Check out this letter penned to newly confirmed Secretary of Education Cardona by Lawrence's very own Milagros Pena and Helen German-Vargas. We're so proud of their work as Community Advisors to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
Dear Secretary of Education Cardona,
Congratulations on your confirmation as U.S. Secretary of Education, and the wonderful opportunity to support young people nationwide.
We attend public schools in Lawrence, Mass. and are members of Elevated Thought, an art and social justice organization that addresses forms of systemic injustice through youth development, beautification projects, public outreach, and paid opportunities for BIPOC creatives.
As students who are most affected by the decisions made about our learning, we want to make sure our voices are included in shaping education policies and priorities. We encourage you to regularly engage with young people because our experiences uniquely qualify us for solving the most pressing issues facing our schools.
We are optimistic and motivated for the future, especially because you share our focus on achieving equity and addressing systemic racism in education. For our public schools to live up to their promise of opportunity for everyone, we believe the following should be key areas of focus for the new administration:
Hiring more teachers of color
It makes a tremendous difference when children see teachers and educators who resemble themselves. Teachers of color can relate to young people in ways that white teachers sometimes cannot — due to different environments growing up, different economic situations, and different traditions and customs. As students, it is relieving to talk to people who have walked in our shoes and understand our struggles.
This is especially important within predominantly white institutions. Sometimes teachers of color are the only solace and support students of color can turn to when they are stressed. It alleviates pressure off students of color from having to explain to their white educators why they feel overwhelmed, or serve as “educators” to their peers when discussing sensitive topics such as racism, prejudice, and discrimination. In addition to having more teachers of color in schools, making sure that educators are trained in anti-racist teaching will help young people feel seen and heard.
On that same note, hiring more teachers who are part of the LGBTQ community or have queer/homosexual identities serves the same purpose. This is especially important for children who are coming to terms with their sexualities, and realizing that there is nothing wrong with identifying outside the heterosexual norm.
Equitable school funding
Our education officials need to be cognizant of the opportunity gaps between urban and suburban schools — an issue that’s been discussed for decades now. It is vital that equitable funding for public schools is prioritized so that all young people can receive the best quality education. Students in public schools should not be forced to suffer in underfunded districts and be deprived of learning opportunities their peers experience in wealthy communities.
Mental health supports and discipline reform
We urge you to support policies that combat the school-to-prison pipeline. This involves finding alternatives to disciplinary practices like suspensions and expulsions, and providing mental health education and services that are culturally accessible nationwide. Similar to the importance of hiring BIPOC educators, students need better representation in mental health supports, guidance counselors, and social workers.
Education standards that apply to real-world learning
Too often, our learning and classes are tied to meeting vague standards that do not relate to skills we will need in our daily lives. It is important that standards are tied to real-world learning and skills that will be applicable throughout college and career.
Miguel Cardona, we wish you all the best as you transition into your new role. We look forward to hearing more about your ideas to improve our nation’s education system, and hope to work with you in building a better future for America’s youth.
Milagros Pena, Elevated Thought, Community Advisor to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation
Helen German-Vargas, Elevated Thought, Community Advisor to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation