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It is not often middle school students can hear directly from a world leader. On Sept. 25, the students at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering (CSS) got their chance when Leonel Fernández, president of the Dominican Republic, came to visit.

President Fernández spoke to a packed auditorium of about 250 students, parents and faculty, discussing politics and answering such questions as: What is the most difficult thing about being president? "Managing conflicts," he replied. What would he be if he weren't president? A writer, he said.

President Fernández greets the students of Columbia Secondary School.

Image credit: Eileen Barroso

Fernández was in New York City for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly and was also a featured speaker at Columbia's annual World Leaders Forum. His trip to CSS stemmed from a key component of his presidential agenda: investing in the Dominican Republic's youth and education. (To view the Web cast of the panel discussion featuring President Fernández, click here.)

"One of our priorities to promote economic and social development has to do with human capital, so that's education," said Fernández in an interview. "But we have to look at new models to train our young students how to think, how to solve problems, how to have a modern view, how to think out of the box...CSS is a great model project that we can replicate."

To that end, Fernández also went to Teachers College for a meeting with Provost Thomas James; Portia Williams, director of international affairs; and Deanna Kuhn, a professor of psychology and education. Fernández plans to modernize and improve the Dominican Republic's education system, and wants Teachers College to serve as an advisor in that effort.

Later that evening, at a World Leaders Forum talk in Low Library, Fernández said that Teachers College will put together a pilot project—modeled after CSS—in the Dominican Republic. "We need to bring in the most advanced methodologies to overhaul our education system," he said.

CSS opened last fall with its first class of sixth-graders. Run by the New York City Department of Education in partnership with Columbia and the community, the school is adding an additional grade every year, and ultimately will enroll 650 students from grades six through 12. The middle school—grades six through eight—will serve high performing local children from northern Manhattan, and will be open to students city-wide.

A Columbia Secondary School student demonstrates his engineering project.

Image credit: Eileen Barroso

The partnership with Columbia has mutual benefits. It provides Columbia undergraduate and graduate students teaching experience at the school, where they work with the middle school students in after-school programs and the Harlem Robotics League, in which students compete to design robots. Meanwhile, the CSS students get access to University facilities and resources. The school, which is located on West 123rd Street and Morningside Avenue, will eventually have its permanent home in Manhattanville as part of the University's long-term expansion.

Jose Maldonado-Rivera, principal at CSS and himself a Teachers College alumnus, said Fernández's visit "is a unique opportunity for my Hispanic students to see [how] somebody from the barrio...through hard work and dedication, was able to drive himself to the top, to the pinnacle of political power in the Dominican Republic and become president."

The lesson was not lost on Christian Pimentel, a Dominican-born seventh-grader. Being able to meet the president of his country was a "true inspiration," he said. Pimentel is concerned that Dominican voices are being heard. "Latinos are just as important as everyone else," he said. "We want to make sure everyone knows that...we have a say in this world."

Some students got to have their say. In preparation for the visit, students were asked to write a letter addressing a world leader on a global issue, and several read theirs aloud to Fernández; topics included the U.S. financial crisis, nuclear weapons, oil dependency, climate change, poverty, health care and women's rights.

For one student, sixth-grader Annette Anderson, the experience made her proud. "A lot of other schools locally never had an opportunity like this," said Anderson, 11. "This really helps us and builds us up as a community and as a school."

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