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John B. King Jr. Goes Back to the Classroom, Gets a Lesson From Students

By Alyson Klein — October 21, 2016 2 min read
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Graduation rates are up, but there are still persistent gaps between racial minorities, English-language learners, and students in special education and their general education peers. What are the reasons behind that and what should schools do to close the gap?

To answer those questions, U.S. Secretary of Education John King went straight to the source: high school kids.

The one-time social studies teacher gave a guest lecture this morning to students in a government class at Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C. His first visual aid was a chart explaining changes to graduation rates over the past five years, broken out by racial and ethnic group. (See the chart below.) He asked the students what they saw as the good news and bad news and they quickly seized on the disparities.

King asked what factors might contribute to the gaps. The class suggested everything from the fact that English-language learners might have trouble tackling coursework in a language that’s unfamiliar to them, to historical factors such as segregation and slavery.

“Throughout history some races have been put ahead of others,” one student said.

King also asked the students “more practically” what they thought could be done about the gaps. They came up with everything from starting environmental clubs to engaging students and afterschool tutoring. Those are things that Coolidge already does, but “some kids don’t go because they feel that others might tease them” one student said.

King showed the showed the students a similar chart showing rates of chronic absenteeism. He asked the kids why some students don’t show up to school on time.

They explained that in some cases, they have jobs or other responsibilities.

“Working and going to school is not easy,” one student said. “It’s really, really hard.” Another student, Jordy Flores, who walked in late, told the secretary that he had been doing laundry because mornings are the only chance he has to do that.

The students’ solutions for fixing the absenteeism problem were similar, and they boiled down to this: Make sure kids are engaged in class.

The Coolidge students, though, are dealing with a lot more this week than just social studies class. One of their classmates, Kaelia Minor, was fatally stabbed on a bus earlier this month, allegedly by a former Coolidge student, Kyla Jones. King also met with guidance counselors, who are helping students cope with their grief.

King talked when about one of his former middle school students, a boy named Herman, was killed, in what he called a case of mistaken identity.

“It was devastating for all of us who knew him,” King said. And he added, “I thought a lot about the young man who killed him.” There was a point in time, he said, when the young man who killed his student was a “vibrant, excited five-year-old with his hand raised in a classroom, excited to be out and learning.”

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