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U.S. schools chief visits Eastern Panhandle

May 05, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he was inspired by the hard work he said was evident during his visit Tuesday to two Berkeley County elementary schools and Blue Ridge Community & Technical College.

"I just see this tremendous passion and commitment, and this is a state that is really serious about education," Duncan said on his first stop in a nationwide "listening and learning" tour.

Duncan is expected to travel to 15 or more states to solicit feedback from a broad group of stakeholders about federal education policy in anticipation of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"Teachers, principals, parents, superintendents, community members -- everybody wants this to continue to get better," Duncan said. "I learned a lot, but I leave here really optimistic about the direction this place is going."

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"Every great school has great teachers and a great principal," Duncan said of his visits to Bunker Hill Elementary and Eagle School Intermediate. "Where you have that passion, extraordinary things happen and that is obviously going on."

Duncan began his visit to Berkeley County with a meeting with parents and teachers at Bunker Hill Elementary School. He had lunch with students at Eagle School Intermediate before meeting with faculty and staff there.

West Virginia state troopers then escorted the black Chevrolet Suburban in which he was traveling through Martinsburg's historic downtown business district to Blue Ridge CTC for a town hall-style meeting with students, faculty and staff.

Duncan, along with West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin; James Skidmore, chancellor of the West Virginia Community and Technical College System; and state Superintendent of Schools Steven L. Paine fielded questions from an audience of more than 100 people who crowded into the atrium of the first floor of the Berkeley County office building where the school is leasing space.

Several of the questions to the panel were about difficulties transferring credits earned from one school to another and about financial aid eligibility.

Duncan said he worries about students not being prepared for the transition from high school to college and "burning through" financial aid money on remedial courses.

He noted efforts by the Obama administration to increase funding for Pell grants and other financial aid in the current budget, with billions more being eyed in the future.

When questioned about No Child Left Behind, Duncan told the audience that the bipartisan federal law should be credited for shedding light on the achievement gap among students, such as those with learning disabilities, who speak English as a second language or who live in poverty.

"The law was desperately underfunded," Duncan said.




Education Secretary Arne Duncan towered over his lunch mates Tuesday afternoon at Eagle School Intermediate.

His lanky, 6-foot-5-inch frame hunched over a red lunch tray holding a cheese steak, onion rings, mixed vegetables and apple crisp was hard to miss among the 125 to 150 fourth- and fifth-graders in the Martinsburg- area school's cafeteria.

The swarm of photographers and reporters that surrounded him was a dead giveaway, too. Duncan was another special visitor to the Berkeley County, W.Va., school, which was one of six nationwide last year to receive the Panasonic National School Change Award for academic improvements.

Duncan, who once was co-captain of Harvard University's basketball team, presented an autographed basketball to physical education teacher Patrick Ashton before leaving the cafeteria for a discussion in the library with more than a dozen of the school's faculty and staff.

Joined by state Superintendent of Schools Steven L. Paine and West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin, Duncan heard how at least a couple faculty members passed up opportunities for more money in Maryland to work at Eagle School.

Fifth-grade teacher Chip Barnhart said he works at Sears after school and in the summer to support his family "to be happy here," rather than work in a neighboring state that pays more.

Barnhart's loyalty to Eagle School prompted Manchin, a member of the State Board of Education, to stand up from her chair and thank him on behalf of her husband, Gov. Joe Manchin, who she said was working on the budget.

"What we heard from teachers everywhere we were -- it's not all about money -- and certainly we would be first to say teachers deserve better pay," Gayle Manchin said after visiting Eagle School Intermediate and Bunker Hill Elementary with Duncan.

"I think teachers do want to be respected, they want to be treated as professionals, they want be given some flexibility so they can be creative ... one size doesn't fit all," Manchin said. "We want to continue to work with those models that are getting good results, that are using best practices, that are encouraging highly qualified teachers," Manchin said. "All of that is exactly what we want to be doing."

Manchin said she was thrilled that Duncan was able to see examples of some of the "great things" going on in West Virginia.

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