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Scenes From a Bus Tour: Disaster Relief, College Access, and School Turnarounds

U.S. Secretary John B. King Jr. just completed his first—and likely his last—annual Education Department bus tour, visiting half a dozen states across the South, stopping off at an early-learning program in Arkansas, and a university that's made progress in graduating historically disadvantaged groups of students.

The theme of the tour, the last for the Obama administration, "Opportunity Across America" and students decorated the bus along with the way with drawings depicting what opportunity means to them. (Check out the before and after pictures below.)

We joined King on the last day of the week-long trek, for three stops in Louisiana. Read our Q & A here.

University Terrace Elementary School, Baton Rouge, La.

Louisiana has been pummeled by heavy rainfall and flooding this summer, meaning that some students and teachers here have had to leave their homes, right as the school year is beginning.

King told the students at University Terrace Elementary School that he and his boss—President Barack Obama—were thinking of them and wanted to them to continue learning and working hard in school.

And he told them "your teachers are heroes" for keeping their eyes on their students' education even as they are dealing with fallout from the storms in their personal lives.

Before King arrived at the school, Jodi Burson, who teaches 3rd grade science and social studies, had to execute a quick move when her home flooded. She and her husband are now using donated furniture, sleeping on an air mattress ,and coping without internet capability—far from ideal circumstances at the start of the school year.

She shared her story with her students. And for the most part, they were sympathetic, she said. "Most of them understood." And while only a handful of her students were also flooded out of their homes, "they've all been effected by it," she said. For instance, some students have had displaced relatives come and stay with them.

During King's visit, the department announced that it's giving a $1.5 million to the Louisiana Department of Education to help schools and students deal with fallout from the storm. And Yoobi, a IMG_1487 (2).JPGschool supplies company offered the students free boxes of colored pencils and other supplies.

Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.

President Barack Obama has made it his goal that the United States will (again) lead the world in college completion by 2020. And the president and both of his education secretaries (King and his predecessor, Arne Duncan) have stressed the importance of making sure that universities enroll and graduate more students of color, those that come from low-income families, and those in special education.

So how's that going? There are definitely some universities that are leaders here, including LSU, King said.

"It's not enough for students to start college," King said. "They have to finish. This is especially true for students who have to take out loans to pay for college. If they don't complete a degree, they end up worse off than had they never gone to college, because they wind up saddled by debts that often they cannot pay."

The Obama administration, and Congress, have been trying to tackle the access and information barriers. They've released a "college scorecard" to help students weigh different prospective schools, streamlined the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, and have allowed graduates to make loan payments based on their income, among other action.

But even those steps haven't gone far enough. One former financial aid administrator and educator in the audience told King about his family's frustration filling out the  FAFSA.

And another audience member asked whether King favored making federal college-access programs, like TRIO, available to undocumented immigrants.

King said he was all for that. In fact, he'd like to see all sorts of higher education assistance become available for those students. But he acknowledged that "there are significant political obstacles in the way of that."

And he added, "To me the broader question is should we as country create a caste system, where some folks, because of their migration status, don't have access to opportunity ... It's short-sighted because these are our students in our schools they are part of our community. This, to me, is a critical issue moving forward."

bustour.jpgCohen College Prep High School, New Orleans.

How do you turn around a perennially failing school?

No one has found the magic bullet, but this school, which was restarted as a charter several years ago, seems to be on the right track.

Cohen College Prep, which went from an F to a B on the state's accountability system, was part of New Schools for New Orleans nearly $30 million federal grant through the Investing in Innovation program. The grant was aimed at investigating whether low-performing schools can get better when they are reimagined as charters.

As part of the turnaround, the school brought in new leadership and some new staff, but continued some long-standing traditions, including an emphasis on music and band. The school also puts a premium on a college-going culture—it's had a 100 percent college acceptance rate for the past three school years. 

On the day of King's visit, the department unveiled guidance on using evidence-based interventions to improve struggling schools under the new Every Student Succeeds Act. You can read it here.

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