White House "Community Conversation"

TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 1, 2009) – Members of Tampa Bay’s educational leadership had the ear of one of the top Obama administration officials when Juan Sepúlveda, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans made the University of South Florida a stop on his Community Conversation tour on Tuesday, Sept. 22. 


Approximately 130 educators, administrators, and students from USF, Hillsborough Community College, and the School District of Hillsborough County were in the audience to learn more about federal education initiatives, ask questions, and identify their top priorities for improving educational opportunities for Hispanic Americans.


ENLACE Florida was honored to co-host this Community Conversation at USF,” said ENLACE Executive Director Paul Dosal.  “ENLACE was founded to engage Latino communities for education, and this was a great and productive example of engaging our community.  It gave the people of Tampa Bay a unique opportunity to contribute to the ongoing national dialogue about education policy.” 


By the time the tour is done, Sepúlveda will have visited 18 states and Puerto Rico.


“You name the problem and it’s been figured out somewhere in America,” Sepúlveda said.  “Now we’re working on how do we get it to the broader society.”


Sepúlveda encouraged everyone to fill in the details of his overview at www.ED.GOV and www.WhiteHouse.Gov but provided the basics about White House plans for pre-school programs, teaching and leadership initiatives, plans for the next generation of teachers, for what he termed “turn-around” schools and new data systems.  He noted what he termed the government’s “largest investment ever” in community colleges and said President Obama wants to see all students in the country complete at least one year of post-secondary schooling and promised “laser-like attention like you’ve never seen before” on this issue.


Because financial help has been identified as an important area of concern for Latino students, Sepúlveda acknowledged the dramatic increase in Pell grants and the proposed change to direct student loans without banks in the middle.  What should also help is a new 67 percent reduction in the number of screens applicants will have to fill out when applying for student loans.  In addition, there will be a direct link to IRS returns so families won’t have to search for records. 


Sepúlveda also described the new Race to the Top initiative as “our version of the moon shot for education” and trusts that it will foster significant improvement in academic outcomes for all students.


The “big question” he posed for participants was, “What is your best advice for the president and the secretary of education?”  He wanted to know what the big issues and big challenges are and, “…what’s working for you?”


To spark the conversation, using the “Rule of Six” – a Native American tradition of seeking six opinions to represent all present – six audience members volunteered to sit in front of the room and deliver personal stories around which further conversations could continue.  Then the audience members broke  into groups, ideally moving to sit with people they did not know and together came up with comments, ideas and recommendations to hand in on index cards – all of which will be posted on the agency’s Web site.  If there were questions, Sepúlveda promised someone would get back to them with answers. 


“The fact that the White House Initiative came here shows that they welcome and value our input,”  Dosal said.


The University of South Florida System is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of 39 community-engaged, four-year public universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The system offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. It has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.