Two senior officials with the U.S. Department of Education were in Lexington on Thursday to take a look at notable programs in two schools.
Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education Tony Miller visited Picadome Elementary School, where he watched a Japanese language class and praised the Fayette County Schools for offering Spanish, Chinese and Japanese instruction in all grades.
Meanwhile, Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary of education for innovation and improvement, spent about two hours at Sayre School to see how the private institution uses laptop computers to replace textbooks and paper in many of its classes.
Shelton met with Stephen Manella, Sayre's new head of school, and members of the school's academic team. He also chatted with Sayre students, and sat in on geometry and Spanish classes to watch youngsters using their laptops in complement to teachers' instruction.
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Both visits were part of the 2012 Education Drives America back-to-school bus tour, in which U.S. Education Department officials are crossing the nation by bus to see successful school initiatives, and gather input from local educational leaders.
Miller, the education department's second-ranking official, watched teacher Miko Momozono lead Picadome fourth-graders through language exercises entirely in Japanese at Picadome, and even spoke some Japanese with the kids himself. Miller learned it while studying Japan during graduate school.
During Thursday's visit, he joined a roundtable discussion of world language education with Fayette County Schools officials; students; representatives from the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University; business leaders; and state education officials including Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday.
Fayette County's language program began with the 2020 Vision project about eight years, when the community gave language education top priority. The school system began language classes using federal grants, then continued the classes with local funds when federal dollars ran out.
"What you're doing here is just remarkable," Miller told local officials.
Miller acknowledged in an interview that American students still trail children from other countries in many educational measures. But he said he'd seen "leading indicators" of improvement during his cross-country tour, citing the 46 states (including Kentucky) that recently adopted tougher educational standards.
"When you're setting the bar higher ... that gives me hope we're changing the trajectory and closing the gap," he said. "It's going to take a while ... but I don't think we should accept slow progress."