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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Margaret Spellings
Secretary of Education

Conference on School Safety

October 10, 2006

Margaret Spellings
Good afternoon. I’m glad to join all of you today and answer your questions. One of the issues on all of our minds right now is school safety. Our country has seen terrible and senseless violence in our schools in recent weeks, and our heart goes out to the families and communities who are coping with these tragedies.

As a mother, I know that there is nothing more important than keeping our children safe. Schools should be havens of safety and learning and unless our students feel safe, they can’t learn. To help address this issue President Bush asked Attorney General Gonzales and me to organize a conference on school safety.

The Conference was held today at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center in Maryland. It brought together a wide variety of individuals from community leaders to researchers to school officials to share effective ways to plan for and prevent violence in the future as well as effective coping methods for the school community.

Parents, educators, community members, law enforcement, researchers, and policymakers all share the responsibility of protecting our children. By working together, I hope we can learn from these tragedies and improve the safety of schools across our nation.

So, with that being said, I’ll answer any questions you may have on school safety as well as questions on the No Child Left Behind Act and my recent action plan for the future of higher education in America.

Jacqueline, from Maryland writes:
When are we going to make schools safer for our children? Do think it is time to make it mandatory for all schools to have metal detectors? Do you think teachers and principals should be armed?

Margaret Spellings
Jacqueline, let me begin by saying that in spite of recent events, more than 50 million students attend our schools every day and by and large our schools are safe places. In fact, crime in schools has been decreasing since 1992. The purpose of the School Safety Conference today was to come together and see what more we can do to prevent the type of violent acts that have occurred in recent weeks.

In terms of specific security equipment such as metal detectors, those types of decisions should be made at the local level by the officials who know best their individual school’s needs. However, before making any decision regarding what type of security devices or equipment to use, the Department strongly encourages schools to review evaluations of various security devices to ensure under what conditions, if any, they are effective.

In addition, while principals and teachers play a key role in ensuring that schools are safe, the role of enforcing criminal laws should be done by trained law enforcement personnel, not educators. Many schools have School Resource Officers on campus, who in addition to providing security, develop relationships of trust and open lines of communication with students so a student can go to the officer with their concerns. Some schools choose to have volunteers including parents on campus to encourage students to open up and share concerns.

Joyce, from Singapore writes:
Hi Madam Secretary, I'm just wondering, to improve school safety, why not fence up the school's perimeter and set up a security post at the entrance? I mean...I'm just suggesting because that's how the schools here in Singapore maintain a certain level of security. Have a good day

Margaret Spellings
Joyce, our research shows that the most effective way to create a safe school is to have a comprehensive approach, that is, one that balances security approaches such as fences and cameras with effective prevention programming, where students are provided the skills necessary to avoid violent confrontations. Decisions regarding how to balance security and prevention are made at the local school and district level. Our federal role is to assist in providing training, technical assistance, identifying best practices, and providing grant funds to support local school safety efforts. One excellent example is the Practical Information on Crisis Planning for Schools and Communities, developed by my Department.

Justin, from Gainesville, Florida. writes:
Is there anything you plan to do to try to motivate students to do better in school? What is it?

Margaret Spellings
Hi Justin, I am glad you asked this question. One thing we are doing is encouraging students to take more rigorous courses in high school so that they will enter college and the workplace prepared to succeed. This school year, for the first time ever, we are awarding Academic Competitiveness grants worth up to $1,300 to low-income, first and second year college students who completed a rigorous high school program of study and who, for second year students, have a GPA of at least 3.0 from their first year of college. Also, we are providing National SMART grants (that’s National “Science & Mathematics Access to Retain Talent” Grants for those that don’t live and breathe this like I do) worth up to $4,000 to third and fourth year, low-income college students who are majoring in a math, science, engineering, technology, or critical foreign language field and have a GPA of at least 3.0.

In this increasingly competitive, global economy, it is more important than ever that we encourage students to take and succeed in more challenging courses in high school and college so that they will graduate ready to lead America forward in the 21st century.

Antoinette, from East Meadow, NY writes:
Bush is talking about a few things that he wants to add onto the No Child Left Behind Law. How does the Bush Administration plan on improving teacher quality and what other options do they want to give to parents whose children are trapped in struggling schools. I think bringing the same high standards and accountability of the No Child Left Behind Act to our high schools is a great idea.

Margaret Spellings
Thanks for your question, Antoinette. Strengthening teacher quality and giving parents more options are two key areas that we are focusing on to help ensure that no child is left behind. This year, the newly funded Teacher Incentive Fund is providing nearly $100 million in grants so that states and school districts can develop and implement innovative ways to reward teachers for raising student achievement and closing the achievement gap in high need schools.

To strengthen the teaching of math in elementary and middle schools, the President has proposed the Math Now program, which would provide $250 million to help teachers implement proven practices in math instruction so that students enter high school ready to take challenging math and science courses. Also, to strengthen teacher quality in secondary schools, the President has proposed $25 million to create an Adjunct Teacher Corps that would bring in highly qualified math, science and foreign language professionals to teach courses in hard to fill positions. And, as part of the proposed $90 million increase for the Advanced Placement Incentive Program, training would be provided to an additional 70,000 teachers so that they could teach AP math, science or critical foreign language courses.

To give parents whose children are trapped in under-performing schools more options, the President has proposed the America’s Opportunity Scholarships for Kids program. This program would provide $100 million so that students in schools that have not met state standards for 6 years could receive scholarships to receive intensive tutoring or to attend a private school.

I am pleased that you support bringing high standards and accountability to our high schools. At a time, when 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs require post-secondary education it’s unacceptable that almost a third of high school students fail to graduate – that’s a million kids every single year. Even more troubling is the fact that almost half of all minority students fail to graduate from high school.

The President’s proposed $1.5 billion high school reform initiative would provide extra resources to states to help students most at risk of dropping out of high school as well as expand high school assessments to increase accountability.

William, from Philadelphia writes:
Topic: No child left behind.My wife is a high school science teacher in New Jersey. She has noticed that the majority of her students, (Grades 10 through 12) have not master grade school math (addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication). Under the current No school left behind program, the Federal Government penalizes the high school for this failure. Wouldn't it make sense to institute a mandatory public High School entrance test to catch this problem before grade school graduation? By the time these children reach high school, they have already been left behind.

Margaret Spellings
Thanks for your question, William. We absolutely support additional assessments in high school, so kids don’t fall behind. In addition, the fact that so many students enter high school without mastering the math skills they need to succeed is a large concern of the President’s and mine as well. That is why the President created the National Math Panel earlier this year and has proposed the $250 million Math Now programs for elementary and middle school students.

The National Math Panel is currently evaluating various approaches to teaching math in order to develop a research base to guide and improve instructional methods for teachers. Math Now for Elementary School Students would provide competitive grants to improve math instruction for elementary school students by expanding on the use of proven practices in math instruction, including those recommended by the National Math Panel, so that all students will learn the skills necessary to take and pass Algebra in middle school. Similar to the Striding Readers Initiative for students struggling with reading, Math Now for Middle school students would provide grants to improve the instruction of middle school students who are performing significantly below grade level so that they too will learn the skills necessary to take and pass Algebra and be able to take more challenging math and science courses in high school.

Be sure to tell your wife – thanks for teaching!

Malcolm, from Daytona Beach, Florida writes:
Will The White House Support Youth Crime Watch of America in the effort to train youth on how to be the eyes and ears in there schools and community, and help to develop our young people into the leaders this United Staes need among youth

Margaret Spellings
Malcolm, thank you for your inquiry. Today, I met a wonderful young lady, Chiara Perkins who works with Youth Crime Watch in Florida. I thank you, Chiara and others for being part of an organization that recognizes that youth need to be part of the solution to crime and violence in schools and communities. My Department recognizes that in order to have safe schools everyone, including students, must be involved. Students play a key role in school safety, and we will continue to promote programs, practices, and policies that facilitate the involvement of youth in prevention programming.

john, from texas writes:
I read that some school districts encourage poor students to drop out before they have to take the No Child Left Behind test so that the school will get a better score. What's being done to discourage that practice and help those students? In this day and age we shouldn't allow anybody to drop out early because they will be a burden on society in later years. When they had a job waiting for them on the family farm it might have made sense, but not now.

Margaret Spellings
Hey John, I’m always glad to see a fellow Texan logging on and asking a question. That doesn’t seem like the teachers and principals that I know and have visited across the country. Educators that I have met encourage struggling students to strive for the best and try to find the best ways to reach them before they dropout.

In fact, the way the accountability system is constructed under No Child Left Behind, high schools are held accountable for graduation rates – which provides a greater incentive to ensure that every student remains in school and achieves a high school diploma.

I do agree with your larger point about the need to ensure that every student should finish high school with a meaningful diploma. More than 20 years after the landmark study, A Nation At Risk, only 22 States and DC require high school students to take a minimum of three years of mathematics and three years of science. The graduation rates in the US are not tolerable – only 71% of students get a diploma, and among minority youth, only half of our black and Latino students graduate from high school. In a time when the world is becoming more competitive, we must take action. As I mentioned earlier, according to the US Department of Labor, 90% of the fastest growing jobs require post-secondary education. These facts support our efforts to improve high schools. My goals are to ensure that states calculate an accurate graduation rate, expand opportunities for students to take more rigorous coursework through the Advanced Placement initiative, and have more accurate data about what students know through the use of additional tests in the high school grades.

Karel, from Spokane, WA writes:
My two daughters teach at two different schools that are low income and perform poorly on the state tests. One is 90 Hispanic in WA State and one is over 90 african american in Louisiana. At both of the schools art music and other enrichment classes have been discontinued to allow for more instructional time in an effort to increase test scores. At the school in Louisiana all recesses have been denied the children, ostensibly to increase teaching time. Can this truly be an objective of NCLB? to deny children any breaks other than quick trips to the bathroom? If not, is there anything that can be done about this obvious misunderstanding?

Margaret Spellings
This is a great question, Karel and one I hear a lot. You must have very interesting family holiday dinners with all of the educators in your family! I know you are proud of your girls. The objective of No Child Left Behind is to ensure that all students achieve to grade-level in mathematics, and reading/language arts – not to much to ask from one mom to another!

What you described is not the objective of No Child Left Behind. Working for grade level in math and reading does not and should not translate into a situation where students no longer have time for music, art, science, history, or any other subject that ensures a well-rounded education. This does not have to be the case. I have visited schools where just the opposite has happened – teachers have taught students how to read and do mathematics well while also teaching other subjects. Last week, I went with the President to Friendship Public Charter School’s Woodridge Elementary Campus. At that school, they had set up a “SmartLab” to help students learn practical skills and encourage the students to go to college. Another example was a school I visited in Ohio a few weeks ago. At GlenOak High school, the students who are interested in the life sciences can study ecology and chemistry... and along the way, get on-the-job training in surveying, mapping, and cutting-edge GIS technology. Students interested in business can study accounting and finance, then manage the campus coffee shop, or start a student credit union. The point is that schools can achieve the goals of No Child Left Behind while giving students time to play, engage in art, and learn about history and science.

John, from Troy, MI writes:
Just 5-10 years ago, financial aid would cover about 85 of college costs while today, it covers about 35-45. Is there absolutely nothing that the government can do to rein in the explosion of college costs and cover more for each student? And secondly, instead of bringing nurses and other workers from foreign countries, can't we provide some incentive for our children to gain degrees and work in such professions? Lastly, can't the government curtail colleges from becoming lavish five-star hotels and passing these expenses on to pauper students?

Margaret Spellings
I’m glad you asked those questions, John. About a year ago, I formed a commission to study the future of higher education and to look into other issues including the very question of affordability that you've raised. My commission recently gave me their report and I have responded to their recommendations with my action plan for the Future of Higher Education to address the issues of accessibility, affordability and accountability. You are right when you say there's been an explosion of college costs. Tuition continues to outpace inflation, health care costs and family income levels. I proposed several concrete steps to take. One item in my action plan that I believe will truly help in the area of cost is more information for consumers. Currently, there is very little information for students and families about why costs continue to rise and what exactly a student is getting for that investment. That's why I want more data publicly available so that anyone can go on line and compare and contrast institutions based on sound data and make informed decisions about one of the most substantial investments a person will make in their lifetime. As part of my plan, I will also work with Congress and the states to increase need-based aid for low-income Americans to help make college more affordable. Additionally, I will direct the Department of Education to do what we can to simplify the process of applying for financial aid as well as provide students and families estimates of their aid eligibility earlier than the spring of their senior year. The commission found that often times students aren't aware of all the aid that is available and the process is too complex. We will work to change that.

Joel, from Superior, WI writes:
Ms. Spellings, I attend a school that recently had a bomb threat, and our middle school (the same day) had an incident where a student was thought to have brought a pistol to school. In my state of Wisconsin, Green Bay East High School recently had a serious incident with students making threats, and in Cazenovia, a principal was shot by a distraught student. And, obviously there have been the many other incidents around the country where school violence has occurred. What is being done to stop this violence, and what more can be done?

Margaret Spellings
Joel, I’m sorry to hear about those incidents and I am glad you asked that question. Schools overall, are safe places for students like you. However, there are some things communities can do to improve school safety such as: ensuring that every school has a comprehensive crisis plan, that every school involves students, parents, law enforcement and community groups in the development of its crisis plan and prevention programs and trains educators in how to use the crisis plan, and that schools ensure that every student is connected to a responsible adult in the school or community. Joel, you as a student can help ensure that schools remain safe. You can do that by reporting threats and criminal incidents, speaking out against those who bully or harass others, and serving as a peer mentor to someone who needs a helping hand. Whether a student, parent, teacher, or school official, one of the most important actions we can take to prevent further violence is to remain aware, watch for warning signs of violence and report them immediately.

Margaret Spellings
Thanks everyone for your thoughtful and wide-ranging questions, and for taking the time to chat with me today. I appreciate the opportunity to be here with all of you, and I look forward to being back to update you on our progress soon.

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