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Arne Duncan Says Adults Let African-American Students Down, Seeks Advice

By Lauren Camera — September 09, 2014 3 min read
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Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan began the second day of his back-to-school bus tour at John Herbert Phillips Academy in Birmingham, Ala. —Photo by Lauren Camera


Birmingham, Ala.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a group of African-American students Tuesday that adults are letting them down and asked what he and President Barack Obama can do to provide better support systems and help them achieve their goals.

The roundtable discussion took place at the John Herbert Phillips Academy in the cradle of the civil rights movement, and highlighted My Brother’s Keeper, an administration initiative aimed at boosting opportunity for boys and men of color.

“Whether it’s here in Birmingham or Ferguson, Missouri ... we have young men—black, Latino—who have extraordinary talents, extraordinary gifts, and somehow we as a society have not let those gifts flourish,” said Duncan, alluding to the recent shooting in the Missouri community that sparked week-long demonstrations, some of which were violent. “And the heartbreak in that doesn’t come without consequences. Our job is to listen, and our job is to find ways to support you.”

“I think about all the silly things we fight over and shoot each other over and die over,” Duncan continued. “And I think about the real history and the legacy here. We need to stop fighting.”

He spoke alongside U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who emphasized that increasing economic and life opportunities for minority communities cannot be a single-pronged effort.

My Brother’s Keeper, a $200 million program that the White House rolled out this spring, asks cities, businesses, non-profit organizations, philanthropic foundations, faith leaders and others to commit to helping students get a strong start in school and connect them to mentors, internships, and other support systems they might need to either find a good job or go to college.

Most recently, 60 of the nation’s big-city school districts have signed on to the effort, and several nonprofit and private organizations, including the National Basketball Association, have kicked in support.

[UPDATE (3:10 p.m.): During the roundtable discussion, a dozen students, including three female students, talked about the most important experiences in their lives that have helped them reach their academic goals and prepare them for life after graduation. They underscored the importance of various non-profits that provide mentors and internship opportunities, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Impact Alabama, which connects students with resources from the state’s higher education institutions.

When Duncan asked the group of students what he and the president can do to better support their needs, several said increased access to mentors would be helpful. One student noted that increasing professional development for teachers might better prepare them to teach to various learning styles.

The administration has gotten some pushback about leaving female students of color out of the conversation with the roll out of My Brother’s Keeper. But Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Education Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who helped lead the roundtable discussion, addressed that:

“It’s about making sure all our children have the best opportunities possible,” she said. “But if we know where our weaknesses are you can invest smartly.”]

The roundtable event was the first on Tuesday’s back-to-school bus tour schedule. Duncan also toured the NASA space camp in Hunstville, Ala., to highlight the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math curricula.

You can follow along on Twitter (@politicsK12, #PK12onthebus) and at this live-feed of all tweets, photos, blogs, and more.