Photo and story by Michael Aldrich / Contributing Writer
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro on Wednesday as a part of her first official visit to Tennessee since being appointed to her position in February.
Out of more than 1,700 public schools in 143 districts across Tennessee, she chose Oakland and Rutherford County Schools as her first school stop in order to tour the school’s Career Technology Education programs.
The tour of Oakland was planned in conjunction with her Nashville keynote address on Thursday before the National Summit on Education Reform, an annual event hosted by Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will be among the 1,100 leaders from across the nation participating in the two-day summit.
“It’s really a privilege to be here at Oakland High School and to be able to witness firsthand the way that Oakland is really addressing individual students’ needs and aptitudes, helping them to prepare for their adulthood very early on and doing so in partnership with what the requirements of what business and industry in this region is,” DeVos said. “It’s just a great example, I think, of a school that’s being creative and innovative in addressing the needs of individual students.”
DeVos was among the most controversial cabinet picks of President Donald Trump. The Michigan billionaire, who has little experience with public schools, has drawn several protests from concerned citizens. There were no protests at Oakland on Wednesday, but multiple state teacher’s unions, including the Tennessee Education Association, held a rally Thursday evening in Nashville to protest DeVos’s “anti-public education agenda.”
DeVos toured three different Oakland classrooms that featured Rutherford County School’s CTE program: health sciences, automotive technology and mechatronics.
“I just want Secretary DeVos to see how sharp these kids are and interact with the future of America,” said Lenny Ciletti, an OHS mechatronics instructor. “Most of these kids are going to graduate (from high school) as sophomores in college, leaving any particular program with over 30 credit hours that are adjunct with Motlow State and MTSU.”
For Alex Blair, a junior at Oakland in the automotive technology program, having the access and knowledge of modern mechanical equipment will help him quickly join the workforce upon graduation.
“This class opens up some great opportunities for our career paths,” Blair said. “The certifications we receive help us out in the job field right out of school, even when you’re this young.”
Oakland representatives said that they were proud to host DeVos and shine a spotlight on the school’s creative technical programs.
“We’re so excited to get to showcase these great programs,” said Tyra Pilgrim, a CTE Coordinator for Rutherford County Schools. “These kids can learn so much more with a hands-on approach. I’d put our teachers and students up against anyone in the nation. They’re incredible.”
At a short press conference held after her Oakland tour, DeVos was asked specific, issue-related questions that yielded broad and polished responses.
“With regard to ongoing debate around the tax bill, it’s sort of like sausage-making, so it would be premature to comment any specific piece of it,” DeVos said when asked about a teacher’s inability to deduct their out-of-pocket expenses on the proposed GOP tax bill. “But, let me just step back and say teachers play such a vital and important role in the lives of students and the lives of children.”
DeVos was asked about Trump’s continued, controversial use of the racial slur, “Pocahontas,” which refers to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and if that makes him a good role model for American children.
“I think the president continues to lead in an important direction for our country,” DeVos said. “I think we can all do well to reflect on the things that we say before we say them. But, let’s just say that this administration is very committed to doing well for all students. Every student that enters a school in this country needs to have an equal opportunity for a great education and, therefore, a great future, and that’s our commitment to the students of this country.”
Even as DeVos praised the innovative instruction going on at Oakland, she still encourages Tennessee lawmakers to approve a voucher program. Vouchers would allow parents to use public funding to send their children to private schools, despite recent studies showing that student achievement dropped, at least initially, for students that recently tried the voucher program in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington D.C.
“I think empowering parents to make the right decision for their children is important, no matter what state and no matter what community,” DeVos said. “We have far too many students today that are stuck in schools that are not working for them and parents that don’t have the opportunity to make a different decision.”
Administrators, students and faculty at Oakland High School showed DeVos around with the hopes that she would come away from their campus with a greater appreciation for what goes on there.
“The past couple days, everybody has been stressed,” said Sarah Little, an OHS junior. “But, I think it’s really important that (DeVos) sees all the cool programs we have that not a lot of other schools offer.”
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