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  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gets down low to talk with prekindergarten students while visiting Laura Foster's class Thursday at Van Wert Early Childhood Center. DeVos was in the Ohio city touring the public schools.

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talks with prekindergarten students Thursday in Laura Foster’s class Thursday at Van Wert Early Childhood Center.

Friday, April 21, 2017 1:00 am

US education secretary tours Van Wert schools

DeVos takes well-rounded visit

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

VAN WERT, Ohio – U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent Thursday in public schools – and she seemed to enjoy herself.

DeVos learned about counting with large dice and tiny plastic dinosaurs in a kindergarten class. She discussed with fifth-grade students the special challenges that American children faced during the Great Depression. She listened to seventh-graders in an engineering and robotics class explain how they are redesigning a school library on a laptop computer.

DeVos, champion of school vouchers and charter schools, both of which draw students and taxpayer funds away from traditional public education, heaped praise on Van Wert's public school system after visits to classrooms and meetings with teachers, administrators and parents.

“It is clear that this community has invested heart and soul into the students that you serve. And I am just so grateful to have had the opportunity to see and to learn from you,” DeVos said at a news conference at Niswonger Performing Arts Center.

“I look forward to doing what we can,” she said, referring to the federal Education Department. “I think in many cases, it's doing less of what we've done in the past, to allow you to do best what you do to meet each student's needs.”

Asked to elaborate on what she meant by doing less, DeVos said she was talking about “a lot of paperwork requirements. … It was a general statement about how we overcomplicate things in many cases.” She said she did not have a specific example.

Van Wert City Schools is a rural public school district with an enrollment of about 2,200 students. ­DeVos said about 20 percent of children in the northwest Ohio farming community “elect to go to schools other than the Van Wert school system. And that's a wonderful thing that they have that opportunity, and it's an opportunity that we should continue to offer because the goal is for every child to be in an education environment that's best for them.”

In a parking lot outside Niswonger Center, about 15 people protested DeVos' visit. Organizer Dan Miller, chairman of the Van Wert County Democratic Party, said Van Wert High School has seen $3 million “funneled” to charter and private schools since 2012.

“Betsy's policies are going to further handicap schools like this. … School choice doesn't do anything for a rural county. It just takes money away from the public school,” Miller said.

DeVos has been a lightning rod in education and political circles. The Michigan billionaire and Republican party financier required a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence to win Senate confirmation in February. Days later, protesters blocked her from entering a public school in Washington, D.C.

Van Wert Superintendent Ken Amstutz said Thursday in an interview, “We're excited at the opportunity to show what public education can do. While you may have a disagreement with that or not agree with what the policy is, it's our opportunity to show that it does work.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, arranged for DeVos' visit to Van Wert City Schools at the request of local teachers union leader Jeff Hood. Weingarten noted at the news conference that she and DeVos have been described by media as “combatants.”

“She and I saw what is possible when people work together – the good, the challenges, but what is possible in terms of public education,” Weingarten said about Thursday's tour.

She said the Van Wert district has proven “what is possible when we meet children's needs, focus on their well-being, engage in powerful instruction, work with people in a collaborative way and help make sure that they have the tools they need.”

Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo ­DeMaria called the Van Wert district “one of Ohio's outstanding schools.” According to Ohio School Report Cards issued by the state, Van Wert City Schools in 2015-16 earned an A in progress, an A in graduation rate, a C in preparing students for careers, a D in achievement on state tests, an F in closing the achievement gap for “vulnerable populations of students” and an F in literacy for kindergarten through third grade.

During a late-morning discussion at the Van Wert Early Childhood Center, which teaches preschool and kindergarten classes, DeVos asked parents for their assessments of the public school.

Ryan Holliday said he and his family returned to his hometown after living in Columbus, Ohio, for 10 years.

“We knew the schools were just excellent here,” Holliday said. He said his two children attending school “have both grown so much just over this year that they have been here. … They're developing not just academically but as people.”

Miriam Owens said her young child “has gained confidence, she has developed critical thinking, and it's been such a joy to watch. I am so very thankful for these educators here.”

Early-childhood teachers talked about why they chose their career.

“Getting a hug every day? What career can you go to and get that love and that good feeling?” kindergarten teacher Sara Pugh said.

“And they come in just little sponges, and they leave readers. Like, wow! I just love my job,” Pugh said about her students. 

“That's where they grow, that's where they start, and you're the face they see every single day. … Just the impact that you have on a kid's life,” said Kendra Parmenter, a special-education kindergarten teacher.

“They do need a lot of hugs … and a lot of encouragement,” Parmenter said. “I love my job, I love kindergarten, I love coming in every day.”

After other teachers spoke, DeVos told the bunch: “You're really setting the tone. I can feel it.”

Asked what DeVos' visit meant to the school district, Superintendent Amstutz said, “Whenever you can get a chance to showcase your school, your community, it's a great, great PR move, it's a great opportunity for our schools.”

Asked what it was like to talk with DeVos, seventh-grader Grace Dowler, 13, said, “It's exciting knowing that she came to our school, that they picked our school to come and meet us.”

bfrancisco@jg.net