Education Secretary Arne Duncan took his back-to-school bus tour to the border, rolling into Columbus, N.M. Besides the photo ops and mariachi band, Duncan heard about failing schools and teacher frustrations. Washington Post video journalist Gabe Silverman tagged along for the visit. (The Washington Post)

Simone Ufondu, 11, stepped onto Bus 2001 Wednesday morning and slid into a seat next to a tall stranger. Simone, a sixth-grader at Dodge Middle School, didn’t recognize her seatmate, Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

But once he introduced himself, she told him all about her school, and the improvements she’d like to see.

“I want to be able to express our individuality,” Simone said after the ride. “They’re strict there. I’d like it to be more creative.”

Duncan was on the bus route as part of his week-long tour of schools through Southwest states. As part of his Wednesday stops, Duncan also will visit a high school in Tucson to learn about the use of technology in classrooms and Arizona State University in Tempe to discuss college affordability.

At Dodge Middle School, Duncan was swarmed by dozens of children who wanted their photo taken with him, even if they were a little unsure exactly who he was. A onetime professional basketball player, Duncan shot baskets with some of the kids and gave the school an autographed basketball – one of dozens he dispenses on his school visits. He met teachers and administrators, toured classrooms and fielded questions from sixth-graders in the library. Duncan was accompanied to the school by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Asked by one girl if he had ever eaten dinner at the White House with the president, and what was on the menu, Duncan answered “Pies. They have really good pies at the White House.”

Then he talked about President Obama’s path to success. “The president didn’t grow up with a lot of advantages. His dad, frankly, abandoned his family. He had a strong mom but they didn’t have a lot. They were on welfare for a while. . . . But he and the first lady are who they are because they got a great education.”

Asked about Arizona’s transition to the new Common Core standards in math and reading, Duncan said the new standardized tests that students will take should be an improvement over current tests. “We think a lot of the tests you take — fill in the bubble tests — are not that great,” he said. “Our hope is that the new tests will test more of your critical thinking skills. More thinking, more problem-solving, working together and less rote memorization.”

Duncan told the students that the transition may be bumpy. “There will be mistakes and things will be messed up — it’ll be a hard couple of years,” he said. “But if we can stay the course, we’ll be in a much better place as a nation in three to five years.”

Later, Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour pulled up to Sunnyside High School so Duncan could check out one of the few school districts in the country that has made the switch from paper materials to all digital.

The Sunnyside Unified School district stopped buying textbooks for grades 4-12 four years ago and is planning to convert its earliest grades to digital soon, Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo said.

“We are eliminating textbooks, we have invested in technology,” Isquierdo told Duncan before an auditorium filled with students, teachers and administrators. “Everybody needs technology, everybody needs Internet. It is our basic civil right.”

Duncan met some middle school students who showed him the online tutorial they are taking to learn computer-generated animation. “He is really cool — I like him,” said Sebastian Moreno, 13, an eighth-grader at Challenger Middle School, as Duncan walked away.

At the high school, Duncan heard from an English teacher who lets her students listen to “The Odyssey” on their cellphones, a science teacher who is leading his students in analyzing corn seeds for genetically modified DNA, and a student who had been unmotivated until she fell in love with 3-D printing and design.

“What you’re doing has national implications,” Duncan told the crowd. “We’re trying to move from print to digital. As a nation, we spend $7 to $9 billion a year on textbooks that by the time you receive them, are out of date. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Duncan talked about the importance of technology in schools, especially in communities where children lack other resources. Eight-six percent of the students in the Sunnyside Unified School district are low-income.

While he called Sunnyside a national model, Duncan said he is worried about communities that lack the equipment and connectivity to use technology in the classroom. According to the Obama administration, fewer than 20 percent of teachers say they have the technology they need in their classrooms.

To extend high-speed broadband and wireless capacity to 99 percent of schools within five years, the administration has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to expand a program known as E-Rate. Created in 1997, E-Rate subsidizes Internet services and digital devices for schools and libraries. The program is funded by fees on monthly phone bills. The administration is proposing to increase those fees by about 40 cents, to raise an additional $7 billion to be used for schools. The FCC is accepting public comment on the proposal and is expected to make a decision later this year.