LOWELL — U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told a room full of Lowell High School students and staff, as well as the leaders of Middlesex Community College and UMass Lowell, that ”the masks are off, but the pandemic is still with us.”
U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan invited Cardona to spend an afternoon at LHS for conversations with students trying to recover from the pandemic academically, with needed mental health support as well as connections to high-quality workforce opportunities.
Cardona said the pandemic-caused pause made it possible to address disparities in access, equity and opportunity.
It was also a chance for the secretary to hear from students enrolled in the Early College Lowell and Lowell High School Pathway programs about the difference these initiatives have made in their lives.
Cardona, who started his career as a fourth grade teacher in Connecticut, has been a teacher, principal, superintendent and state secretary of education.
In his new job, he said, “I have 50 million students.”
Early College Lowell enables students to take college-level courses while still in high school, earning real college credit. The courses are offered at no cost to the students. When they graduate, students enrolled in the separate Early College Promise program can attend MCC for one year at no cost.
The Pathways program includes three STEM programs and several other paths that connect learning to real-world work experiences.
Cardona first visited an engineering class where students explained an assignment to envision a new product and solve engineering problems around its manufacture. Then, they went on to develop business and marketing plans for their products. Thus, the projects integrated engineering and writing skills.
Next he visited an Advanced Placement English class and asked students to relate Wisława Szymborska’s “The End and the Beginning” poem about the burden of war on everyday citizens.
He ended his visit with a roundtable discussion with student participants in the Early College program.
The Early College program, he said, is not just about getting a head start on earning college credits at no cost. “It’s also about getting a head start on confidence.”
Students shared their thoughts on the programs, and one said that taking an introductory engineering class at MCC helped him become “confident in saying I want to be a mechanical engineer.”
Other students spoke about the opportunity to do a “new kind of research” beyond what is usually available to high school students.
Cardona promised that he and the Department of Education will be pushing for change and closing the opportunity gap.