At Eastern Hancock High School in rural Indiana, the hog roast is an annual tradition.
This year, the event was also a chance to show off a thriving traditional public school to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who often highlights private and charter schools and advocates for school choice.
“We wanted to make sure that she understands the importance of public education,” said Natalie Schilling, a parent of two students at Eastern Hancock.
Schilling and her husband, Eric, had the chance to share their perspective sitting with DeVos over pulled pork sandwiches in the high school cafeteria. They were surrounded by families grabbing food ahead of a football game between Eastern Hancock and rival Knightstown. DeVos was there, she said, for a great game.
The visit was the conclusion of a six-state trip branded as the “Rethink Schools” tour. On the tour, DeVos visited several schools serving unusual populations, such as an Indianapolis high school for students recovering from addiction and a Colorado private school for students with autism.
“It was really, really exciting to see all these opportunities that kids have to learn in different environments or different approaches,” she said. “It just once again reaffirms to me the importance of the opportunity for every child to find that right niche for them.”
Earlier Friday DeVos stopped at charter schools in Gary and Indianapolis. But Eastern Hancock was the only traditional public school on her itinerary in Indiana.
Eastern Hancock, however, has been reshaped by school choice policies like those that DeVos has long supported. Indiana allows open enrollment, so students can attend schools in neighboring districts if they can get transportation. At Eastern Hancock, DeVos noted, many students come from other districts.
Eric Schilling said many of those students come because of the strong agriculture programs at the school, including an animal science facility and horticulture building.
The hog roast Friday night was a fundraiser for FFA, an agricultural education program. Students in the organization spent months planning the event, roasted the hogs and pulled the pork themselves, said Gracie Johnson, a senior at Eastern and the chapter and district president of FFA.
It was a little bit thrilling to have secretary DeVos visit her school, Johnson said. “I think it’s pretty awesome. Especially since we’re so small, it kind of makes us feel like we’re important.”
Natalie Schilling said that one of the most important things DeVos can do is support agricultural and career and technical education. But she said that she was a bit concerned about DeVos’ past experience and agenda.
“I think everybody is a little worried,” she said. “We have to keep talking about it and keep pushing it so she will understand what skills students are learning. It’s going to be able to fuel the workforce.”