U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gets up from interacting with preschool students in Laura Foster's class on Thursday morning at the Van Wert Early Childhood Center. Her visit brought national and regional news reporters into the classrooms as well. (DHI Media/Erin Cox)
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gets up from interacting with preschool students in Laura Foster's class on Thursday morning at the Van Wert Early Childhood Center. Her visit brought national and regional news reporters into the classrooms as well. (DHI Media/Erin Cox)

VAN WERT — Van Wert City Schools soaked in a day of national attention on Thursday as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos soaked in some of what the public school district has to offer its students.

DeVos’s visit came after receiving an invitation from American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten. Weingarten, who leads the 1.6 million member labor union, had talked with the Van Wert Federation of Teachers President Jeff Hood who had encouraged DeVos to visit Van Wert to see a public school district that is doing great things for its students.

“It’s been a very inspiring and wonderful day,” DeVos said at a press conference at the end of the tour of the district. “It is clear that this community has invested heart and soul into the students here and the students that you serve. I am just so grateful to have had the opportunity to see and to learn from you and especially, it is my favorite to see the students, of course. They are clearly just having an amazing experience here.”

Weingarten noted that she and DeVos have been labeled as “combatants,” as DeVos has advocated for “school choice” through private and charter schools. The two agreed after DeVos became Secretary of Education to tour a public school together, which is where Van Wert City Schools came in, and will in the future tour a private school.

“Van Wert proves that support for public schools transcends politics,” Weingarten said.

“The more we can make the education of our children all of our responsibility regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, the more we will help the future of America and this public school district has proven that point over and over and over again,” Weingarten said.

DeVos spoke of how the Van Wert community has come together to make Van Wert City Schools what it is.

“I’ve also observed a really important piece that isn’t necessarily present in every community and that is a real engagement by the job providers and job creators in this community to invest in the schools, invest in the opportunities for their students and that’s a really great advantage that this school has,” she said.

DeVos continued to push for her idea of school choice on Thursday noting that about 20 percent of students in the Van Wert City Schools district elect to go elsewhere.

“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 is best for them and that is the overarching goal I think to keep our eyes focused on what’s right for each child,” she said.

The budget proposal for the Education Department for next year shows a $9.2 billion cut in funding. An allocation of $1.4 billion is proposed for school choice programs while after school programs and teacher preparation programs would be cut for a total of $3.6 billion.

“There’s no secret that we are fighting some of the budget cuts,” Weingarten said noting that those cuts would be harmful to not only the Van Wert community, but others as well.

“I think today’s visit was much more about the proactive positive, what happens when schools work together, when they engage in the strategies that work for kids, and I think that’s what we saw today,” Weingarten said steering the conversation away from the proposed budget.

The day began at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center where three senior students presented about their senior project. The students had raised over $11,000 for the Van Wert Blessings program. Weingarten announced after the presentation that the AFT would donate $2,500 to the program and then said she would also make a personal donation, but did not state the dollar amount.

The tour then took the guests to the Van Wert Early Childhood Center where a discussion between preschool and kindergarten teachers, parents and the visitors took place. DeVos and Weingarten then joined Laura Foster’s preschool class to see what they were learning in their playful environment.

The tour then went to Van Wert High School where DeVos and Weingarten learned about the elementary, middle school and high school robotics groups. They enjoyed watching a demonstration of the Van Wert Robotics Team’s robot.

Next on the agenda was a stop in Nate Hoverman’s fifth grade class at Van Wert Elementary School where the class was learning about the Great Depression. DeVos and Weingarten read an article with some of the students and discussed the topic with them for about 10 minutes.

A round-table discussion with special education teachers was also held before the closing remarks were made at the press conference which saw coverage from national and regional news reporters. In addition to DeVos and Weingarten, other visitors in the realm of education to the school district were the Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Ohio Department of Education Paolo DeMaria, and Ohio State Board of Education Representative from District 1 Linda Haycock.

The day was packed with information and demonstrations of what the Van Wert community sees each day where the students are learning through project-based learning and a wide variety of approaches are taken to make sure each child can learn in an environment that fits him or her. Also discussed was the issue of teachers addressing basic needs, such as feeding the children breakfast, so that they are ready to learn.

With so much being shown over five hours, Hood just hoped to showcase the great programs Van Wert City Schools does offer.

“I’m an optimistic person,” Hood said of if he thinks change will come after the meeting. “I’m also 55-years old and a bit of a cynic at the same time. You have to engage people and meet them where they’re at and we did that with Secretary DeVos. We were open and honest and shared our concerns and showed off our great programs. It’s her responsibility to take away from this. Policy change and politics is hard to overcome and maybe as opposed to being so polarized and so many special interests having their say, maybe this will open some eyes. We can only hope. We’ve done what we can to shed light on some of those issues, so we’ve held up our end of it.”

Hood does know that if the proposed budget cuts go through, it will definitely impact Van Wert City Schools.

DeVos said she would need to “digest” what all she saw on Thursday and see what she might take back to Washington, D.C., in terms of changing ideas.

“I think it’s really important for me to make visits like this and to get to schools all across this country as I’ve already done in a variety of states because what goes on to help students prepare themselves for their future happens outside of Washington to the greatest extent,” DeVos said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road and that’s where we have to be addressing the needs of the students, at the local level.”