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'School saved my life'

  • National education policy advocate visits UMES, Somerset public schools

    Wednesday, October 2, 2019
    John B. King Jr. in an interactive media class in Somerset County

    John B. King Jr., who served as the Obama administration's second secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, told everyone he met Oct. 1 during a whirlwind tour of Somerset County that schools saved - and shaped - his life. 

    The president / chief executive officer of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit working “to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and from low-income families,” spent much of his day, however, listening to people share their personal stories about education in rural Maryland. 

    King's visit was his second this year to Somerset County; he delivered the 2019 spring commencement address at the alma mater of his grandmother, who graduated from UMES in 1894 when it was known as Princess Anne Academy. 

    Over the past several weeks, King has been traveling about Maryland, encouraging residents to weigh findings of the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence, an evaluation of K-12 public schools' strengths and weaknesses.  He lives in Montgomery County (Md.) and is the father of two teen-age daughters who attend public school.

    King said he worries the voluminous report has not attracted the attention it deserves, other than from elected officials who will confront the challenge of guiding implementation of recommendations and finding money to pay for them.

    2019 UMES alumni Keona Smith, left, and Ricki Reavis

    In a Washington Post guest column published online the same day he visited Somerset County, King wrote that “we need more creative thinking about revenue (such as reforming the state's broken juvenile justice system, closing unnecessary tax loopholes and penalizing polluters, not just raising taxes) and a plan for how to implement that investment in a way that … closes gaps for students in poverty, English learners, and black and Latino students.” 

    King grew up in New York City, the son of two educators.  His mother died when he was eight and his father, he said, suffered from what he believes was undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease. 

    An orphan by age 12, he shared how public schools became a safe haven where teachers nurtured him through those difficult years and made a difference in his life.  The experience set him on a path to becoming a teacher, then an administrator and now a public policy advocate, a role on a national stage he said he envisions being his life's work. 

    King did local media interviews emphasizing the message in his guest column, and met separately with UMES students, faculty in the university's Department of Education and President Heidi M. Anderson. 

    He also traveled to Westover, where Superintendent John Gaddis led a VIP tour of the new Somerset County Technical High school that opened in September.  King spent good bit of time talking to students and taking notes. 

    King said he was impressed by school leaders' creativity in designing practical instructional space and a curriculum that gives students in a rural setting options when they graduate. 

    “That kind of innovative thinking is what we need more of,” King said afterward.  He commended Somerset County “for demonstrating that with limited resources, it's possible to be a leader.” 

    Somerset school administrators smiled at hearing that glowing endorsement from an education advocate with a national platform. 

    King also visited the Garland Hayward Youth Center in Princess Anne, where timid middle-schoolers were initially leery of the bespectacled tall man in a business suit peppering them with questions. 

    When it finally dawned on some of the counselors and volunteers that King worked for the 44th president and currently with former First Lady Michelle Obama on education projects, the mood shifted noticeably. 

    Two May 2019 UMES alumni, Keona Smith and Ricki Reavis, posed for a beaming keepsake picture with the man who was their college commencement speaker. 

    “This is so cool … to be able to meet him,” Reavis said.