Education secretary, Youth Speaks founder to speak at spring commencement

March 10, 2010

by Dennis Chaptman

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will speak at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Saturday morning commencement ceremony on May 15, Chancellor Biddy Martin announced today (March 10).

James Kass, the inspirational founder of Youth Speaks, will deliver the charge to graduates in ceremonies at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, May 15, and at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 16, she adds. Duncan will speak at the 10 a.m. ceremony on May 15 at the Kohl Center.

"It is a privilege and an honor to have a Cabinet member, particularly the secretary of education, speak to our graduates," Martin says. "Secretary Duncan is a dynamic and forward-thinking policymaker who is shaping American education for coming generations."

Martin says that graduates will get another perspective on education from Kass, whose organization is involved in developing spoken-word programs for youth across the nation.

"Our graduate James Kass is inspiring and challenging young people across the nation to use their talents creatively," Martin says. "The messages brought by these two speakers will make this commencement truly memorable."

Duncan came to President Obama's administration in January 2009 after spending seven years as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, where he became the longest serving big-city education superintendent in the nation.

During his tenure, an all-time high of 66.7 percent of the district's elementary school students met or exceeded state reading standards. At the high-school level, ACT scores rose at three times the rate of national gains and nearly twice that of the states. Graduation rates also increased.

Prior to joining the Chicago Public Schools, Duncan ran the Ariel Education Initiative, a nonprofit educational foundation.

In U.S. Senate confirmation hearings, Duncan said that "preparing young people for success in life is not just a moral obligation of society" but also an "economic imperative."

His late father was a professor at the University of Chicago and his mother has run a South Side tutoring program for inner-city children since 1961. As a student in Chicago, Duncan spent afternoons in his mother's tutoring program and also worked there during a year off from college. He credits this experience with shaping his understanding of the challenges of urban education.

Kass, a 1991 UW-Madison graduate with a degree in English, is creator and executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Youth Speaks.

Since 1996, Youth Speaks has set a national standard for creative writing, poetry and spoken-word programs for youth. Its mission is to empower the next generation of leaders, artists and activists through literacy.

Kass helps young people find creative new ways to apply reading and writing to achieve social change. All told, Youth Speaks works with 45,000 teens per year in the Bay Area alone. Kass has helped launch more than 44 spoken word programs nationally, including in New York City, Seattle, Hawaii, the Twin Cities and Wisconsin.

Since creating Youth Speaks, he has facilitated more than 5,000 workshops for more than 40,000 participants. His program underscores the important links between literacy, performance and self-confidence.

The spring commencement ceremonies — held at the Kohl Center — are scheduled as follows, with each ceremony lasting approximately two hours:

  • Friday, May 14, 5:30 p.m.: Honorary degrees and all doctoral and professional degrees, doctor of philosophy, doctor of musical arts, doctor of juridical science, juris doctor, doctor of medicine, doctor of physical therapy, doctor of veterinary medicine, doctor of pharmacy, doctor of audiology, master of fine arts, master of laws, master of public health.
  • Saturday, May 15, 10 a.m.: Bachelor's and master's degrees from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, School of Education, Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, School of Human Ecology, School of Medicine and Public Health, School of Nursing and School of Pharmacy.
  • Saturday, May 15, 2:30 p.m.: Bachelor's and master's degrees from the School of Business and College of Engineering.
  • Sunday, May 16, 10 a.m.: Bachelor's and master's degrees from the College of Letters & Science majors A through H (African languages and literature through history of science).
  • Sunday, May 16, 2:30 p.m.: Bachelor's and master's degrees from the College of Letters & Science majors I through Z (international public affairs through zoology).