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Duncan Applauds School Turnaround In Chula Vista

— One could be forgiven for thinking the students at Castle Park Middle School were clamoring for a few minutes of attention from a pop music icon. But the Friday morning uproar was for the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Aired 9/16/13 on KPBS News.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ended a back-to-school bus tour in Chula Vista Friday, and praised the district's success in raising attendance and test scores.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responds to questions from the audience at a town hall meeting about Promise Neighborhoods at Castle Park Middle School in Chula Vista, Sept. 13, 2013.

Duncan wrapped up a five-day back-to-school bus tour of the Southwest at Castle Park to high light the school's turn around, thanks to help from the federally-supported "Promise Neighborhoods" program.

During prepared remarks at a town hall meeting about Promise Neighborhoods, Duncan said the school once had as many as 75 students a day missing class, but now has one of the highest attendance rates in the Sweetwater Union High School District. Plus, the school's scores on state standardized tests have risen steadily since 2009 and last year hit the state's target of a score of 800 on a 1,00 point scale for the first time.

Castle Park is one of five schools to benefit from a federal grant of nearly $28 million dollars to support Chula Vista’s Promise Neighborhood. Duncan applauded the 28 local organizations headed by South Bay Community Services working to raise academic expectations, engage parents and support teachers.

“Castle Park’s turnaround is just one more example that when adults raise expectations, children will rise to meet them," Duncan said. "You guys are setting a profound, profound model here. The whole country can learn, the national implications of what you’re doing are very significant.”

But Duncan’s visit came just days after he threatened to withhold some federal funding for the state’s schools, if legislators suspended testing.

Despite his opposition, California legislators approved a bill to suspend the state's old multiple-choice tests this year. That will let most schools try out new online exams that line up with the more rigorous curriculum guidelines that will be fully in place next year.

“Adopting higher standards is a really difficult challenge," Duncan said Friday. "California’s helping to lead the country where we need to go. What we want to know obviously at the same time, is whether students are meeting those higher standards. So, raising standards, having some form of assessment, we think those values are not in conflict. Hope to continue to work with the state to get to a good resolution.”

The secretary characterized withholding funding as a last-resort option.

Chula Vista's Promise Neighborhood was one of 17 regional collaborations to receive federal funding last year. The idea behind the program is to provide 'cradle-to-career' services to families in the designated neighborhood with the goal of increasing high school graduation and the number of students going to college.

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