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Scenes From Betsy DeVos’ ‘Rethinking School’ Tour: Pulled Pork and Protestors

By Alyson Klein — September 16, 2017 9 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Betsy DeVos’ tour to “Rethink Education” by shining a spotlight on promising, outside-the-box educational approaches took her to Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and, finally, Indiana, where she met with students recovering from drug addiction and chowed down on pork and beans at a barbeque.

In DeVos’ view, education hasn’t changed much over the past five decades or so. That’s left many kids stuck in a “mundane malaise,” she said in a speech to elementary school students at her first stop on the tour at the Woods Learning Center, a teacher-lead school in Casper, Wy.

But DeVos also said at a roundtable here that she thinks there are some schools operating in a “wide-range of settings [using] unique and creative ways to really meet students where they are at.”

See Also: Betsy DeVos Waiting for ‘Right Time,’ Circumstances for a Choice Initiative

More than six months after her divisive confirmation process, DeVos remains a polarizing figure. At stop after stop she was dogged by protestors who have deep concerns about her commitment to protecting children’s civil rights and her understanding of public schools and the issues they face.

So what was DeVos’ tour like on the ground? I flew out to Indiana and jumped on for the last two stops on Friday.

And I caught up with DeVos for a one-on-one interview in between events. We talked about what’s next for school choice now that Congress has rejected the administration’s budget proposals on vouchers and Title I portability, implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, her department’s approach to civil rights protections, and much more.

Indianapolis: Hope Academy

Francie Wilcox, a student at this charter school for students recovering from addiction, told the secretary that she started drinking when she was 12, and quickly progressed to acid, marijuana, and more. She bounced from rehab program to rehab program in the Savannah, Ga., area.

“She was burning bridges all over town,” her mother, Mary Anne Wilcox, said at the roundtable. “Several schools did not want her to return.”

Wilcox was told her daughter might fare better at a pricey private, long-term treatment center and boarding school. But that was out of the family’s financial reach. When the Wilcoxes heard about Hope Academy, which doesn’t charge tuition, they picked up and moved all the way to Indianapolis.

Now Francie is away from the kids she hung around with when she was using. She’s surrounded by classmates who know firsthand how tough it can be to beat a drug habit. Her grades have improved, although she said she still struggles in math.

“So many people in the world, they just think of children who use drugs as ‘they’re bad kids’, they’re bad behaviorally, and not worth it, and just bring problems to the school,” Mary Anne Wilcox said. “The reason we had to come here is you get to the point where you just want to make sure your child lives, and possibly graduates from high school and [has] a life.”

Hope Academy, which is located on the campus of the Fairbanks Addiction Treatment Center, is one of just about three dozen so-called “recovery” high schools nationwide. Some of its graduates have returned to work at the school, serving as peer mentors to current students.

Students, who must be participating in a 12-step program in order to enroll, are reminded on bulletin boards to embrace things like self-respect and strength, and leave anxiety and self-harm behind. (More about the school in this great profile from Chalkbeat.)

During the roundtable, parents, students, graduates, and teachers all had one message for DeVos: We need more schools like this.

The secretary wasn’t specific about what steps she’d take to make that happen. But she had warm words for the school.

“I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to be here to meet you,” she told the students and staff. “I take this as another really excellent example of schools that are specifically meeting the needs of students where they are at.”

Charlottesville, Indiana: “Friday Night Lights”

DeVos finished her day chatting with teachers and students over a pulled pork sandwich, made with meat Eastern Hancock High School Students roasted themselves on a giant spit for hours, including through overnight shifts.

The school’s annual pork roast is a fundraiser, and the long-standing opening act before the annual football game between Eastern Hancock and its long-time rival, nearby Knightstown High School. The winner gets bragging rights and a special Ploughshare and Anvil trophy.

DeVos didn’t take sides—she sat with the home team Eastern Hancock Royals for half the game, and then switch to the visiting Knightstown Panthers. (Royals won.)

Out by the field before the game, DeVos shook hands and took selfies with kids, one of whom asked her if she knew the president. (“I do,” the secretary said. “He’s very nice.”). Her husband, Dick DeVos, whose family owns the Amway multi-level marketing corporation, slipped a “nice” donation to a group of 5th graders selling pumpkin pies and baggies of cookies to raise money to fix-up the basketball court, one teacher said.

James Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, was pretty jazzed about DeVos’ stop, tweeting that the secretary was going to see “Indiana Friday Night Lights. She will love it!”

But some in the school community were less enthused to see her.

Kim Lowe, who has taught at Eastern Hancock Elementary for more than three decades, said she was glad to see the secretary make it out to the rural district, whose elementary, middle, and high schools are all housed in one building.

She wishes, though, that someone else was running the department, someone who had a better idea of “what goes on day-to-day” in schools like hers.

And another elementary school teacher, who declined to give her name, was bummed that DeVos had spent her day at charter schools in the state and didn’t leave time to see the great instruction at Eastern Hancock Elementary, especially given that her tour was about spotlighting innovative approaches.

“I’m a big fan of public education,” said Dana Anderson, a 5th grade teacher. She pointed to the families who came out in droves for the game. “I can’t imagine a charter school that has a community like this.”

Protests Along the Route

Some of DeVos’ detractors were a lot more vocal in their opposition. Earlier Friday, there were some 150 demonstrators outside the secretary’s stop at Kansas City Academy, according to the Kansas City Star. The small private school serves just 75 students and has a sizeable LBGTQ population, the paper reported.

Demonstrators held up signs protesting DeVos’ decision to revise Obama-era guidance dealing with sexual assaults on college campuses. And others criticized her support for vouchers and the Trump administration’s proposed K-12 budget cuts. One protestor even brought a stuffed bear, and held up a sign saying, “Don’t Shoot Me, Betsy!” the paper reported. (DeVos made a pretty big grizzly gaffe during her confirmation hearing.)

Some of the protests were smaller scale, but just as emotionally charged.

Outside Hope Academy, at a demonstration featuring just two protestors, Krisztina Inskeep, a former teacher and the mother of a transgender son, held up a homemade sign saying “Sec. DeVos: Stand Up for Trans Students.”

“They are not a threat to anyone, they are just kids and they deserve the same safe schools that all of our children deserve,” said Inskeep, who founded a local group for parents of transgender children under 12. “And we want Secretary DeVos to stand up against discrimination. ... I haven’t heard her say she’d step in and stand up for [transgender kids.] She equivocates on that point.”

The tour also presented a political opportunity for local candidates who oppose vouchers and charter schools. Jane Raybould, a Democrat running for Senate in Nebraska, where DeVos visited a public school that shares a campus with the local zoo, fired off a widely circulated email filled with harsh words for the secretary.

“Nebraska’s schools are already world class, so why would education secretary Betsy DeVos want to rethink them?” asked Raybould, a Democrat who has launched a longshot bid against GOP Sen. Deb Fischer, who supported DeVos’ confirmation.

Raybould, a Lincoln City councilwoman, encouraged recipients to sign a petition asking DeVos to support public schools. Down the line, that petition could provide Raybould with a ready-made roster of potential campaign donors or volunteers.

So do the protests get to DeVos? “It doesn’t bother me,” the secretary said in an interview.

Bonus: Where else did the tour go? DeVos made a stop at Nelson Mandela Elementary School, a private school in Omaha that requires its parents to put in 20 hours of volunteering each year, according to Omaha World Herald. (Teachers there wore stickers proclaiming their love for public education, despite the school’s private status, the paper wrote.)

And DeVos visited two charter schools in Gary, Ind., including one that gives its students a chance to earn college credit. She swung by the Firefly Austism Center in Denver, which figured into a recent landmark Supreme Court case on the rights of students in special education. (More from Chalkbeat.)

This was DeVos’ most extensive on-the-ground trip since becoming secretary. (We’ve got a look at where else she has been and when in this tracker.) She’s been to at least 10 traditional public schools, and seems to really enjoy traveling to Florida.

And there may be a lot more travel in the secretary’s future. I asked her how she could expand school choice without help from Congress and she told me that tours like this are a great tool to “really highlight and expose to more people the beauty of options and choices and to continue to make the case that all parents, not only ones that have the economic means, should be able to have a decision making power to make some of those choices.”

Want to check out our coverage of past secretary’s back-to-school tours? Here’s a look at former secretary John B. King, Jr.'s trip last year, and Arne Duncan’s in 2015 and 2014.

Photo: Accompanied by Principal Anthony Cherry, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is greeted by students at the 21st Century Charter School on Sept. 15 in Gary, Ind. John J. Watkins/The Times via AP

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