in your own words

Dear Secretary: Your messages to Betsy DeVos, as she begins her job overseeing the U.S. education department

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

“Our school has 300 students spread out over 550 square miles.”

“Today I dealt with a student who has been in 19 foster homes.”

“Public schools are where we build a just and fair society.”

That’s a bit of what you told us when we asked Chalkbeat readers what you wanted the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to know about your schools. DeVos, who took the helm at the U.S. Department of Education last week, faced extra criticism before she was confirmed because she hasn’t had personal experience with public schools as a teacher or student.

We thought you could help fill in those gaps — and help her start her to-do list.

It turns out you had a lot to say. Many of you wanted DeVos to know that the school where you work or send your children is working. Others explained how acutely those schools needed additional teachers, pencils, and counselors. And a few of you offered stories of individual students she might never meet, but her policies might touch.

Here’s more of what you told us.

Dear Secretary DeVos, here’s what’s working …

We are a district with great diversity and with great pride. We do not have a lot of money, but the money we do receive is used efficiently and with students in mind.
— Marcella Safe, Arvada, CO

The teachers in my children’s public school work incredibly hard. They put in 30 hours a week above and beyond the typical school week. Fortunately, they are willing to do this with no extra compensation.
— Shari Sullivan-Marshall, Crested Butte, CO

P.S. 295 is a model of the inclusivity that will prepare my (middle class, white, male) child for success in a diverse, global America. It’s a joyful, effective school because it’s funded — and beloved — by our community.
— Zoe, Brooklyn, NY

Three of my children graduated from a “choice” high school in Jefferson County, Co. My wife feels it saved one of our kids from serious trouble, and he and the other two are better for their experience.
— Craig Bakken, Golden, CO

As a white, upper middle-class family, we were blessed to have a wonderful, diverse neighborhood public school. My kids had an incredibly rich experience thanks to the school’s diverse population, which includes many refugee families.
— Beckett Stokes, Denver, CO

My son is a sophomore at Arsenal Tech High School, inner city Indianapolis, and he scored a PSAT score in the 99th percentile. We can afford private, have charters, but chose Arsenal Tech for its awesome teachers. Our son’s teachers deserve better resources, but mostly they deserve your respect.
— Ruth Jean, Indianapolis, IN

Metropolitan State University of Denver is a haven for first generation and nontraditional college students. Though they juggle academics with parenting, jobs, and other adult responsibilities, they come to class prepared, engaged and on time. They work hard and think hard. I love them.
— Anne Thulson, Denver, CO

I am the mother of a severely disabled child. There is no school in my state that could meet her needs the way our local public school has.
— Dawn Mathias, Fort Wayne, IN

The school I teach at is a public charter school that does not treat education as a product or students as customers. The business-model approach to education cannot account for the depth and complexity of a human being.
— Matt Dooley, Durango, CO

I come from a poor family, where we didn’t always have enough to eat, but I was blessed with a strong public school system in my hometown in Massachusetts. Public schools prepared me for college, which launched a successful career that provides for my family.
— Gretchen Craig, New York, NY

We were a beloved community asset linking culture and history across generations.
— Madeline Morrissey, formerly of New Orleans, LA

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar

And what isn’t.

Unregulated charter schools and poor emergency managers destroyed the public school district in Detroit. I teach freshmen at the alternative high school here who are the result of those policies. We don’t get enough funding to serve them emotionally or academically now.
— Emily Simpson, Detroit, MI

Today I dealt with a student who has been in 19 foster homes and another recently busted for dealing meth after a drug dealer groomed her, much like a sexual offender does a victim. She is undocumented with little hope in her future, especially if DACA is repealed.
— Stacey Hervey, Denver, CO

My students need the federal government’s support. Currently, they are suffering from a lack of resources and a lack of consistent teachers. They need people to believe in them.
— Shannon E. G. Brown, Indianapolis, IN

For 30 years I have served students in a rural setting with a high poverty. We have bare-bones resources. We can’t fulfill the transition needs of our secondary students. There are few jobs and much addiction among families.
— Jennifer Christiansen, Chazy, NY

I want you to know that when my students come to school in the morning, many are receiving their first hot meal since they left school the day before. I want you to know that some of my students don’t have electricity or hot water at home, yet are tasked with unfair norms of proficiency.
— Amber, Memphis, TN

There was no school bus to many areas of the city where our students lived. Many took unreliable Detroit city buses to school every day, and if they lost their bus pass, they were required to pay the $200+ to replace it.
— Jen Spears, Detroit, MI

I have students who eat breakfast and lunch daily at school and get snacks sent home because their parents working three-plus jobs can’t afford enough food. I have students who don’t have pencils or books at home to do any school related work.
— Jessica McNary, Gunnison, CO

Our school has 300 students spread out over 550 square miles. It is sad for me to see our starting teacher salary is $30,000 after college grads have spent four or five years of schooling and oftentimes having debt.
— Steve Wilson, Simla, CO

As a Title I school, 75 percent of our students are living below the poverty line. Our fourth and fifth grade classes have over 30 students. Please assist with lowering the teacher/student ratio.
— Terri Mitchell, Lafayette, CO

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
Detroit Montessori student Bryan Smith, 8.

Some suggestions:

We are working to keep all of our students in school every day until they graduate by using restorative practices. Take a few minutes to find out about how teachers can help students this way.
— Samantha Rubin, Brooklyn, NY

In rural Colorado, it is hard to find and keep teachers because the pay is so low. A voucher program will not work because there aren’t any private schools.
— Janae Ash, Pagosa Springs, CO

I’m from a rural, impoverished school where expectations are high and resources low. With Common Core standards implemented, I’d like to see resources, websites, units, [special education] support for grades K-12 … in one accessible place.
— Cassandra Torres, Las Animas, CO

I am with a non-profit that serves public and charter schools. Teachers and students suffer the most when they aren’t sure if their school will be open the next year.
— Karen Hess, Memphis, TN

My child’s public neighborhood school is a mix of income levels, languages, abilities. Studies show that good neighborhood schools benefit entire communities.
— Natalie Winslow, Culver City, CA

Students must be able to voice concerns about their school and education. They should not only choose where they go to school, but have a strong voice in what and how they are learning.
— Roxanne McKnight, Durango, CO

Along with some reminders — and two invitations.

Teachers like me, along with our community partners, will fight back relentlessly if you try to limit opportunities for our most vulnerable students.
— Sean Davis, Denver, CO

I went to school in Chicago. The milk was often spoiled, but I got an excellent education. I met people from varied economic/racial/social backgrounds. I learned diversity makes us stronger.
— Rebecca, New York, NY

Our elementary school is full of wonderful children who come from difficult backgrounds, and most speak two languages. They may not be getting the best test scores, but they achieve their best.
— Kaity, Detroit, MI

We are a rural public school. We have strong community support and are not failing our children. We struggle in being underfunded but we make it work. We are not paid enough to own homes in our resort community and we still work our hardest.
— Lisa Hughes, Louisville, CO

I grew up in Denver during desegregation and the resulting white flight. People were afraid of their children going to school with children who did not share their class and race … Public schools are where we build a just and fair society, together, for everyone.
— Belle Zars, Denver, CO

A rural school is the hub of the community; we have one building for pre-K through 12. We have limitations (reduced Internet availability, long bus commutes), but we are a small town with big pride. We invite Ms. DeVos to visit and ask us about school choice. She’ll hear there’s no place else we’d rather be.
— Elissa Smith, Lyndonville, NY

I teach at a Title I charter school in Denver, Colorado, serving students of poverty and students of color. My students are talented, brilliant, resilient, and capable young people who represent the future of our country. You are welcome to visit my classroom.
— Hailey McClure, Denver, CO

Betsy DeVos

‘Receive mode’? The D.C. school DeVos visited responded to her criticism with a withering tweetstorm

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Howard University.

Washington D.C.’s Jefferson Middle School Academy is standing up for its teachers after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said they are “waiting to be told what they have to do.”

DeVos made the comments in one of her first interviews since being confirmed last week. She said teachers at the school — the first one she visited on the job — were “sincere” but seemed to be in “receive mode,” which she said “is not going to bring success to an individual child.”

The school took to Twitter late Friday to make its case. In 11 messages, the school described several teachers who creating new programs and tailoring their teaching to meet students’ considerable needs.

“JA teachers are not in a ‘receive mode,'” read the final message. “Unless you mean we ‘receive’ students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level.”

The former and current D.C. schools chiefs have also weighed in. Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who accompanied DeVos on her school visit, issued a statement praising the teaching at Jefferson Academy. And his predecessor, Kaya Henderson, tweeted her withering take on DeVos’s comments:

Here’s the full tweetstorm from Jefferson Academy, which D.C. Public Schools considered a “rising school” because of its good -but-not-great test scores.

DeVos later added:

first steps

Secretary Betsy DeVos on first school visit: ‘Teachers are waiting to be told what they have to do’

For someone now running the federal education department, Secretary Betsy DeVos doesn’t have many ideas for how it’s needed.

In one of her first interviews since being confirmed as secretary last week, DeVos said the federal government was right to step in “when we had segregated schools” and to ensure girls’ access to sports teams. But she suggested that those issues have been resolved, narrowing the issues where federal intervention might be appropriate.

From the interview, published Friday by Axios (the new news site created by Politico’s founders):

“I think in some of the areas around protecting students and ensuring safe environments for them, there is a role to play … I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams — I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.” But are there any remaining issues like that where the federal government should intervene? “I can’t think of any now,” she replied.

In fact, American schools, by some measures, are more racially segregated now than when the federal government began to play an active role in desegregating them in the 1960s.

Some advocates have called on the U.S. Department of Education to play a stronger role in desegregating schools. DeVos’s comments suggest her worldview is one in which the major fights over civil rights in American education have already been fought and won, and almost all remaining issues can be addressed best by states and local districts.

Meanwhile, in an interview with a conservative news site, DeVos was also quick to offer her ideas about why teachers struggle — and criticize some of the first public school teachers she encountered on the job. (Cue her critics, who are concerned that she does not have any experience as an educator or working in schools.)

Here’s how she described the discussion she had during her one of her first school visits in Washington, D.C.:

I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success[ful] from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.

In the same interview, DeVos signaled interest in a tactic more commonly used by activists than agency leaders.

She was asked,

Have you considered some political theater of your own, like bringing poor and minority kids trapped in failed public schools to Washington so Congress can tell them why they have to stay in failing schools while their kids attend private schools?

She recalled a march in Florida that drew thousands to protest a lawsuit meant to block a voucher program that she supported. “I think that is an idea worthy of consideration,” she said.

Update: Jefferson Academy Middle School, the DeVos made the “receive mode” comments about, hit back on Twitter late Friday — as did the current and former chancellors of the D.C. school systems. Read what they had to say.