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Article updated: 5/15/2013 5:51 PM

Secretary of Education to U-46: How can we help?

By Kerry Lester

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan connected with his former colleagues in the suburbs Wednesday to take stock of how the federal agency could do its job better.

Duncan, who worked with Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Jose Torres when the two were administrators at Chicago Public Schools, took a tour and participated in an education round-table at Streamwood High School, one of 56 schools in Illinois' second largest school district.

Duncan largely used the opportunity to pepper teachers, students and school board members with questions about programs and performance, from the success of advanced placement classes to professional development opportunities for teachers and equity for students of all backgrounds and races.

"I appreciate your leadership," Duncan told Torres, noting that "there is lots to be proud of here," but that he wanted to "know what we need to do to be more helpful."

Duncan asked the panel about the challenges of providing equity in education for 40,000-student U-46, which is second in size to Chicago Public Schools.

U-46 board member Traci O'Neal Ellis, her voice breaking at times, told Duncan that she fears parts of the community are actively working against equity in education.

"It is my firm belief that there is both a moral answer and an economic reason for closing the achievement gap," she said. "What do we want our community to look like?"

O'Neal Ellis stressed the "need for leadership, not just talk.""

Toward the end of the program, recently retired U-46 board member Joyce Fountain, sitting in the audience, pressed Duncan again and again on how the federal government would specifically step in to help.

"In some ways I think our story is not unique," Fountain said. "I continue to wonder what is happening on the federal level. You've got to be hearing our cries. You have the data. I know it's political but I'm curious about what you have to offer. Tell us there's something positive happening at the federal level."

Duncan, who said he gets out of the bubble of Washington D.C. to hear the needs of schools across the country as much as he can, stressed that Congress and the Obama administration, Democrats and Republicans, need to get beyond politics and work together for education reform.

"To think that we can just come in by ourselves and stay the day, that's difficult," he said.

"How we work together, to put aside politics and ideology ... these are things folks have to work on together. We can't just talk to our friends," Duncan said.

District officials said the visit has been in the works for months.

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