The floor of the Smith Memorial Student Union Ballroom rumbled with the force of 200 feet stomping.
The air quivered with 100 young voices chanting a mantra to a cool, steady rhythm—“Change the world! Change the world! Change the world!”
At the podium, Oregon’s newly appointed Chief Education Officer Rudy Crew spoke to the crowd of high school students Thursday, encouraging them to cultivate a strong work ethic.
“We’re going love you whether you get an A or an F,” he said. “There are no free lunches here, no exemptions either; there’s effort. You have to struggle a little bit to get something on the other side.”
It was a keynote address for the Reaching and Empowering All People Academy of Leadership Innovations, a free weeklong seminar held at PSU last week.
The nonprofit REAP hosts the event to empower students from backgrounds of “disadvantaged opportunity” in grades 8 through 12, focusing on leadership training with an emphasis on improving academic achievement.
Crew’s speech emphasized workplace skills and highlighted the importance of science and technology. He encouraged students to leave secondary school with both a diploma and the intention to pursue college credentials.
This is in solidarity with the state’s new Oregon Education Investment Board, implemented by Governor John Kitzhaber to overhaul the state’s pre-kindergarten through college education system, in order to help identify and reduce achievement gaps and provide more skilled workers for the Oregon job market.
On multiple occasions, Crew—who is a new name on Oregon’s education scene, having run school systems in New York City, Sacramento, Calif., Miami, Fla., and Tacoma, Wash.—alluded to President Barak Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” education campaign, which emphasizes student achievement in science, technology, engineering and math (also referred to as STEM).
Rather than emphasize college as the lone path to success, Crew discussed a “sense of place in the world of work,” and explained that if the economy is now global, the competition is, too.
“You will start to hear more about efforts that raise the game to an A-game in terms of academic pursuits. You will start to have additional supports for achievement in STEM [programs],” he said.
Earlier this summer, Crew admonished several Oregon school boards and superintendents for setting “achievement compacts” that aimed too low. In a similar sweep of high expectations and big intentions, Crew told the teenagers gathered in the Smith ballroom that the education gap is “completely fixable.” The gap is identifiable as early as pre-kindergarten, he said.
“We can track who is on what level, who can’t read…and we can put the very best technology and teachers in front of those kids.”
Crew made a brief comment about the arts in response to a student’s concern about her high school’s lack of art funding.
“I’m an ardent fan of the arts,” he said. “All STEM [programs] are connected to the arts.”
The focus on STEM programs is on REAP’s radar, as well. REAP cofounder Mark Jackson discussed the nationwide shortage of students who graduate with competency in math and science sufficient to compete for innovative engineering jobs. That shortage, he said, speaks to STEM priorities.
“Maybe [students] are not being exposed to engineering,” he said. “But to be competitive in a global economy we have to raise global thinkers.”
After what was largely a motivational speech, some REAP participants still wanted specific examples of how Crew intends to better the educational experience of young Oregonians.
A 15-year-old Reynolds High School student, Steven Neal, criticized the broad statements Crew made.
“[Crew] should go in depth about how we can improve the [school] system,” he said. Neal is not unlike worried PSU students, who would be thrilled to see a point-by-point agenda that would promise to quell rising tuition in a state that spends less on higher education than most states in the country: Oregon ranks 46th in state spending per student.
In a quiet hallway after Crew’s address, Neal asked Crew directly what he planned to do to shape up Neal’s own school, Reynolds High, in Troutdale, which has one of the lowest graduation rates in Oregon. Crew didn’t speak directly to the problems at Reynolds, but he did emphasize introducing more and better engineering and technology programs.
Neal’s mother, Donna Neal, feels the problem with Oregon’s education system is financial.
“I don’t think enough lottery dollars are going to schools. I heard [a percentage of it] would go to the school system. I just don’t see it.” The Reynolds School District needs another high school badly, she explained, and her son’s school is one of the most overcrowded in the country.
In 2009, 25 percent of Reynolds’ teachers were laid off. That same year, the school broke its own record for the largest incoming freshman class, pushing more students into single-teacher classrooms. In 2011, Reynolds had an on-time graduation rate of 52 percent.
Talking to the Neals and shaking their hands—Crew’s staff behind him snapping photos—Crew had one last thing to say to mother and son.
“We rank low. We’ve got to get up.”
Crew will speak again at PSU on Sept. 18, for the annual Graduate School of Education’s State of the School event.