Mary Sanchez

Betsy DeVos is about to meet reality during her visit to this Kansas City school

Truman, a schnauzer that spends his days at Kansas City Academy, interrupts while Head of School Kory Gallagher attempts to grade some papers.
Truman, a schnauzer that spends his days at Kansas City Academy, interrupts while Head of School Kory Gallagher attempts to grade some papers. Submitted photo.

The life-size cutout of Michelle Obama in a white Grecian gown (leftover from a red carpet-themed fundraiser) will be tucked away during Betsy DeVos’ visit next week to Kansas City Academy.

The head of school feels it best not to rouse partisan emotions.

Kory Gallagher’s fear is that controversy will ensue anyway, when DeVos meets the beautiful array of students who attend this small private school tucked into a Waldo neighborhood.

Enrolled in sixth to 12th grades, the students express a wide range of sexual and gender identities: gender fluid, non-binary, gay, straight, transgender, gender-questioning and bisexual.

Staff members wonder if DeVos knew this about the school her team chose for its Midwestern stop next Friday. They suspect the academy’s arts focus might have been the draw.

But it’s not a charter school like those that ground the secretary’s passion for vouchers and school choice.

And academy faculty are decidedly not aligned with DeVos on many issues. Just Thursday, DeVos announced that she will rewrite guidelines to give more rights to the accused in sexual assault cases on college campuses. As if more rights for accused rapists is a pressing need.

The 76 students know all about the billionaire-philanthropist-turned-education-secretary. They had fun when DeVos argued during her confirmation hearings that guns were necessary in some schools to chase off grizzlies. They wanted to substitute grizzly escape plans for fire drills. It’s all but assured that someone will show up in a bear costume next week.

A more serious concern of students and faculty was DeVos’ virtual silence when the Trump administration rescinded the Obama White House’s guidance on transgender students in public schools. If DeVos believes that schools should pretend transgender students don’t exist, she is in a for some re-educating at this three-decades-old private school that nuns helped found when Loretto School closed.

Years ago, Kansas City Academy became a refuge for students who struggled in local public and private school classrooms. Acceptance, as academy faculty members say, is part of the school’s DNA. So gender and sexual identity are not distractions here.

Issues that might get students bullied elsewhere, ostracized or even turned into a mascot of sorts (a celebrated transgender cheerleader or prom queen) aren’t an issue. The academy had a transgender prom queen nearly a decade ago.

“I tell them they are here and they are safe, so it’s time to kick some academic butt,” Gallagher said. “I want you taking calculus.”

Gallagher has observed older students guiding new arrivals, letting them know in no uncertain terms what is expected when it comes to acceptance and tolerance.

“It’s given me the confidence to be proud and direct about who I am,” said Case Williams, a 16-year-old who uses the pronouns they and them.

DeVos will meet with faculty and then observe the academy’s culinary program, which 15 students run, harvesting and tending to the garden on the grounds and preparing gluten-free meals. And she’ll make a ceramic bowl, one component of the arts curriculum.

Gallagher will also have time with the education secretary and he’s been practicing his elevator speech — a pitch that small schools focused on individualized curriculum could exist, maybe in multiples, inside larger public schools.

For a week, Gallagher has envisioned DeVos arriving at the school and then driving away quickly, put off by the weedy grounds. Or perhaps she will take notice of the peeling paint on the building that houses the school’s music program, which includes two bands that perform and record their own compositions.

Mostly, he doesn’t want Kansas City Academy to be linked to DeVos controversies, or to have protesters show up at the school.

Students’ behavior is not a concern, although many have qualms about DeVos’ views. After all, unconditional respect is what they ask of themselves and faculty.

“It’s not in their nature to disrespect another,” Gallagher said. “Although one might be dressed like a grizzly bear.”

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