Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Mattie Rhodes Center in Northeast Kansas City hosted U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (MO-05) and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on the final stop of the first day of their Back to School Bus Tour on Tuesday, September 5.

Secretary Cardona and Congressman Cleaver spoke with parents about the importance of parent engagement and bringing their voices to the table in schools.

The “Back to School Bus Tour 2023: Raise the Bar” features stops in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Throughout the Week, Secretary Cardona, Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten, and Undersecretary James Kvaal will join national, state, and local school leaders to speak with students, parents, and educators for events that celebrate the back-to-school season and underscore the Administration’s commitment to helping students recover from the impacts of the pandemic and continue on the road to success. 

As part of the bus tour, Administration officials will highlight academic and mental health programs and efforts to recruit and support educators funded by President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which provided historic resources to K-12 schools, colleges, and universities to reopen schools and help students of all ages recover.

Joined earlier in the day by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, he visited students at Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Career (TCALC) to welcome them for the start of the school year and learn about their learning recovery efforts. Then, a group of Teaching as a Profession high school students and Topeka Public School teachers joined them to visit the Brown v. Board of Education historic site to talk about the importance of teacher recruitment and teacher diversity in the workforce.

Afterwards, Cardona headed to the University of Kansas (KU) to officially kick off the Back-to-School Bus Tour 2023 and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the TRIO program. TRIO refers to a range of federal programs that help identify students who might face some disadvantages – and help put them on a trajectory to make the most of their incredible potential. KU is home to several TRIO programs including Upward Bound, SES & STEM, Talent Search, and McNair Scholars.

Cardona headed to Kansas City, Kan., where he was joined by Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcell to share the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts around Online for All and learn how community programs are promoting the Affordable Connectivity Program to families in need.

Kansas City Public Schools’ Global Academy on Woodland had the honor of welcoming Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition Montserrat Garibay on Tuesday. The Global Academy is where non-English speaking students spend part of their day to learn English language development, social-emotional skills and other important topics related to culture shock while transitioning to life and school in Kansas City.

Since the school opened two years ago, they have welcomed hundreds of students. Director Ryan Rumpf said they have been working to renovate their space and they were proud to show it off.

Garibay, who came from Mexico when she was a child, talked to students who had recently had similar experiences. Rumpf was excited for his students to have such a unique experience and see what they could become.

The group ended the day at Mattie Rhodes Center, which has served Northeast Kansas City’s diverse population for 127 years.

“I can’t think of a more appropriate place,” State Rep. Ingrid Burnett (D) said of the events at Mattie Rhodes.

John Fierro, President and CEO of Mattie Rhodes, welcomed Secretary Cardona and Congressman Cleaver to a conversation with parents and a Back to School BBQ.

“I think it is a benefit to all of Kansas City, both sides of the river, frankly, that we would have the Secretary of Education come in and hear directly from the parents about what needs to be done or what improvements can be made, and to make suggestions to the Secretary is a once in a lifetime opportunity that many of these parents just had,” Cleaver said.

Cardona said he was glad to be able to engage with parents who talked about how the schools aren’t working for them and what they would like to see.

Dalia Rodriguez Moreno, a parent of a fifth grader at James Elementary who became engaged in advocacy work during the district’s Blueprint 2030 plan, and Miriam Galán, had the opportunity to speak with Cardona, Cleaver and others about their concerns, praises, and engagement as parents.

James Elementary was on a list to be closed due to low attendance and deferred maintenance at the aging building, but parents fought to keep the neighborhood school open. Rodriguez looks forward to the new school year and working with new Principal Marjorie Mayes.

“I feel so happy, I really appreciate it,” Moreno said of her conversation. “We are happy because James is open, so we told him we’re here because we want to see James growing. Not only James but KC public schools. They’ve created activities at James and programs in the building, because we need more kids, so I feel really amazing.”

Moreno said Cardona was very nice and she would love for him to visit Kansas City again.

“I always say educators do play a supportive role,” Cardona said. “Parents are the first educators, first teachers, most influential teachers. Hearing from parents today about how much they value the schools and school community, how much they care about safety and want to make sure that we’re thinking about that, it really lifts up the work that we’re doing in DC and what we’re going to continue to advocate for when we’re fighting in DC for our schools.”

Cardona said his stops in Northeast Kansas City at the Global Academy at Mattie Rhodes showed him programs that he’s excited to see more of on the bus tour.

“We’re going around in this bus tour, talking about ‘Raise the Bar, Lead the World,’ and the strategies in ‘Raise the Bar,’ academic excellence, better working conditions, learning conditions and then a global competitiveness,”  Cardona said. “What I saw here today, I saw a program that has middle schoolers thinking about college. I saw high schoolers working with elementary aged kids, because those high schoolers are going to become teachers soon. I saw community engagement like this here. At the end of the day, we know public schools are the great equalizer and what I saw here, it really puts faces to the rest of our strategy.”

Support for public schools, programs like Mattie Rhodes, parents and educators, all benefit students. 

“They were amazing, like every other parent, right?” Cardona said of his meeting with parents.  “‘I want my child to be safe. I want my child to be physically safe. I want my child to be emotionally safe. I want my child to be challenged, and I want to partner with the school,’ That’s what I heard. Those parents are amazing. It’s amazing how not even 10 minutes in the conversation, they’re telling me, ‘We need to support our schools. We need to support our teachers because our teachers do so much for our kids.’ It’s so wonderful and refreshing to see what I know to be true across the country, that our parents and our teachers are working together on behalf of students, despite some who want to paint a picture to say that it’s not. Our parents, our educators are working together because the students are the beneficiaries.”

Cardona said all students need to be thought of – both urban and rural.

“When we reopened schools across the country, I learned that rural communities were often not given the attention they deserve,” Cardona said. “You know, in many of our rural communities, broadband access was non-existent and they couldn’t just turn on their laptop. So I recognize there’s such a need there. But let me tell you, we’ve also normalized disparities and achievement in many of our urban centers, and many times in our urban communities the resources are not the same and our students are not achieving their potential.”

At the end of the day, they’re all kids and parents want the best for their kids, he added.

“We’ve normalized reading achievement at 40%, that’s unacceptable,” Cardona said. “When I talk about ‘Raise the Bar,’ our students should be leading the world right now. We ranked somewhere in the 30s compared to other countries, that’s unacceptable. We need to raise the bar on academic achievement. We need to make sure that we have certified teachers in our classrooms. We have a shortage area that we need to address intentionally. But I do believe – and there’s bipartisan support for creating better pathways to college and careers – I think oftentimes we think of four year colleges but we ignore the high skill, high paying jobs available to our students.”

The engagement between parents and schools is an area that Cardona has talked to commissioners and secretaries from other countries about.

“They wish they had the connections that we have in our country, engaging families in the learning process,” Cardona said. “Parents are the first teachers.”

Community agencies like Mattie Rhodes are the proverbial “village” that it takes to raise children, Cardona said. 

“We have students performing and we have parent leaders engaged in the process,” Cardona said. “They all recognize they have a role to play in the development of the students here. This was a prime example of that, I met parent leaders that are focusing on parent development. I met parents leaders that focus on students with disabilities, parent leaders that speak Spanish and want to empower parents that speak Spanish… This is a great example of a community coming together to serve children.”

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Dr. Margie Vandeven thanked the Secretary for his visit.

“We certainly are working on those issues ourselves, particularly high expectations for every single child and making sure that every child has a great teacher,” Vandeven said. “Those are two issues you’ll hear our board talking about quite a bit. We also understand the significance of community school relationships, and you’ll hear our board at the next meeting talking about the importance of authentic parental engagement and ways that we can meet those goals.”

Cardona thanked Cleaver for his invitation to visit Kansas City, and Mattie Rhodes for being an amazing place for families and kids.

“Parents are the first and most influential teachers,” Cardona said. “We just play a supporting cast. Our job is to support your children through a partnership with you, and we’re committed at the Department of Education to making sure we do that, but that we do it better than we did before. We talk about ‘raising the bar’ and that means making sure that we’re not just talking about parents’ rights, we’re talking about parent engagement, making sure parents have a voice at the table, like the parents that I met downstairs who want the same thing for their children as I want for mine. And I look forward to, as your Secretary of Education, continuing to give you an opportunity to be at the table to listen intently to make sure that what you’re saying influences what we do.”