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To the next US secretary of education: It's time to focus on students (Opinion)

CNN logo CNN 11/30/2020 Opinion by Miguel Cervantes del Toro
a graffiti covered wall: Mural at Callaway Elementary School © Miguel Cervantes del Toro Mural at Callaway Elementary School

The outside of the northwest Baltimore elementary school where I have been principal for seven years is covered in a brightly colored, student-designed mural featuring portraits of our children and their families reading together. Our community can, quite literally, see themselves reflected in this artwork. The mural was part of a schoolwide project about brain science, literacy and art, all hallmarks of our school's curriculum.

Most of my students -- nearly all of whom come from low-income families severely impacted by this pandemic -- haven't been inside our school since March. The uncertainty and emotional toil of this crisis, on top of the trauma my students have already experienced from living in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city, is heartbreaking. Our school is an anchor for our students, a place where they know they belong, no matter what is going on at home or on their block.

Put simply: I am worried about losing an entire generation of students to this pandemic. That's why I hope the next US Secretary of Education truly sees public education as the great equalizer for students like mine -- children beating the odds, growing up in a neighborhood with limited access to fresh produce, on the edge of the Callaway-Garrison neighborhood that was redlined in the 1930s, nearly four miles from where Freddie Gray, a Black man whose death while in police custody sparked protests, lived. I want the next education secretary to understand and acknowledge the myriad impacts of long-standing systemic racism.

Moreover, I want the next education secretary to have an aggressive plan to address those injustices and dismantle racist systems for all students in real, tangible ways.

Like our mural, the next education secretary and his or her team must reflect the diversity of public schools. Even as the demographics of public school students have shifted to be majority children of color, the nation's top education leaders have been mostly White. My students need federal leaders who understand the barriers -- some seen and some not -- that Black and Latinx students face every day in this country. They need to see themselves represented in the diversity of leadership at every level: teachers, principals, state and national education departments.

The education secretary must know that the odds stacked against my students were put there on purpose by generations of White supremacy, and that my school is the place that will give them wings to soar in life.

I live for the day when an education secretary visits my school and engages in a deep discussion with us about good instruction and what yields the best results for our students. When I tell the next education secretary that my school saw the biggest gains in English in our district in 2018, I want him or her to know what a big deal that is for my student population and to talk in depth with us about how we did it.

I want the next person who fills this position to know that I am an immigrant who moved with my family from Mexico to Sacramento, California, when I was 11, and that I became a teacher because I saw the difference that education made in my life. I experienced firsthand the vast inequities that exist in public school systems as an immigrant and English language learner.

I took part in leadership development programs like New Leaders because I knew that kind of training -- coupled with the doctorate that I'm working on right now -- would put me on the path to being the most effective school principal and advocate for even more students in my adopted home of Baltimore.

This year has been incredibly difficult for schools as we watched the very foundation of public education -- seeing students walk in the door every day -- disappear before our eyes. The teachers at my school are working hard to keep our students engaged in learning virtually. This month, a small group of special education and kindergarten students returned to in-person learning in our school building with extra help from service providers like speech and occupational therapists. However, like many districts across the country, we do not know how long this will last.

For our remote learners, we extended our school day by an hour so teachers can give one-on-one support to students. We handed out 250 laptops and 40 hotspots -- most provided by the district and a few others donated by community organizations -- to ensure all of our 320 students could stay connected to school. I consider this a small miracle considering 17 million children across the country live in homes without internet access, and no level of government has addressed that crisis in any real way.

Not only has the federal government not allocated any relief funding to closing the digital divide for students during this pandemic, but Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, citing "economic turmoil" resulting from Covid-19, recently vetoed bills that would have provided much needed resources for schools like mine.

We need the next education secretary to act with urgency to ensure that we do not lose any more ground with students. We need resources to help schools safely reopen again and we need funding for mental health support to address the trauma the pandemic has caused. My school recently received a state grant to hire a full-time social worker, which has been critical to our students in this time of learning at home. But what happens when that grant runs out? Teaching children doesn't stop with their brains. We must develop the whole child to ensure students are ready mentally, physically, emotionally and academically for success in life.

The next education secretary must understand that the stakes are high for my students. Once students leave my school after fifth grade, they take tests to get into the best middle schools in Baltimore. Where they get placed determines their academic trajectory all the way into college.

The next education secretary must act boldly to provide all children with access to high-quality education no matter where they live. What's more, he or she must be student-centered in every action taken and every decision made.

The next US Secretary of Education can make the biggest impact on public education in a generation -- but the education secretary must act with urgency. Our students cannot wait any longer.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Mural at Callaway Elementary School © Miguel Cervantes del Toro Mural at Callaway Elementary School a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Miguel Cervantes del Toro © courtesy of Miguel Cervantes del Toro Miguel Cervantes del Toro
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