child Left Behind. The Obama administration is calling on the Senate to move the legislation quickly to the President’s desk for him to sign.

As Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier this week, No Child Left Behind has long been broken. Since the beginning of his time in office, President Obama has joined educators and families calling on Congress to fix this outdated law.

To help you understand just how ESSA improves on the one-size-fits-all mandates on our schools, and fits right in with President Obama’s policies, check out this side-by-side comparison:

Education Side by Side

I also want to take this opportunity to answer some of the most common questions we’ve been hearing from you on how ESSA can help American families, students, and schools:

Does this bill ensure high standards?

Yes. The bill affirms the path taken by 48 states and the District of Columbia to hold all students to challenging academic content standards that will prepare them to graduate from high school prepared for success in college and the workforce.

Does this bill move towards a smarter, more balanced approach to testing?

Yes. As President Obama has called for, the bill encourages a smarter approach to testing by moving away from a sole focus on standardized tests to drive decisions around the quality of schools. It also does so by allowing for the use of multiple measures of student learning and progress, along with other indicators of student success to make school accountability decisions. It also includes provisions consistent with the Administration’s principles around reducing the amount of classroom time spent on standardized testing, including support for state efforts to audit and streamline their current assessment systems. At the same time, the bill maintains important statewide assessments to ensure that teachers and parents can mark the progress and performance of their children every year, from third to eighth grade and once in high school.

Does the bill create rigorous accountability for all students?

Yes. Consistent with the Administration’s proposals and policies, the bill builds on the federal-state partnerships in place in over 40 states to require meaningful goals for the progress of all students, and to ensure that every student subgroup makes gains toward college and career-readiness. States must set ambitious targets to close student achievement and graduation rate gaps among subgroups of students in order to meet their goals. In schools where too many students consistently fail to reach the goals and other indicators set by the state, school districts will ensure they receive tailored interventions and supports proportionate to the needs of those schools and the students they serve.

Does the bill have competitive programs to spur innovative, replicate high quality charter schools and encourage support systems for vulnerable communities?

Yes. The bill contains competitive programs modeled after many the Administration has created and supported for years. These include a program to develop, refine, and replicate innovative and ambitious reforms to close the achievement gap in America’s schools, similar to the Administration’s existing Investing in Innovation (i3) program; to leverage resources to address the significant challenges faced by students and families living in high-poverty communities through the Promise Neighborhoods effort, supporting a full continuum of services from early learning through college; and to expand support for high-performing public charter schools for high-need students.

Does the bill include harmful portability provisions?

No. The bill rejects so-called “portability” provisions in the original House-passed bill that would have allowed states to shift federal funds away from the schools that need them most.

Does the bill contain additional preschool slots?

Yes. The bill expands access to high-quality, state-funded preschool for children from low- and moderate-income families, building from the Administration’s Preschool Development Grants program. This is a major win for our youngest children and for American families.

Cecilia Muñoz is Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council

First Bright Spot in Hispanic Education Google + Hangout Highlights Local Efforts on College Access for Latino Students

Posted by Maria Pastrana Lujan, Senior Advisor, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics

On November 18, 2015, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics launched its Bright Spots in Hispanic Education Google+ Hangout sessions. The inaugural event highlighted the tremendous efforts of Bright Spots focused on college access for all students, in including Latino and undocumented students around the country. Executive Director, Alejandra Ceja and U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid, Leslie Acosta, were joined by representatives from Bright Spots in Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas on a dynamic and informative discussion featuring promising practices and strategies supporting college access and other efforts helping reduce the academic achievement gap for Hispanics.

This year, the national high school graduation rate rose to 81 percent, the highest in history, in part due to the high numbers of Latino students graduating. Ensuring they have access to a postsecondary education and providing them the tools and resources to enroll

Initiative Staff conducting Google Hangout

White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics staff at Google + Hangout on College Access on November 18, 2015.

is critical. The number of Hispanic youth enrolled in college has reached a record high, 2.4 million. However, Hispanics continue to lag other groups when it comes to earning a bachelor’s degree (Pew Research Center, 2015). Bright Spots featured are helping to combat this disparity through their efforts.

“Educators should focus on [college access] as early as the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade” because waiting until the junior or senior year of Latino students can be too late,” Carina Soto, Program Manager, Career and College Clubs.

The approaches vary and are tailored to their student needs. The Unidos Project at the University of New Mexico takes a holistic approach on mentorship, or as they call it, “academic coaching.” The program has seen a historic increase in undergraduate retention rates. College Spring, a California-based organization, is focused on improving SAT scores, navigation of college admissions, and supporting the financial needs of students. Undergraduates have the opportunity to mentor and tutor under supported youth through their personal experience and knowledge while also receiving academic credit. One-by-One, in East Moline, Illinois, motivates 7th and 8th graders by having them visit college campuses and introducing them to community leaders of color to help them envision themselves succeeding.

Bright Spots also heard about the efforts on behalf of the Administration to help increase access and ensure affordability to a postsecondary education. We know that our students cannot wait for the support they need to achieve their dreams of a higher education. It is inspiring to see local, state and national efforts join in what President Obama calls a “shared responsibility.” In order to once again lead the world with the highest number of postsecondary education degree attainment, we must continue working together, learning from one another and expanding access to college and career.

The next Google+ Hangout will take place on Wednesday, December 16, 2015 on Early Learning. We hope you will join us as we work together to move the needle on progress for Hispanic students across the nation.

Initiative Staff conducting Google Hangout

Participant Bright Spots on Hispanic Education for College Access:

Career and College Clubs (Based in Manhattan Beach, California with sites in Colorado, Texas, Ohio, and Washington D.C.) , College Forward (Austin, Texas), Metas Program (San Jose, California), One-by-One (Glenview Middle School, East Moline, Illinois) Adults Achieving a College Education (AACE) in Rio Salado College (Tempe, Arizona), the University of North Carolina Wilmington Centro Hispano (Wilmington, North Carolina), and Unidos Project (Albuquerque, New Mexico).

U.S. Department of Education college access resources:

College Scorecard:

Financial Student Aid tool kit:

Resource Guide: Supporting Undocumented Youth

Bright Spots in Hispanic Education national catalog:

To view the full engagement video here:

New Resource Guide Helps Undocumented Students Achieve Their Dreams

This was crossposted on the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom.

On Tuesday, October 20, 2015, the U.S. Department of Education released a resource guide to support undocumented students in high school and college. The guide aims, “to ensure that all students have access to a world-class education that prepares them for college and careers.”

The effort will help individuals and organizations invested in education better support undocumented youth, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. The guide’s objectives include: helping educators and school staff support undocumented students academically, debunking misconceptions and clarifying undocumented students’ legal rights, sharing information about financial aid options, and supporting youth to apply for DACA consideration or renewal.

Resources like those listed in the guide were critical for me. As an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland and the first intern at the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics who was a DACA recipient, I have been directly impacted by the resources and tools provided by the Obama administration which help improve the educational trajectory of undocumented students.

When my family moved from Colombia to the United States, I was six years old. I would have never imagined having the opportunities that DACA afforded me. DACA allowed me to continue pursuing my dreams of a obtaining a quality higher education. As a DACA recipient, I was able to apply for and obtain a Hispanic Scholarship Fund scholarship and become a Frank Karel Fellow in Public Interest Communications. And, I was able to get a driver’s license, which allowed me to drive to and from campus, making my education more accessible.

For undocumented youth in the U.S., the future can feel uncertain. Yet it is deeply significant and helpful that schools continue to welcome all students regardless of status, educators and counselors remain trustworthy and understanding of the sensitivity around this critical issue, and students have access to resources that support their attainment of a higher education, including financial aid options. Absent of true immigration reform, and as I work towards helping ensure a brighter future for more Latinos, including undocumented youth and DACA recipients, I will continue to share my story with the hope that more students will come out of the shadows and apply for DACA.

Since 2012, more than 680,000 young people who were brought to the United States as children have received DACA. The majority of these applicants are of Hispanic origin. Research indicates that about 1.5 million undocumented youth in the U.S. are currently eligible for DACA and that 400,000 more young people will be eligible in coming years. The new Resource Guide is an invaluable tool for educators who are dedicated to supporting the educational attainment and success of all their students, including those who are undocumented. For me, receiving DACA was a life-changer, allowing me to reach my full potential.

Access the resource guide here.

Karen Vanegas is an intern at the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

#LatinosAchieve When We Believe in Them

This was crossposted from the U.S. Department of Education’s blog, Homeroom

Today, a high school education is simply not enough. The global, knowledge-based economy that we live in means that some post-secondary education, whether that be a 2-year degree, a 4-year degree, a certificate or a credential, is essential. Which is why we must invest in the educational future of our Hispanic youth. Hispanic youth are in large part the face of our nation and our next generation of leaders. So we need to invest in them if we want to be serious about our future. Although Hispanic high school dropout rates hit a record low at 13 percent in 2012, they’re still higher than any other demographic. Hispanic youth will represent 70 percent of population growth in our country between 2015 and 2060, and are rapidly growing faster than any other minority group. It is our duty to make sure that our next generation of politicians, teachers, CEOs, engineers and entrepreneurs are equipped with the skills they need to succeed.

Progress is being made but not nearly fast enough. And for me, this isn’t simply an intellectual matter. As a Puerto Rican, I’ve seen first-hand how the power of a great education can change lives across the country, as well as back home on the island that gave birth to my mother.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m so proud to lead First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative. We work to inspire young people to take control of their future by exposing students to college and career opportunities, making financial aid and college affordability a reality, supporting academic and summer planning, and investing in school counselors. We want young people, including Hispanics, to know that education after high school has to be part of their plan. That enrolling and completing college is essential to ensuring their achievement and success.

When speaking at the 85th Annual Conference of the League of United Latin American Citizens last year, the First lady spoke about the need for investing in education for Hispanic youth. She said, “As you know, too many young people in the Latino community simply aren’t fulfilling their potential… We have got to … reignite that hunger for opportunity — that hunger for education – across all of our communities. And we all have a role to play in this endeavor. Parents have to be reading to their kids from an early age and making sure they go to school every day and do their homework every night. Our young people, you have a role to play as well. You have to make education your number-one priority and be role models for those around you.”

The efforts led by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, including their nearly $340 million in public and private sector commitments and the U.S. Department of Education’s work to make college accessible and affordable are key to ensuring this population has the tools they need to achieve.

This issue requires all-hands-on-deck approach to make sure students and families are getting access to the resources and information to help make college a reality. That might be filling out the FAFSA, which gives students access to $150 billion in aid for college, or talking to your school counselor, who can help students or families navigate the application process. It also means taking rigorous, college-ready courses like Advanced Placement; and it means thinking about getting internships and mentorship programs that can help young people see the value of a college degree.

We also need to make the process easier. President Obama and the First Lady have been working hard to create and promote tools such as the College Scorecard to help make students find the best college value and fit. They also recently announced that starting in 2016, students can begin filling out the FAFSA three months earlier, so that financial aid can be secured earlier and in time to help make college decisions.

To the young Hispanics who are now in the swing of school, challenge yourselves to take your education seriously. Start talking to your parents about finances, take challenging classes, build strong bonds with your teachers and administration, join clubs and extracurriculars that will expose you to new things, and most importantly believe in yourselves. Believe that you can achieve and do whatever you put your mind to; starting with college. Because we do.

Eric Waldo is the Executive Director for the Reach Higher Initiative

Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: How IDEA Public Schools is Closing the Gap

This was crossposted from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Innovation and Improvement blog.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and Secretary Duncan’s visit to South Texas, today we are highlighting IDEA Public Schools, a Texas-based Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) grantee that’s been recognized for helping Latinos, particularly English language learners, make strong achievement gains. Just last month, the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics named IDEA a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education.

In 2012, IDEA won a Race to the Top – District (RTT–D) award aimed at personalizing student learning and closing achievement gaps. IDEA is also a past recipient of an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant and grants from OII’s Charter Schools Program. IDEA’s network serves approximately 24,000 students in 44 public charter schools across Texas. More than 90 percent are Hispanic, and a third are still acquiring English speaking, reading, and writing skills.

For nine consecutive years, 100 percent of IDEA’s graduating seniors have been accepted to college, and achievement scores have consistently been above the state’s average. We checked in with Tricia Lopez, IDEA’s Director of Special Programs, about what’s behind the network’s success and how the RTT–D grant has been helping the network meet its goals.
Author and illustrator Patricia Polacco speaks to IDEA Public Schools students in Texas’ Mid-Valley.

Author and illustrator Patricia Polacco speaks to IDEA Public Schools students in Texas’ Mid-Valley.

Meeting Local Needs and Personalizing Learning

The 2012 RTT–D grant came during a critical period for the network. Around that time, IDEA was experiencing increased demand for its schools, particularly from students with limited English proficiency, according to Lopez. “The grant came at an important time, and it helped us to really step back and think strategically about how we were serving this population,” she said.

To help their English language learners, IDEA educators and leaders have created personalized learning experiences that differentiate instruction for each English language learner. IDEA uses adaptive technology designed for kids learning English and assesses their individual reading, writing, and speaking skills and helps them improve at the appropriate pace.

“This differentiation is critical. I could have 50 English language learners in a grade. They can range from having not one word of English to being pretty far along in terms of their language acquisition, but not quite fluent. It only makes sense to vary their instruction, but that doesn’t always happen in schools,” Lopez said.

Supporting Teachers

The RTT–D grant has also helped IDEA with teacher training, particularly making sure educators have the tools and background they need to close gaps between English language learners and their peers. The grant has helped pay for teachers across grades to receive in-person and online training in “sheltered instruction,” which gives general education classroom teachers specific training in working with students still acquiring English language skills to access grade-level content.

“It touches on things like: what kind of materials you should have in your classroom; what kind of strategies you should use for math; the value of word walls; having more frequent checks for understanding; and giving students more time to answer questions,” Lopez said. “These are common sense but not necessarily intuitive, especially for teachers early in their careers. It has to be on your radar, and the training helps with that.”

These efforts are paying off. Scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) for ELL students rose by double digits over the past two years, faster growth than for any other subgroup of students in the network. As it continues to progress, IDEA is proving that when given the right supports, all students—no matter their background or first language—can learn and succeed.