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‘Why us?’ Inside Betsy DeVos’ whirlwind stop at Kansas City Academy

Protesters outside, differences voiced inside during DeVos visit

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos toured the Kansas City Academy in 2017 where students let her know they cared about transgender rights, women's rights and the arts in school.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos toured the Kansas City Academy in 2017 where students let her know they cared about transgender rights, women's rights and the arts in school.

The U.S. Secretary of Education was on her way, and already dozens of protesters had gathered in the church parking lot across the street.

Students peered out the windows of Kansas City Academy shortly before 8 a.m. Friday to take in the commotion.

It would be an unusual day for the small, private middle and high school that had been abruptly scheduled as a stop on Betsy DeVos’ week-long “Rethink School” tour to highlight innovative learning across the Midwest.

DeVos’ request to visit — Principal Kory Gallagher was contacted by the Department of Education late last Friday afternoon — had taken both students and faculty by surprise.

The private school is known for its arts programs, small class size, welcoming environment and a student and faculty body that Gallagher has said is overwhelmingly liberal. It seemed an odd choice for the education department, even if DeVos’ tour was trying to highlight creative school environments.

“Some students were not happy — they didn’t want the chaos or confusion,” said Robbie Adelman, a 2013 Kansas City Academy graduate who now works as a groundskeeper at the school. “And some were excited about the opportunity to voice their opinion.”

Mostly, several students told The Star, the school community wondered: Why us?

As administrators worked quickly on logistics, teachers and students began to prepare in their own way for the visit.

They vetted DeVos’ recent statements about sexual assault, Title IX and charter schools, compared her platform with other research and hung the results on a wall.

They talked about options for students that had varying feelings about DeVos’ visit, and the protesters that were bound to accompany her.

Administrators allowed students to stay home, come in late, or spend time in a safe room during the school day if they felt overwhelmed. Students could venture outside to join those challenging DeVos’ platform, if parents were OK with them missing school.

Most chose to go about their day, and try to ignore the hordes of media and education department staff that would move about their classrooms for two hours.

They knew DeVos wouldn’t have time to meet every student, but how could they help her understand what their school is about?

A book.

Turnaround was quick — students didn’t begin the project until Monday. But by Friday morning, they had created a bound book of photographs, artwork and letters to present to DeVos.

They wrote that Kansas City Academy is important because it has diversity and love and that’s what “America is all about.”

They told their origin story, let DeVos know that six teachers founded the school outside the purview of “bureaucrats or politicians or corporations or persons of wealth.”

They made art to convey what was important to them. A pink and purple painting with the word CoExist in yellow in the middle. A collage of messages: Black Lives Matter, Fund Public Schools, Celebrate Diversity.

A list of Pokemon characters that have no gender.

“It was a way to say who we are,” said sophomore Tori Jonson, 16, who along with other students also made mood boards to hang on the walls that the secretary might see.

Jonson mostly featured things she is passionate about, but she said she tucked a gender neutral flag in her piece in the hopes that DeVos, who pulled back protections for transgender students earlier this year, might see it.

On the outside

The protesters who gathered in the Crossroad Church parking lot across the street wouldn’t see DeVos before she entered Kansas City Academy through a back door.

Organized by several political and social activist groups in Kansas City, the “Rally for Education Rights” brought together more than 150 people who disapprove of DeVos’s stances on education, particularly her support for expanding school choice and voucher programs, and her plans to revise Obama-era guidance on Title IX protections against sexual assault on college campuses.

Rodney Williams, president of the Kansas City NAACP, drew cheers and applause from the crowd when he spoke.

“We demand a public education that will provide for all our children a world class education,” Williams told protestors. “DeVos supports policies that are an attack and assault on our children of America. We are here today to protect our children from the assault of Betsy DeVos. We are here to fight.”

When U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Kansas City Academy in Waldo Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, as part of her during DeVos' "Rethink Schools" tour, protesters met her with a demonstration. Video by Jill Toyoshiba and Mara' Williams.

Police had instructed protestors not to chant, and warned the group about noise ordinances and staying off school property.

Many had the same question for DeVos: “Why are you here?”

“I want to know why someone who does not support the policies that support kids who go here, would pick KC Academy to come to,” said Katrina Abella, a trauma nurse at Kansas University Hospital.

Support for public schools and concern that DeVos’ support of voucher programs could weaken public school programs united the group.

Vouchers would allow parents to take state dollars marked to educate a child in a public school, and use the money to help send their student to a private school of their choice.

“I came here to see a school that works. Why are you here,” read a multi-colored sign carried by Angela Hirte, whose son began his first year at KC Academy three weeks ago.

Hirte, 51, said she did not feel that the public school she attended was adequate and would not send her son to public school.

But Hirte said she is bothered by the notion that public money might be poured into private schools through vouchers, rather than using the funds to “find a way to make public schools work.”

Valerie Castro came to the protest with her son, who is a student at KC Academy and took the day off. She sat quietly in a lawn chair across from the school, watching students inside the building wave through windows at protesters.

“What is she going to learn here?” Castrol asked. “She is supposed to be about education, but her being here is disrupting education for all these students...She is diametrically opposed to everything this school stands for.”

Students have their say

In the end, the tough questions, and the only questions, were posed by students.

DeVos began her visit in a culinary class, moved to a ceramics demonstration and then settled into a classroom with a group of history students.

They wanted to know how she really feels about public school.

“There are many many great public schools and there are many great schools that are not public schools,” DeVos said. “It’s important to me that individual students can find a school that works for them. We have lots of students in our country today that don’t have that kind of opportunity.”

(KC Academy’s tuition ranges from $9,000 to $12,000 a year; many students attend on scholarships.)

They wanted to know what a national educational model that gives parents more choices would look like. (Stay tuned, DeVos said.) What she thought was unique about the Kansas City Academy. (The students.) And would she come back? (She’d love to but she’s pretty busy).

And what will happen to schools that don’t “work as well as others?”

“If no parent and no student chooses a school for whatever reason...then the school won’t be able to survive because no one will have made that choice,” DeVos said. “Just like other parts of our world...if people don’t choose something then it can’t continue to stay in business. I think that same reality can and should be the case when it comes to offering a wide range of educational options to meet different students needs.”

Minutes after DeVos had left the building, elevated voices could be heard from outside as protesters took advantage of the 10 seconds they had to shout their message at the small train of SUVs zipping down the road.

Students who had been largely quiet seemed to relax. Some sought out members of the media, eager to share their perspective on what was happening at their school.

Jonson pondered one DeVos response. A student had finally asked DeVos why she had chosen them. But her answer — that Kansas City Academy seemed to be a good example of a school that uses different, creative and innovative approaches to learning — disappointed Jonson.

“In my opinion, it was very vague,” said Jonson as she looked around the room of her peers. “There are definitely other programs that she could have gone to.”

Hours after the cameras and crowds had gone, principal Gallagher, had taken time to reflect on the day.

“I think that it was an awesome learning experience and life experience for our students,” Gallagher said.

This day was no disruption.

“We firmly believe education does not just happen in the classroom in a traditional way. I can’t think of a better lesson in democracy then getting to engage with an executive department secretary.”

Gallagher was glad the school made the effort to host DeVos.

“I’m proud of the way they handled what could have been a challenging day. The vast majority of them were here and engaged.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

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