State Education Commissioner Richard Mills praised NYSUT for its courageous commitment to closing the achievement gap and pledged to work together to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Mills thanked NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi for making good on his pledge at the end of the Education Summit nearly two years ago. "I remember vividly your words, that you would make closing the gap a top priority of your organization," Mills said. "You followed through beyond your promise."
In his opening night remarks, Mills said he was encouraged to see so many leaders from the education, business and political world sprinkled throughout the large audience. With so many partners at the table, he said, "we challenge the gap together from a position of strength."
Borrowing a phrase from Iannuzzi's speech, Mills agreed, "It's time to do scary things, to take some risks," as the state does whatever is necessary.
"This is not about improving tests scores," Mills said. "It's about preventing lost opportunities."
Pictured left to right: NYSUT officers Maria Neira, Richard Iannuzzi and Kathleen Donahue share a moment with State Education Commissioner Richard Mills shortly before the start of the union's three-day symposium in Albany tonight.
Just this week, Mills said, the Board of Regents approved some bold initiatives as part of its budget proposal with a multi-pronged approach to closing the gap. They include: $20 million for regional education alliances and literacy zones "to provide the glue" that would link school districts with colleges, libraries, museums and other service and community organizations. He also shared the Regents' $100 million Smart Scholars initiative that would help at least 12,000 disadvantaged students earn college credit while they are in high school.
"When it's done, this will result in increased high school graduation and completion rates," Mills said. "The Regents have put $100 million behind that idea."
Providing equal access to dual enrollment is also the right thing to do for so many young people who can't afford such programs. "It's wrong, unjust, and not smart economically" to close the door of opportunity for so many youngsters, Mills said.
Calling teaching "the heart of the matter," Mills said the state also needs to commit to recruitment and retention programs so that more highly qualified teachers will teach in hard-to-staff schools.
Mills concluded by saying that just by gathering for the conference, participants were taking meaningful steps. "We know that if we dig down deep ... we can make this happen. It'll happen on our watch together."