On a recent trip to Ferguson, MO, my office colleague, Dr. Ken Bedell, and I had the opportunity to visit with community leaders. The trip supported Secretary Duncan’s promise that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would not forget this community. Our recent visits to the city have strengthened relationships and created partnerships that are already making an impact in Ferguson schools. When the Ferguson-Florissant School District (FFSD) requested assistance regarding its Summer STEM Program, we connected them with Hope Worldwide, an international charity dedicated to delivering sustainable, high-impact, community-based services to distressed communities. Hope Worldwide helped supply FFSD with robotics kits to replicate the District’s STEM efforts and provide equitable learning to its students. Additionally, our collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, FFSD, and local community-based organizations for the Summer Meals Program increased the number of students receiving meals.
We also hosted a meeting of community leaders committed to making Ferguson a safe and healthy environment for youth and their families. It was exciting to hear about the local efforts of these organizations. Church groups are supporting the development of small businesses in Ferguson. Ernst and Young has initiated a mentorship program. The Urban League has created an Empowerment Center in Ferguson to better serve the surrounding neighborhoods in North St. Louis County. Pen or Pencil, a National Alliance on Faith and Justice (NAFJ) service learning program, is mentoring and working to reduce dropouts and prevent crimes. Other federal agencies are providing services to the school, including AmeriCorps Vista, which has placed volunteers within schools, and the National Parks Service, which is working to increase the educational opportunities and capacities of students.
Dr. Joseph Davis, the new Superintendent of FFSD, and Dr. Gwendolyn Diggs, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Operations, shared the FFSD’s vision: to 1) create an elite K-16 S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) school, 2) enhance professional development and educational opportunities for teachers, 3) train parents to become educational professionals in their own households, and 4) strengthen family and community engagement to establish a culture where education is understood as a shared responsibility by all community members.
Our perspectives from Ferguson echo the remarks of Secretary Duncan following his visit to the city:
Education is—and must continue to be—the great equalizer that overcomes differences in background, culture, and privilege. Educational opportunity represents a chance at a better life, and no child should be denied that chance. Where our children lack that opportunity—it’s not just heartbreaking, it is educational malpractice, it is morally bankrupt, and it is self-destructive to our nation’s future. I don’t believe that we are going to solve the challenges in Ferguson and places like it from Washington alone; but, we can be part of the solution if we listen closely to the people living in these communities. Making things better for kids, their families, and their schools will take all of us working together. We can—and we must—get to a better place.
As we continue to listen and work with FFSD, we can ensure that every student has the chance to achieve his or her hopes and dreams.