Richard Riley, the secretary of education, received a rousing reception Thursday during stops in North Carolina as part of a 5-state swing through Southern states.
On his annual back-to-school tour, Riley told North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt and other officials that he frequently cited that state's strong commitment to public education. Challenging other governors to a contest, Hunt said North Carolina aimed to be first in education by 2010.
"Public schools work," Hunt told a cheering crowd at Vance High School in Charlotte. "When you go back to Washington," he said to Riley and other officials,"tell them the story of public education in North Carolina."
If spirit and enthusiasm could ensure a top-notch school system, then North Carolina would surely meet Hunt's goal to be first in the nation in education by 2010.
"Tell the rest of the country that we challenge them to a contest, we want the competition," he said, "but whatever they do, we are going to be number one in America."
Secretary Riley's "America Goes Back To School" tour began Monday, traveling through Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina - it ended Friday in Fort Mill, South Carolina. The annual trip was launched in 1995 to inspire adults to help improve education and to stress that the school system will provide economic growth in the future.
All along the way, jazz bands played, students held hand made red, white and blue welcome signs, preschoolers chanted "a boom-chick-a-boom," and students and teachers welcomed the Washington delegation with waves of standing ovations.
Riley's tour is timed to the opening of a school year with 53.2 million students enrolling in the nation's K-12 school system. The South and West have the fastest growing populations. In North Carolina alone Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools are facing a record enrollment figure of 101,089 students this autumn.
"I cite this state all around the country as doing the most for education of any state and that makes me very proud," Riley told the audience in Charlotte.
Before his appointment to the Clinton Cabinet, Riley had been known as an education Governor in South Carolina.
Hunt struck a serious tone when he recognized Riley's flair for ignoring politics in favor of partnerships, "Dick Riley comes from just south of the border, here -- he understands us." In the South, that is a powerful compliment. Hunt, Riley and Bill Clinton were all governors at the same time and forged a friendship based partly on their shared commitment to education.
North Carolina Superintendent of Schools, Mike Ward, told stateline.org that the Secretary's visit to the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school system shows that Riley has a positive perception of what is happening in the South. "No other school system in the state has done as much," Ward said, praising the leadership in the city for "real vision and courage. They stand tall on big issues."
On Thursday, the "Success Express" tour bus visited three schools--an arts magnet school, a pre-K center and a high school. The Department of Education picked schools that stressed various aspects of the administration's education agenda. That agenda includes new school safety initiatives that were inspired by the shoot-out at Columbine high school.
Throughout the tour, Riley described this year as a crucial time in Washington for education. Major decisions about school construction, class size, a national teacher shortage and after-school programs will be considered, he said.
Riley's message was the same at all three schools: students -strive to be your best and become friends with peers who seem troubled; teachers listen to and inspire your students and parents - get involved in the learning process. Riley also urged parents to "slow down" their lives and help their children grow.
At Northwest School of the Arts, an innovative school that teaches science through the arts, a seventh grade boy, who could barely be seen over the podium, told Riley: "There is not a better school in the whole school system or the state. My teachers support me, and their involvement is making a big difference in my life."
Twelve-year-old Jacquelyn Cartee, another seventh-grader at Northwest, said she was inspired by Riley's words. "He said something so powerful that makes students want to reach higher goals. I look at my teacher every day and say, 'I wish I could be more like that person.'"
The focus of the Double Oaks pre-K school visit was parent and community involvement. Sarah Staley, Riley's spokesperson, said the neighborhood was riddled with drugs and poverty until the business community took over the school.
At the Center, Gov. Hunt recognized their work,"I challenge you to find a place in America where the business community is more strongly behind public schools than in Charlotte, North Carolina." Hunt added that the market place demands that North Carolina prepare their kids to work at Bell South, or at the banks in Charlotte or to become teachers.
The final stop was at Vance High School, a part of Governor's Village where four high schools are clustered on one campus that emphasizes academic achievement and school safety.
When the bus rounded the corner and the Vance High School football field came into view a crowd of teens jumped up. Cheerleaders and a pep band went into action, demanding that their peers "give it up for the Guvna and the Secretary."
In the last year, North Carolina and Texas have been recognized nationally for raising the bar in education, pioneering legislation that embodies the concepts of accountability, quality teaching and community involvement. As more states realize they have to promote education to become economically viable in the next century, they have begun setting similar standards to garner results.
On the downside in education, both North Carolina and South Carolina continue to score poorly on the Standard Achievement Test (SAT). South Carolina comes in dead last and although North Carolina's scores have improved over the past decade, they still rank 48th.
Hunt said his state is making progress, but admits "we are not where we should be yet."
Although progress remains slow in both states, Riley told stateline.org that, "things are happening at a very good rate. The best education policy brings about sustained progress, doing it right year after year. That is what happened in North Carolina and in South Carolina it is happening but more slowly."
Mark Musick, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board - a 16-state territory, said that inconsistency has been the problem with sustaining reforms in the past. He said problems arise with changes in political leadership in states because every governor wants their own program. Musick said he admires Riley for setting up goals and measurements for the states.
"That is why North Carolina and Texas have been doing so well," Musick said of consistent goal setting. "South Carolina has changed its testing program three times in the last ten years, and each time you make that kind of change you lose a little momentum and drain away some energy. You need to be careful about setting a course and staying that course for a fairly long time."
In this decade, fifty percent of new jobs in America were created in Musick's region. Forty years ago, only a handful of these states had per capita incomes equal to 90 percent of the national average. The South didn't pay enough attention to education, according to Musick.
Hunt recalled that 100 years ago an impoverished North Carolina had very few schools. In 1900 Governor Charles Aycock made a commitment to educate children and a new school was built every day he was in office. When he finished his term, 1200 public schools were teaching.
Riley continued the history lesson, noting that during the depression the Southland was hit harder than the rest of the nation. Businesses eventually came to the rural region attracted by cheap land and labor. But Riley added that "we are coming out of that hole because of education. We are saying we will have the finest education system in the world and your business will be successful because of the quality people here."