When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan boarded a TUSD school bus Wednesday morning, he had no idea he’d be sitting next to someone who might be the country’s first female president of the United States.

Simone Ufondu, a sixth-grader at Dodge Traditional Magnet Middle School, not only shared her future career aspirations with Duncan, but she also took the time to let him know what she liked about her school, programs available and some of the things she’d like to see change.

“Us as kids, we like to learn, but we also like to have fun with learning, so if that can somehow be included, it would make our education better,” the 11-year-old said.

Duncan, accompanied by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, stopped in Tucson as part of the Strong Start, Bright Future back-to-school bus tour, which is making its way across the Southwest this week.

The goal of the tour is to highlight how investments in education are critical to the country’s future and how state and local reforms are delivering encouraging results.

“What we want for every child in this country is to have the chance to pursue their dreams, whatever that might be,” Duncan said. “Children have a million different interests, but you want to have the skills and ability and the passion to pursue that.”

Over his week of travels, Duncan said, he has been inspired by the difference that bus drivers, teachers and principals make in the lives of students every day. His stop in Tucson, however, came one day after the Star learned of an incident in which bus breakdowns left 11 special-needs students stranded outside a school. (See related story, Page A2.)

Duncan said he views the annual back-to-school tour as an opportunity to get out of Washington to listen and learn about what’s working well, what isn’t and how the U.S. Department of Education can be a better partner.

TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez capitalized on the visit to press Duncan on the need for dual-credit enrollment, saying the more kids we can get into college at the high school level, the fewer dropouts there will be because they already see themselves as successful.

Duncan started his day at the Tucson Unified School District’s central transportation center, where he met bus drivers before hopping on a school bus to pick up Dodge students and ride their regular route to school with them. “We were thrilled to ride the bus together this morning,” Duncan said before expressing his gratitude for bus drivers. “I think we were both pretty well behaved and didn’t get kicked off the bus.”

While at Dodge, Duncan met privately with teachers and staffers before visiting an eighth-grade social studies class, where he participated in a press conference in which students asked questions, including where he attended college and whether he’s ever had dinner with the president at the White House — he has — and pressed him on the importance of holding students, teachers and parents accountable. Accountability starts with them, he told students when asked whose job it is to make sure they get a good education.

“I think it’s your job,” Duncan told them. “This is your job right now — to work hard, to learn and to do everything you can to prepare for whatever you want to do for the long haul.”

Duncan also joined students painting “kindness coins” for the Ben’s Bells Project. The coins further awareness of kindness and performing good deeds. Duncan and Foxx took 50 coins back to Washington for the president and other top officials and their families.

Second stop Sunnyside

At Sunnyside High School, Duncan was greeted by middle and high school students who are learning how take apart and troubleshoot computers, create 3-D models of cities and snap and edit digital photographs.

Duncan visited Sunnyside to learn more about the district’s technology initiatives, including how teachers have integrated technology into the classroom, students who are using advanced robotics classes to launch into engineering careers and other ways technology has influenced learning.

The district hosted a technology expo where students showed off photography, computer repair and other projects they’ve been working on.

There was a palpable buzz on the campus in the minutes before Duncan’s arrival as marching bands and cheerleaders from Sunnyside and Desert View high schools played music and cheered outside of the library and auditorium.

Duncan met with Sunnyside Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo, district Governing Board members and other district officials and students before conducting a second Q&A session with students and teachers in front of hundreds of people in the high school’s packed auditorium.

He spoke with Desert View High School teacher Misa Gonzales, who uses Google Apps and other resources in her classroom to store and distribute assignments, and Sunnyside High School teacher Steve Uyeda, who discussed the use of technology in the school’s Biotech program.

Two students, Janet Siqueiros and Desarae Stephens, also took part in the conversation.

Siqueiros, a sophomore, told Duncan and the crowd that technology and the district’s one-to-one program have “opened doors for her,” improving her learning experience. Stephens is taking a robotics class, which has inspired her to pursue mechanical engineering and drafting when she attends college.

“I want you guys to understand what you’re doing is not just impacting people here, but there are national implications,” he told them.

The rest of the country can learn from the success and challenges faced by Sunnyside and its technology initiatives, especially since the district has a lot of low-income students, he said.

“These are kids who don’t come to school with all of the advantages,” he said. “To see their excitement, to see their engagement in their own learning, to see the kinds of opportunities available to them … I am wildly optimistic about the future.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.