Cardona: Let’s support all students, bring education back to life

The new U.S. Secretary of Education, addressing panelists and guests at Ed Fest, says there is a lot of work to be done but 'I can support you. I can guide you.'

Dr. Miguel Cardona called this moment a “critical point in the history of education in this country.” But he said, “I’ve been there, I’ve done it and I can support you. I can guide you.”

The new U.S. Secretary of Education opened Tuesday’s virtual Ed Fest conference by greeting panelists and guests with smiles and emotional, heartfelt words – both in English and Spanish – about the hopeful future that students will have under his direction.

Joking that “this is like my fifth day of work,” he assured panelists and guests that his prior experience as both an educator and leader in various roles in the state of Connecticut, will help provide the guidance needed to enhance and improve student learning across the nation.

“While it’s daunting, I’m humbled to be serving as Secretary of Education in this moment,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have partners to help lead this work across our country to lift up our students, lift up our educators and lift up our schools to places we’ve never been. You are an important source of inspiration for our students of color. So, I want to thank you all for the invitation and for your work. I feel so honored to be here to spend a few minutes just to say hello and to share a few words”

The four-day Ed Fest, which is being hosted by the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) and the National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE), kicked off with an eloquent eight-minute speech from the 45-year-old Cardona, who was chosen by President Joe Biden in January to head up the position and confirmed by a bipartisan 64-33 Senate vote on March 1.

Cardona, a former teacher and principal in the blue-collar city of Meriden, Conn., who eventually became the state’s Commissioner of Education, noted that he hasn’t lost sight of those roots, as a father of two and with a wife who works in two middle schools.

“I started as a fourth-grade teacher and I served in the district for many years. I taught at the university level for a little bit,” he said. “I’m a teacher at heart and at the end of the day, like all of you, my students are my motivation. They’re my inspiration to get to work.”

On a mission to serve

Cardona, the son of Puerto Rican parents, is only the second Hispanic person to hold the Education Secretary position after Lauro Cavazos in 1988. He told the virtual audience of teachers, school counselors, school board members, parents and students, that his heritage was one of his greatest gifts and that diversity should be embraced throughout education.

“Despite being one of the only Latinos as an educator when I started my career, being bilingual and bicultural was one of my greatest assets,” he said. “I want to encourage everyone on this call just to take a moment to reflect on how your biculturalism is your superpower. It’s one of your greatest assets.

“We oftentimes overlook the fact that many of our students come in with a rich native language, a rich native culture. It’s our job to bring that up and say, that’s an asset. That’s one of the things that you bring that enriches our classrooms, enriches our schools. That’s something I hope, as a bilingual and bicultural Secretary of Education, I can really just model and celebrate.”

That perspective is rooted in Cardona’s own experiences navigating the education system.

“When I got my degree in bilingual and bicultural education for my Masters, I said, I want to stay in a regular education classroom,” Cardona said. “I want all students to see a Latino teacher. It’s all of our collective work to make sure that we’re addressing this normalization of failure boldly, unapologetically and with passion. I want us to join in that effort. We are so much stronger together. And we have a lot of work to do together.”

One of Cardona’s top pledges has been to reopen schools to address the needs of underserved students who have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, from lack of technology to learning loss. He talked about the costs in Tuesday’s session.

“Black and brown children are being affected by this pandemic in greater ways on so many different levels – access to health care, access to quality learning, access to technologies and infrastructure needs, food insecurities and I won’t even begin to mention the stark data on loss of life,” he said. “Those students are coming back into our schools. Are we prepared to meet their social-emotional needs? Are we designed to meet their social-emotional needs? They need us now more than ever.

“We need to think better. We need to bring them back better. This is our moment. We’ve faced adversity before. And we’re gonna get through this stronger. I’m confident of that.”

Bringing the roses back to life

Cardona, whose words brought tears to the eyes of several panelists, said he is prepared to face the myriad challenges facing him and the administration.

“Anytime I’m in a room with brothers and sisters like you, I get energized and I’m ready to get to work,” he said. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves. And I know that I can count on you as partners in this process.”

Before he signed off, Cardona talked about his love for music and in particular a song from singer Marc Anthony called Flor Palida, or pale flower that is withering and wilting.

“I look at public education after this pandemic as a wilting rose,” he said. “And we are the master gardeners. How fortunate are we that it’s our job to bring back to life beautiful roses? We’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it together. And then when we’re done with this process, we’re going to look at the beautiful garden. And we’re going to see that public education is stronger and more vibrant and more beautiful than ever.

“Our goal is not to get back to where we were in March of 2020. It is to reimagine and think about the education system that we want for our own children, one where all children have the access to college, have access to high-quality instruction. I’m here at this moment with you.”

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