Education secretary visits Midway

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U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Midway Elementary School on Monday as part of his Strong Start, Bright Future back-to-school bus tour.

Midway was the last stop of the day for the secretary, who had also been to Santa Fe and Albuquerque in his tour bus Monday, the very first day of the tour. Duncan holds town hall meetings at each stop, and next on his itinerary were El Paso, Texas, and Columbus, then on to Arizona and California. The tour wraps up Friday, according to the Department of Education website.

Socorro Consolidated Schools District Superintendent Randall Earwood remarked this was the first time in the school district's history a U.S. secretary of education had visited here.

Duncan shared the stage at Midway with Earwood, New Mexico Tech President Dr. Dan Lopez and Barbara McLain, Midway's curriculum and technology specialist.

Duncan gave a brief talk and then fielded questions from the audience, which included students, educators, local officials and more. He outlined some concerns and goals of President Barack Obama's administration, particularly access to technology and the Internet for rural schools.

"Whatever you want to do in life, we want to make sure you have opportunities to do that," Duncan said. "Whether you live in a rural community like this, or a suburban community or inner city urban or a Native American reservation — it shouldn't matter where you live, you should have access to a world-class education."

Duncan said with that in view, the administration is trying to dramatically increase the availability of technology in schools all over the U.S. One effort has been to increase funding to get high-speed broadband access to schools.

"We want to spend over $5 billion across the country to make sure that young people have access," Duncan said.

One Midway teacher said she would like to see more iPads in each classroom. Plus, the school doesn't have fast Internet.

Duncan said a lot of schools' Internet has been funded through a program called E-Rate, a good program but it hasn't been updated in 16 or 17 years. He said Obama has challenged the Federal Communications Commission to update E-Rate to get faster Internet connections to schools. He said they don't need Congress to accomplish that, but can do it through the FCC.

"If we invest, we can compete with any students in the world," Duncan said.

Another teacher noted attendance was an issue that can cause schools to be graded harshly for federal funding. She asked about ways to solve it without bribing students to come to school.

Duncan responded there is no easy answer to that issue. He said some schools have become community centers by staying open longer hours, extending services to parents such as family literacy nights and GED courses. Poor attendance is often connected to parents who did not have good school experiences themselves, he observed. He suggested meeting families "more than halfway," such as teachers doing home visits and sharing their cellphone numbers with parents.

"It is asking schools to do too much," Duncan said. "But if we don't do it, who's going to do it?"

A Socorro High School student said many drop out of high school because of bullying and a lack of fun activities. She said high schoolers don't have the same fun opportunities as elementary students. As one progresses through junior high and then high school, fewer activities are available.

The student said the high school doesn't offer the journalism or yearbook clubs anymore, and noted students who were once involved in such activities have started "hanging out with the wrong people." She said her mother's yearbook listed a plethora of clubs high schoolers could enjoy, but now SHS only offers a couple of clubs and sports, which not everyone likes.

The student said everyone gets bullied. She also gave a specific example of a special needs girl being bullied at the school.

"High school isn't fun at all," the student said. "It sucks — sorry to say it, I'm sorry little ones, elementary was the best time ever, but now that you go up, it's terrible."

Earwood agreed, remarking the educational system has not changed since he was in school even though the world has changed drastically. The high school structure is the same as when he attended school.

"In my opinion, we're not meeting your needs, and we're doing you an injustice," Earwood said, "because we're living in a different world than what I lived in when I was growing up."

He said for one thing, the high school should offer technical and career programs to students so they have the option of getting a good job when they graduate, or furthering their education.

Duncan thanked the student for having the courage to speak out. It seemed to him a plea for help and plea for opportunity, and suggested some people in attendance could help the situation. He also encouraged the student, as a young leader, to think of what she could do to set a tone that bullying is not to be tolerated.

Lopez said Tech needs to spend more time at area schools getting younger people excited about future opportunities.

He said students need to learn something fun, something they can get excited about. He urged students to enroll in dual credit programs and work with their teachers to see how they can connect with Tech. He added Tech has much to offer — even if a student is interested in something like dancing, Tech can help.

Kim Kerschen, president of the New Mexico Parent Teacher Association, said it was heartbreaking to hear the student say high school wasn't fun. She said some things the girl was asking for could be provided by parents' organizations like the PTA.

Another Tech representative gave her cellphone number to the student, encouraging her to get in touch. She said Tech would be happy to develop a mentoring program with the high school.

"We're in it together," Lopez said. "And if we fail, there are plenty of examples around the world where educational systems have failed the majority of society. And that we cannot afford, so we are in this together."