U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ recent tour to “Rethink School” 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, Wyo.
But DeVos also said at a Sept. 14 roundtable here at Hope Academy, a charter school for students recovering from addiction, 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.”
Francie Wilcox, a student at Hope Academy, told the secretary that she started drinking when she was 12, and quickly progressed to LSD, 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 event. “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. 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 would 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.”
DeVos finished her day in Indiana by 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 football game between Eastern Hancock and its long-time rival Knightstown High School. The winner gets bragging rights and a special Ploughshare and Anvil trophy.
The secretary didn’t take sides—she sat with the home team Eastern Hancock Royals for half the game, and then switched to the visiting Knightstown Panthers. (Royals won.)
Out by the field before the game, DeVos shook hands and took selfies with students, 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 enthusiastic.
Kim Lowe, who has taught at Eastern Hancock Elementary for more than three decades, said she was glad to see the secretary make it to the rural district, whose elementary, middle, and high schools are all housed in one building.
She wishes, though, that someone was running the department who had a better idea of “what goes on day-to-day” in schools like hers.
And an elementary school teacher, who declined to give her name, was disappointed 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.
Another teacher echoed those views.
“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.”
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.
So do the protests get to DeVos? “It doesn’t bother me,” the secretary said in an interview.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as Scenes From DeVos’ ‘Rethink School’ Tour