Secretary of Education Rod Paige called teachers and principals the “quiet heroes” of Sept. 11, 2001, during a back-to-school speech here last week.
Throughout a Sept. 9 address at the National Press Club, Mr. Paige spoke of the continuing role that educators have in helping children recover from the aftermath of that day. And he said that role started on the day of the attacks.
“Millions of moms and dads looked up from their work, and their very first thought was about the safety of their children,” Mr. Paige said. “And who was there to protect the children? Thousands of teachers and principals nationwide.”
In particular, Mr. Paige lauded Beatriz “Pat” Hymel, the principal at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington. Even after discovering that a hijacked plane had crashed into the Pentagon where her husband, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Robert J. Hymel worked, the principal stayed at the school comforting both students and teachers. It wasn’t until later that Ms. Hymel learned that her husband had been killed in the attack.
“Teachers and principals are the ultimate first responders,” said Mr. Paige, who spent Sept. 11 of this year at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. The school is the same one that President Bush and Secretary Paige were visiting when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took place.
Ms. Hymel said it felt good to have educators roles’ in dealing with the events a year ago acknowledged. Though many offices closed that day and workers fled the area, “my teachers hung in there,” she said.
Mr. Paige said that even while dealing with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the Bush administration made it clear that education remained a priority.
He said that the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 made it through Congress with bipartisan support, after lawmakers addressed anti-terrorism legislation.
Mr. Paige said even though the new law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is now being implemented, the full process will take years. He said the press and the public should give educators time to put the new measure into place before demanding results.
But he said giving parents a choice when their children’s schools are failing, providing supplemental services for students in struggling schools, and staffing every classroom with well-qualified teachers must happen. Mr. Paige said there would be challenges, but that schools and districts needed to be creative.
For example, in rural districts where long distances may make it difficult for students to have true school choice, Mr. Paige said schools could take advantage of online classes. In districts struggling to find qualified teachers, he said, administrators should look in nontraditional places for their classroom recruits or help start teacher-training courses of their own.
The secretary said teachers should be paid more, but he also argued that the traditional teacher-pay structure must be reworked to link teacher effectiveness and compensation.
‘One Thing ... I Want to Do’
In a question-and-answer session that included several queries about the impact of vouchers, Mr. Paige said the choices that vouchers and the No Child Left Behind Act provide would “strengthen schools, not detract from them.”
“I think one of our greatest sins,” he said, “has been to tie a child to a failing school and insist that that child stay at that failing school and continue to be crippled.”
During the speech, Mr. Paige also announced that students across the country would participate in a “Pledge Across America.” For the second year in a row, Mr. Bush and Mr. Paige were scheduled to participate in the national recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, set for Sept. 17.
Mr. Paige also assured the crowd that despite rumors he might leave the Department of Education, he planned to stay put.
“I can help in our education situation,” he said. “It’s the one thing that I want to do. It’s the one thing that I know how to do.”