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Education secretary talks self-control, shoots hoops at Vashon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 25, 2012 - Education Secretary Arne Duncan certainly didn’t have to leave Washington to learn lessons about self-control and anger management.

But there he was Monday, sitting in on summer school classes at Vashon High School, one of several schools in St. Louis that are using special federal grants to try to improve their academic achievement.

After visiting with students and shooting some hoops in the gym, Duncan — a one-time co-captain of the Harvard basketball team who played pro ball for a few years in Australia — was set to be among several former college athletes inducted into the Academic All-America Hall of Fame during the annual conference of the College Sports Information Directors of America.

But the main point of his visit to Vashon at 3035 Cass Ave. was to support the work funded by federal school improvement grants, which require districts to make drastic changes in underperforming schools. Vashon is entering the final year of its three-year grant.

“This school and this district may have been struggling in the past,” Duncan told reporters in the Vashon atrium. “But they’re heading in the right direction. They are making progress every year.

“There is still a long way to go, but I always look at the trends, and this school is definitely going the right way.”

After being greeted by Principal Derrick Mitchell — a former Vashon student and basketball player who became principal as part of the SIG grant effort — Duncan first went to the ninth-grade communication arts class of Amy Blackwell. There, students were in two small reading circles, discussing the importance of self-control.

Coatless, with his sleeves rolled up, Duncan folded himself into a student chair and joined the discussion of a book titled “We Beat the Street: How a Friendship Pact Led to Success.”

The students talked about questions like what is self-control, how important is it in their lives and what are the effects of not using it. The answers: Someone could get hurt, someone could get suspended, someone could get bullied.

Asked to recall a time when they lost control — and how things would have been different if they had managed to stay calm — one told of how he got into a fight in fourth grade when someone jumped ahead of him in line. Another talked about how he was suspended in fourth grade when things got out of hand.

“That’s a rough grade,” Duncan noted.

For another student, a book-throwing incident in eighth grade led to her suspension.

Have they improved their self-control, Duncan asked the students? Is that the kind of thing that can be taught in school?

One replied that he tries not to let little stuff bother him any more and tries to laugh it off instead; another said it helps when students have someone like a father figure at home to demonstrate how to maintain self-control.

Duncan’s next stop was a class that was reading a story about Teddy, whose sister was killed in a drive-by shooting. The class discussed the five stages of dealing with grief — denial and isolation anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — and talked about how Teddy changed from being angry to deciding that he did not need to seek revenge for what happened to his sister.

Then it was down to the gym, where Duncan did his best to match Mitchell shot for shot, then met with some students. His final stop was at a brief news conference, where he talked about a variety of education topics, from the impending deadline for college loan rates to either stay where they are or double, to Missouri’s pending application for a waiver from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, an application he said is strong.

First, though, he praised the students who were willing to come to summer school and improve their grades and their skills.

“It’s so important that we never give up on kids and give them a chance,” Duncan said. “They are doing hard work and courageous work.”

On college loan rates, which could double to 6.8 percent on July 1 unless Congress acts reaches a compromise and acts this week:

“I definitely hope they reach a compromise. Everyone is saying the right things, but words are cheap. It’s time for action. They always wait until the last minute. Well, the last minute is here. If there is one thing everyone should be able to get behind, it’s education.”

On charter schools:

“I love good schools. Good charters are part of the solution. Bad charters are part of the problem. We should be replicating success, whether it is district schools or charter schools. We just need more great public schools.”

On whether schools should be using their federal grants to teach topics like self-control and anger management instead of more basic academic subjects:

“We have to teach students where they are,” he said. “If we don’t do that, we are not meeting their basic needs.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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