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A national model for education?


U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participated in a roundtable discussion with students, teachers and administrators from McMinnville High School (MHS) at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 11.

The discussion followed a tour that DeVos took of the school, as protesters and supporters gathered outside in the rainy fall weather. There were no such protests at the museum, which is a private facility.

It also came hours after the announcement that Oregon’s chief state schools officer, Salem Noor, resigned abruptly and immediately and was replaced on an interim basis by Governor Kate Brown’s education innovation officer Colt Gill. Brown was out of the country participating in an Asian trade mission.

DeVos sipped coffee, listening intently and smiling as students shared their success stories.

MHS Principal Tony Vicknair told DeVos about the 17 pathways that the school provides for students in an attempt to tie learning to career opportunities. He said the school encourages students to try multiple pathways, and that it’s just as important for them to know what areas they don’t want to pursue as careers.

A male student described how his father’s career in construction and his own passion for welding helped inspire him to pursue the school’s fabrication pathway. He said he had a “good experience with it.”

“It’s fulfilling to work in that area,” he said. “It’s an experience I probably wouldn’t trade for anything else.”

Another student had been tasked with building a business as part of his coursework, and has used that experience to establish his own clothing brand. Still another said he has been working with local farmers to use unmanned aerial vehicles to enhance the productivity of their fields.

One student, whose father is a plumber, said he enjoys working outside and with his hands. His focus has been on woodshop and construction, and said he’s confident he will be able to make a good living without having to take out student loans.

Multiple students talked about the financial hardships they had growing up and how the school and its programs and staff have helped them overcome those challenges. A common theme of the talk was the ways in which more opportunities in school create more opportunities in life, as students receive hands-on experience working with employers in the area.

Vicknair touted the school’s status as the best in Oregon at utilizing a state program that allows students to earn college credits before they graduate. He added that MHS has 17 advanced placement (AP) classes, and that more of its students took AP tests last year than ever before.

The second round of the discussion involved a panel of teachers and administrators. Vicknair said that when he first took over as principal, the school only had four pathways. Administrators worked to expand those options for students.

“We’re pushing kids to grow,” a teacher told DeVos.

DeVos said the discussion was “very inspiring” and praised the pathways concept.

“It’s very clear you have a special school,” she said. “You each have important stories to tell.”

Vicknair characterized MHS as the best high school in Oregon. One would expect him to say such a thing, but it was obvious that he truly means it, and none of the students in the room seemed to disagree.

Overall, it was a much more productive discussion than any of the shouting that took place outside of the high school during DeVos’ visit or on social media in the days leading up to it. That kind of demonization is far too common in these divisive times.

So much of politics in the modern era has become about personalities, instead of policies and their eventual outcomes. This is especially true when it comes to education and a system that everyone seems to agree hasn’t been working as well as it could or should, including those who wonder what there is to show for the decades that the federal Department of Education has been in existence.

At the end of the day, it isn’t about President Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos—it’s about teachers encouraging students to pursue their hopes, dreams and passions, which is everything our education system should be about. It’s something that the staff at MHS appear to be doing rather well, which begs the question of whether that kind of success can be duplicated at the national level.

If DeVos’ trip to McMinnville is any indication of what she plans to do in her position, then perhaps her critics’ fears will prove to be unfounded and petty.

A young man stood alone outside the museum yelling his disapproval of DeVos as the event concluded. However, his slogans went unheard by the various students, teachers, administrators, school board members and other officials who sat inside dining at a reception honoring the school and its impressive achievements.

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