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Paige Applauds School's Commitment to High Expectations

Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige praised the efforts and accomplishments of teachers and students at Amistad Academy, a charter school in New Haven, Connecticut, and noted it exemplifies one of the key ideas behind the No Child Left Behind Act: every child can learn. Included: Paige's comments about the role of NCLB in ending the achievement gap.

Innovative schools in urban areas show that all children can achieve at high levels given the chance, building on the promise of the No Child Left Behind Act, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said while visiting the Amistad Academy charter school in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2004. Paige has since stepped down from the position.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige talks with students in a class at Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut.
(Education World photo)

"The president is right; all kids can learn," Paige told an audience of students, teachers, reporters, and city and state officials at Amistad, a grade 5 to 8 school.

Standing before a No Child Left Behind banner and a No Excuses sign, Paige said educators need to put aside old ideas and belief systems and do whatever it takes to help children succeed. "Two questions that have plagued education in America are 'Can these kids do it?' and the answer to that is 'Yes, they can,'" he said, as the room exploded with applause. "The question, 'Can these kids do it?' should go into the Smithsonian. The second question is 'How can we do it?' We can use Amistad Academy as a model."


Paige said he was eager to visit the school after watching a documentary about it. "I wanted to see it with my own eyes."

Ninety-eight percent of Amistad's 250 students are African-American and Latino, and 84 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. Most enter the school performing about two years below grade level.

Yet, student scores on the state's standardized tests in reading, writing, and mathematics exceed the state average.

"I am so proud to be here," Paige said. "This is just an amazing institutionMany of you would have had a vastly different future without this institution."

Schools like Amistad, Paige said later, are helping to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, which he called, "the greatest civil rights issues of our time."

"No Child Left Behind is the best vehicle for closing the achievement gap," he continued. "Brown [the court case that led to the desegregation of public schools] provided the access, but access is not sufficient. Brown provided access but not equal education."

Asked how Amistad's success could be replicated in other communities, and if federal funding was available for more Amistad-like schools, Paige noted that K-12 education is a state matter, and each state handles education in its own way.

The Department of Education would like to see more charter schools and innovative programs, he said, adding that key ingredients for successful schools are high expectations for children and "an unequivocal belief that all children can learn."


That idea is at the heart of NCLB, and is working its way into school culture, Paige said. Issues that have come up during implementation, such as more children being referred for special education services in some schools so they can avoid high-stakes testing, will iron out, he added. Improvements to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should reduce the misidentification of students.

At the same time, Paige noted that the Department of Education wants all students assessed, including special education students.

As for complaints from some educators that NCLB mandates are forcing them to do little more than prep students for tests, Paige responded, "I think when the culture of accountability gets adopted nationwide, some of the happiest people will be teachers. Teachers love children, and they will want to do what is best for children."

Criticism that NCLB's requirements are an "unfunded mandate" as some claim is unfounded, he added. "NCLB funding is sufficient to carry out the requirements of No Child Left Behind."


As part of his trip to Amistad, Paige saw some students in action as he visited classrooms.

"Notice how they went right back to work," Paige joked after talking with some students.

Luis, a seventh grader, explained to the secretary how he and his partners in his science lab were studying the cooling rates of dirt and water. Asked by Paige why he wanted to come to Amistad, Luis said, "Because the learning is more advanced."

"Did you hear that?" Paige exclaimed. "Imagine a kid saying that the learning is more advanced."

Amistad students also gave Paige a taste of their other talents, treating him to several songs and a performance by members of the school's orchestra.

Dacia Toll, Amistad's executive director, said she shares Paige's goal of eliminating the achievement gap, and said his visit helped to validate the school's efforts.

"I've made closing the achievement gap my life's work," Toll said to Paige. "This is wonderful work, but it is hard work. It really means a lot for someone like yourself to come here and tell us we are doing the right thing."