Future of Schools

Betsy DeVos made a covert visit to Indianapolis last week. Here’s why.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is reportedly weighing whether to allow schools to pay for guns using federal money.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made a secret visit to Indianapolis last week.

DeVos’ public calendar for Feb. 5 said she had “no public events.” There were no press releases marking her trip to Indiana. Even the local school district did not know the U. S. Secretary of Education was coming.

But unbeknownst to most of the city, DeVos was visiting Cold Spring School, a public elementary school with an environmental science focus. As one of the first campuses in Indianapolis to voluntarily become an innovation school, Cold Spring is overseen by the district but has most of the flexibilities of charter schools. A staunch advocate of school choice, DeVos has highlighted innovation schools in the past, saying the schools are an “out-of-the-box” approach.

The Indianapolis Public Schools administration, however, was not involved with DeVos’ visit.

“The board and administration were not aware of the visit until after it had occurred,” said Mary Ann Sullivan, a member of the Indianapolis Public Schools board. “No one at the district or the board knew she was coming.”

The unannounced visit is part of a larger pattern for DeVos, who has been criticized for keeping many public appearances off her calendar. Critics say keeping plans private diminishes public trust and accountability.

When Chalkbeat learned about DeVos’ visit to Cold Spring Friday, we reached out to the school and to DeVos’ spokesperson to confirm the details and find out why she was here. Neither responded for more than 72 hours.

On Monday, DeVos’ spokesperson Liz Hill emailed an explanation for the visit.

“She was there filming for an upcoming TV special on innovation in education and her one-year anniversary in office,” Hill wrote. “It was closed press and not noticed to the public for that reason.”

Cold Spring School chief operating officer Carrie Bruns provided a similar statement to Chalkbeat on Monday that confirmed the details of the visit. “Cold Spring School was very honored to have been chosen for this visit,” Bruns added.

Indianapolis Public Schools, a district of about 31,000 students, has garnered national attention for creating innovation schools, which aim to release traditional schools from the tether of central office control. The schools are particularly controversial because their teachers are no longer employed by the district and they cannot join the district union.

Not everyone in Indianapolis welcomes DeVos’ praise. The innovation school strategy is contentious, but it has bipartisan support from Republican lawmakers in the statehouse, and Democratic elected officials and advocates from Indianapolis.

Sullivan, who previously served as a Democratic representative in the Indiana House, said DeVos is part of an administration that supports policies that will “deeply hurt” children. Sullivan said she is reserving judgment on what to make of the visit to Cold Spring until she learns more, but she is concerned that the TV story that DeVos was filming could potentially spark backlash.

“My biggest fear is — I don’t want the school or the strategy to be criticized because she’s choosing to uplift it,” Sullivan added.

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.

award-winning

Top principal’s ambitious goal: 100 percent at grade level — and her school is close

PHOTO: Aisha Thomas
Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, won a national school leadership award.

In late September, Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, got a phone call from a student’s mother. The woman said her daughter had been telling everyone that she wanted to grow up to be a principal just like Thomas.

It was particularly heart-warming because the girl was multiethnic, just like Thomas.

“I have arrived,” Thomas recalled thinking at the time.

Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come. In early October, Zach Elementary was one of five Colorado schools recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, and on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Thomas had won a prestigious leadership award.

Thomas is among 11 principals nationwide — all leaders of Blue Ribbon schools — selected for the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership.

“I’m floored,” she said. “I just come to work and I do what I do, and I love kids and I love people.”

But there’s more to it than that.

Thomas, who’s in her sixth year at Zach and her 17th in the Poudre School District, steers the school using five-year plans, frequent classroom coaching visits, and an emphasis on teacher collaboration.

It’s critical to know “where you want to take your school and your staff,” Thomas said. And then to be patient.

“It does take five years of churning through the day-to-day and showing up for people,” she said. “It takes time.”

The school’s latest five-year plan includes a goal that 100 percent of students will meet grade-level academic and behavior expectations. The school, situated on the southeast side of Fort Collins, uses a curriculum based on the Core Knowledge sequence.

Close to 90 percent of Zach students already meet academic standards, Thomas said, but it’s not enough. Even if there’s only one child missing the mark, what if that one kid is yours, she asked.

Thomas said school leaders have always tracked serious behavior problems, but this year will begin monitoring smaller classroom disruptions and distractions that affect student learning. The school also recently hired a coordinator who runs student groups on social-emotional learning and coaches teachers on managing student behavior.

Before she came to Zach, Thomas was a middle school counselor and assistant principal in the district. Since then, she’s discovered she loves the elementary age group.

“I love how creative the kids are and they’re just sponges for new information,” she said. “They don’t take themselves too seriously and they’ll tell you if you’re having a bad hair day.”