“So, what unique traits does your dragon have?” Betsy DeVos asked a student Thursday in a science class at Thomas Russell Middle School in Milpitas, California. Students there were drawing dragons as part of a lesson on phenotypes and genotypes. Their peers in an art class close by also got a visit from the U.S. Secretary of Education.
This public school visit was one of several stops in her West Coast tour, which started yesterday in Oregon and will end tomorrow in Seattle, where DeVos will be the keynote speaker at the Washington Policy Center’s annual fundraising event. She is not personally raising funds, said her press secretary, Elizabeth Hill.
The visit was billed by the Department of Education as an opportunity for DeVos to “learn more about the school's commitment to personalized learning.” Speaking to reporters after her time in the two classrooms, DeVos said Thomas Russell Middle School “came with great recommendation” and “the personalized learning approach was something that we really, really wanted to get a good handle on.” She lauded the school for its creative approaches to empowering students to take control of their learning, and to move forward in ways that work for them individually.
The core skills that all students need to develop are thinking critically, communicating well, using creativity and working in groups to collaborate with others, DeVos added.
DeVos thinks there’s a “tremendous role for technology to play in learning and education,” and “we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the potential.” She said it is important for her to visit schools like Thomas Russell Middle School that are using technology in “creative and new ways” and to be able to “highlight things that are working and encourage others to follow suit, and to try things, test things and really to work to meet individual students’ needs in the process.”
Paul Cao, an AP Government teacher at Milpitas High School, was at the middle school to join a roundtable meeting that included DeVos and the superintendent of Milpitas Unified School District. By joining the meeting, he hoped to understand what DeVos and the Department of Education are trying to do, and to give an actual portrayal of public schools.
“I think that you need a seat at the table in order to effect change,” he said.
Hill said those in that meeting told the Secretary the successes of the individualized learning platform, “Summit,” used at the middle school, as well as some of its challenges. She was likely referring to Summit Learning, an online, personalized learning program developed by Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a charter network based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Despite very short notice of her appearance, at least a dozen protesters gathered outside the school, armed with signs and chants. A student from nearby De Anza College, who didn’t want to be named, critiqued DeVos for not sending a message that she’s protecting students from marginalized and underserved backgrounds. Santa Clara County, where Milpitas sits, is home to more than 180,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“We saw a last minute press release that Betsy DeVos was coming, and we want to send the message out that she and any other member of the Trump administration is not welcome in the Bay Area,” he said.
A student from the middle school said if DeVos was right in front of him, he’d tell her she doesn’t know what it’s like to be in a public school.
Cassie Kifer, a protester who’s part of Together We Will San Jose, which bills itself as an “intersectional, feminist, inclusive, anti-racist community dedicated to progressive activism,” said she grew up in public schools, and is the sister of a public school teacher.
“I support public schools, I support strengthening public schools and strengthening access to education for kids of all income levels and all different demographics in our community,” Kifer said.