U.S. Secretary of Education, Cardona, stops by Bluestone Elementary

Cardona+is+all+smiles+while+listening+to+central+office+officials+speak+on+HCPS+programs.

Clare Kirwan

Cardona is all smiles while listening to central office officials speak on HCPS programs.

By Clare Kirwan, Harrisonburg High School

The room buzzed with anticipation and excitement, a light chatter filled the space. At approximately 4:12 p.m. Tuesday, September 13, the United States Secretary of Education walked into the library of Bluestone Elementary School (BES) with a smile on his face.

The 12th US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona entered the room with a big “how we doin’?” He proceeded to shake hands with the James Madison University (JMU) president, administrators, parents, school board members, city council members, home liaisons and teachers exchanging words in both Spanish and English.

BES principal Peter Norment kicked off the panel with a warm welcome.

“The last two years in education have been very challenging. At Bluestone, we have felt incredibly supported by our school board, our central office, our local government and by the federal government as well. I think this is really an extension of that gratitude,” Norment said.

Superintendent Michael Richards carried on the introduction sharing the mission and work of the school system and district. 

“We are a community that is all in on public education. Our demographic matches America. We cherish our diversity. We are a community that rolls up its sleeves and supports each other,” Richards said.

Cardona visited the school as part of the Road to Success bus tour which he began Sept. 12, in Tennessee.

“[On this tour we are] lifting up examples of what’s right in our schools and what we want to see, it was a no brainer to come here. What you’re doing is what we want to see across the country. We have an opportunity to benefit from a disruption none of us wanted and it’s our job to build it back better than it was before. You’re demonstrating that you’re able to do that,” Cardona said.

Cardona had a particular interest in Harrisonburg City Public Schools because of the work they have done with the family and home school liaisons and the dual language program.

“Let’s rewrite what it means to be in the public education system. When I hear your parents are engaged and your family and home school liaisons being a recipe for improvement, you’re on to the right things,” Cardona said.

The Harrisonburg City Public School Division (HCPD) has family and home liaisons that provide languages that range from Russian, Ukrainian, Kurdish, Swahili, Spanish to Arabic and Tigrinya. The liaisons are an active part of the community and division. Liaisons Eliana Tejedor Hernandez, Daniela Soria and Muna Shamisalla all joined the panel to talk to the secretary.

“Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep showing your community [and] our country that investing in dual language programs, in translation services can bring families in and see them as assets. Seeing the school as a place where schools are learning about the community through the community. That’s how you create high achieving youngsters that are going to be able [to contribute] to communities in future years,” Cardona said.

Cardona feels that liaisons in a community as diverse as Harrisonburg are a big step in mending and fostering relationships with parents.

“We know that the pandemic happened. We have a lot of academic needs, a lot of social well being, but when our kids came back it was that sense of community that they missed the most. Being around each other whether it was the cafeteria [or] outside,” Cardona said. “I sense that you’ve taken that to another level so that adults feel that same sense of community. [I see that] the differences are celebrated and welcome, not an obstacle, and not perceived as an impediment to learning and being connected.”

Cardona himself is of Puerto Rican descent. Spanish is his first language, so dual programs in particular hold a special place in his heart. 

“[When] I grew up I learned Spanish first and English second. At first it was like ‘okay, I’m a little bit different.’ In the end I realized it’s like a superpower. When I see that we’re teaching students to learn another language it really is preparing them [to] talk to millions of more people,” Cardona said. “I’m glad to see that the school is embedding it and it’s doing so well where kids are getting the experience from elementary through high school.”

Senior Braeden McGrath was in the first cohort of students to be entered into the program. He sat next to Norment on the panel exchanging a few quick words with the secretary in Spanish and speaking to the program. His mother and director of EL services and Title III Laura Feichtinger-McGrath sat among the audience.

“When I think about the picture of Harrisonburg, I as a mom think about my own kids. I’m really lucky because I’ve gotten to be a part of the way Harrisonburg has become and the way it is. I’ve gotten to be a part of that and I’ve gotten to watch my kids be a part of that,” Feichtinger-McGrath said.

Feichtinger-McGrath has played an integral part in the Dual and English Language Learners (ELL) programs over the years. However, Braeden McGrath originally wasn’t put in dual. When a spot opened up, Feichtinger-McGrath asked five year old Braeden if he wanted to make the switch. He said yes.

“I was on the planning committee five years before dual started. I had one kid who missed dual because we weren’t there yet. That’s why I had Braeden,” Feichtinger-McGrath said. “Me watching him [do this panel] is the culmination of all the things that I know are right and good about working with language learners.”

Cardona was sworn in on March 2, 2021. Just last year he visited 36 states and a number of schools, he is visiting even more during this week-long Road to Success tour.

“When we were looking for a school and a district that’s doing it right [former Virginia Superintendent James Lange] said ‘I got just the place for you.’ Dual language is just the icing on the cake. To walk out of here with two languages, it’s a superpower,” Cardona said.

Cardona was accompanied by First Lady Jill Biden in Tennessee and Second Gentleman Emhoff in Pennsylvania. While on the tour he has had the opportunity to speak to educators, parents, students, liaisons, administrators and play with kids.

“This is a beautiful facility, [but] it doesn’t matter, the environment matters. It tells the kids, we care for you, we believe in you and you can achieve. For me, the outside, the shell is less important than what’s happening inside. The beauty of what you’re doing is what we’re here to celebrate,” Cardona said.

Cardona truly seemed to believe that HCPS and BES are different from many of the schools around America. One of his main goals was to tackle equity issues and disparities between ELL and non ELL learners.

“It’s not just languages, it’s culture, you can separate language and culture. It’s embracing a multicultural approach where all students feel seen and they see what they bring to the table as an asset, which is really important,” Cardona said.

Cardona came into the secretary role while still amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic. Education and teacher retention has taken a major hit, causing his job to be no small feat.

“If we do what we’ve done we are going to get what we’ve gotten in this country. The pandemic has caused us to stop and reexamine, we have to come back better. There were achievement disparities before the pandemic, we have to address those. Another thing we have to address is the fact that most of our schools across the country are monolingual, but not for you,” Cardona said.

Cardona himself was a fourth grade teacher before becoming a principal and eventually the Commissioner of Education in Connecticut. He has over two decades of experience.

“Teaching is the best profession. Changing and improving the lives of children, there’s nothing better. We just have to highlight those examples of places where schools appreciate the teachers and where teachers want to be and make sure we continue to create and grow our own programs,” Cardona said. “It was good to see these teachers here. They’re full of energy. I get inspired by them.”

Cardona believes the key to fixing the public education system doesn’t just lie in the politics or funding, but the climate that is created in our schools.

“I’m a strong believer in climate eats strategy for breakfast. If you focus on creating a climate where everyone feels welcome you’re going to get further. If the parents trust the school, if the school trusts the parents you’re going to get further. This school has tremendous strategies to do that,” Cardona said.

Cardona is the first Latinx Secretary of Education in history. He has broken a barrier that once again shows the importance of the dual and liaison programs at our schools.

“Leadership matters at all levels. You have strong leaders here, parent leaders, teacher leaders, school and district leaders. It does take a village and you’re further along than a lot of places across the country. I have a bird’s eye view,” Cardona said.

Cardona finished the panel with a brief exclamation of “You have fans in DC.”

This story was originally published on The Newsstreak on September 17, 2022.