It may be July, but for many students, school is in session, as educators try to boost learning following a year of disruptions due to the pandemic. On Tuesday, July 13, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici met with students, teachers, school district staff and local elected leaders in Hillsboro and Beaverton to see recent federal education funding in action and discuss improving access to secondary education.
The Hillsboro School District received $27.4 million as part of funding from President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan, which included $122 billion for states and school districts to invest in summer school programs.
The money is intended to make up for lost instructional time for students during the pandemic, particularly among students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and other groups experts say have been disproportionately impacted by distance learning.
Cardona visited Witch Hazel Elementary School in Hillsboro, where 1,200 students from across the district are participating in an expanded bilingual summer school program.
As Cardona and Bonamici entered Valeria Chitwood's fourth-grade class, Chitwood was alternating between Spanish and English while teaching students.
"I'm visiting states across the country, and I'm looking for examples of what's working," Cardona told the class. "And I came here, because what you're a part of is something that we're really proud of across the country."
Earlier, Cardona and Bonamici met with three former Hillsboro students who now attend Western Oregon University as part of the district's Bilingual Teacher Scholars Program. The partnership between the district and the university aims to foster bilingual teachers.
While 53% of students in the district are students of color, only 12% of the teachers are people of color.
The students said their hope is to return to the Hillsboro School District to teach when they graduate.
"I did the same thing, and it's driven me my whole career," said Cardona, who is a former teacher. "You're going to have more joy as an educator because you're in a community that served you."
Access to free community college
At Southridge High School in Beaverton, Cardona and Bonamici met with several community college leaders and students to learn about some of the challenges they've faced navigating the often complex maze of higher education in Oregon,
The cusp of the listening session centered on the importance of accessible higher education, and how free community college would help bolster not only students from marginalized groups, but students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
"I hear from so many students frequently about how higher education is more expensive and many are facing an affordability crisis, even before the pandemic," Bonamici said. "And we know that the pandemic has had a disparate effect on communities of color and parents, exacerbated by existing inequities in the system."
Inside the library of the nearly empty school, speakers gathered around a horseshoe-shaped table to talk about the burdens surrounding student debt.
Clatsop Community College student Miranda King said she found herself "lost" when she first started going to school, and that student debt "weighed heavy on me." She said it scared her so much, she wanted to drop out.
"I never thought that I would be able to go back and get an education," King said.
But then, King said, she found she was eligible for CARES Act-related grants.
"That little lump of money really helped — I was able to pay my rent that month — and then it just lifted my spirits, you know?" she said.
A Portland Community College student told the group that the financial hardships she endured during the COVID-19 pandemic after losing both her jobs made it difficult to focus on her classwork.
But the student, Brea Nazareno, didn't give up. She sought out mentors to help her navigate applying for emergency grants through PCC. With that money, she was able to pay her school-related expenses and student loans.
"It really catalyzed me to devote more time to understanding how I am part of a larger network," Nazareno said. "I decided that I'm going to keep going to community college regardless of the issues."
Of course, students like Nazareno and King may not have faced those financial hardships had their education been free. That was a sentiment frequently expressed throughout the listening session.
"Listen, I want it to happen. Our country really can benefit from it," Cardona told reporters, referring to the goal of free community college. "We know that the earning potential for students that graduate college is 21% higher on average. It makes sense not only for students, to families, but for the community, for the economy, and I'm excited about the opportunities to create pathways from high school to college to the workforce to four-year schools. Yes, it should happen. I'm hoping it happens in your lifetime."
One takeaway Cardona said he took from the listening session is how community colleges in Oregon serve as a "safety net" for so many students. He also felt much of what he learned was "trauma-informed."
"It wasn't just tuition needs. It was understanding their fees and other issues that they had that prevented them from going to school," Cardona said.
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