Alma Powell and her husband Colin Powell

Alma Powell and her husband Colin Powell

In the spirit of New Orleans, a high school band, complete with tubas and clarinets, welcomed clapping attendees to the opening keynote session of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD’s) annual conference March 15.

“We chose New Orleans because the city embodies a spirit of change. In the face of disaster, this city sees the chance to rebuild better and stronger—to reinvent itself. Like the challenges the U.S faces in education, there is hope, there is courage, and there are plans to make it better,” said Nancy DeFord, immediate past president of ASCD. DeFord has been replaced by Valerie Page Truesdale, superintendent of Beaufort County School District in Beaufort, S.C.

Paul Vallas, superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District, said that even though 70 percent of the children in Louisiana suffer from poverty, and the state has the lowest reading scores among 4th graders in the country, “we are a proud and courageous people, and we know that we will only become wealthy when we become a well-educated people.”

Vallas said the state has approved new math and reading programs for all schools this year.

In keeping with the spirit of the conference, Deirdra Grode, a seventh and eighth grade social studies and language arts teacher at Hoboken Charter School in Hoboken, N.J., helps her students understand that knowledge and courage can lead to positive changes in the world.

Grode was the winner of ASCD’s 2008 Outstanding Young Educator Award. She says she expects her students to “view the world with critical minds and be leaders of positive change in their communities.” To help her students accomplish this, she regularly exposes them to different perspectives and provides them with innovative service learning and character education opportunities.

For example, when most middle school students learn about slavery, they focus on its existence in colonial America and the role it played in the Civil War. Grode addresses those aspects of slavery with her students, but she also has them examine strategies of change used by abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to explore how they can become agents of change themselves. Her students then research examples of contemporary slavery—from child soldiers in the Burmese Army to agricultural workers in the United States who receive no pay for their work—and create informational brochures to educate the community about slavery’s existence today and how it can be stopped.

Grode related the story of how she became involved in her current work. She said during her freshman year in college she was required to take a community service course. For two days a week she taught at a prison.

“People said, ‘If only I had worked harder in school.’ I wondered if schools could have served them better as well. This experience had a profound effect on my life, because I realized I wanted to help young adults master those essential 21st century life skills,” Grode said.

ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter recognized Grode for promoting tolerance, raising her students’ awareness of social justice issues, and teaching them to be leaders of change in their communities. In doing so, “she exemplifies what it means to teach the whole child,” said Carter.

Alfredo Huereca, principal of the elementary and middle grade levels at Hoboken Charter School, nominated Grode for the award and described how her leadership extends well beyond the walls of her classroom. She mentors staff, leads professional development sessions, acts as a liaison between other teachers and the school’s administration, and coordinates testing and school scheduling, Huereca said. She also wrote the school’s fifth through eighth grade social studies and language arts curriculum and worked on its charter renewal and annual report.

Grode will receive a $10,000 cash award and an ASCD Institutional Membership for her school.

Keynote speaker Alma Powell, wife of Colin Powell and chair of the board of America’s Promise Alliance, said teachers represent the security of the nation and the world, because “what happens inside the classroom shapes our future forces, success, and national security.”

Powell also noted that even with exceptional teachers, 7,000 students drop out of school at the end of every school day. Those who drop out are twice as likely to be poor. She explained that it’s not the children who are failing, it’s the community that is failing them.

“They only have what we give them starting at birth. We need to care for the whole child. It’s not just a school problem, it’s a community problem, and the U.S must have a stronger understanding of what ‘community’ means. We have lost sight of what kids need to be successful. … It takes more than NCLB and its half successes. We need to be accountable for more than just test scores,” exclaimed Powell.

According to America’s Promise Alliance, there are five things, or promises, that every child needs: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education that teaches life skills, and an opportunity to help others and give back to the community.

“All countries are different, all cultures are different, but these five basic promises are things every child in the world needs. Even if we only achieve four, children will be twice as likely to stay in school, get good grades, and go to college,” said Powell. However, according to Powell, less than one-third of children 17 years of age or younger are getting all five promises.

But like the city of New Orleans, which is struggling to rebuild itself after numerous obstacles, education, too, has a silver lining.

Through America’s Promise Alliance, Powell noted, people are becoming more aware of the problems facing today’s youth and are taking action.

America’s Promise Alliance now has more than 170 partners covering every sector in education, and the Alliance has just set a new goal of improving the lives of 15 million children in the next year.

Explains Powell: “We will go to where the kids are, starting with schools; we will try to make sure that every child receives health care; and, starting with children in middle schools, we will educate about service learning and career exploration.”

Powell concluded ASCD’s opening session by telling the story of “Big Mike, a six-foot-six, 300-pound high school student.”

“Big Mike’s father was nowhere to be found, and his mother was addicted to crack cocaine. He was homeless and had nowhere to go. One day, a mother whose child was a friend of Big Mike saw him walking home in the snow with sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt. She pulled over and said, ‘Mike, where are you going?’ He replied, ‘Nowhere, just wandering.’ She decided that moment to take him home and raise him as her own. He had nutritious meals, he went to school every day, he had a bed to sleep in, and every night she helped him with his homework. Now Mike has not only graduated high school and college, but he’s in first draft position for the NFL.”

She added that the problems in education are like the science experiment where a teacher fills a jar with rocks and asks the students if it’s full. Then the teacher adds sand and asks the students if it’s full. Finally the teacher adds water and asks if the jar is full.

“If we focus on just the big rocks, nothing will change. We must focus on the whole, fill in every gap, in order to achieve real change,” she said.