At Kansas City Academy on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made veggie burgers in culinary class and a clay pot in ceramics, but she didn’t explain how a private liberal arts school known for its progressive values landed on her radar.
“Why did we choose to come here?” said DeVos, echoing a question many in Kansas City have asked this week. “Well, because I’ve been visiting schools this week that are doing things differently, creatively, innovatively to help students find a good fit for them.”
DeVos is on a “Rethink Schools” tour of the Midwest this week. She visited Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, on Thursday, and she’s scheduled to make three stops in Indiana before heading back to Washington, D.C.
“It’s our desire to make sure states and communities have flexibility in trying new things and doing things educationally for their students. While I will be able to highlight some of the great things I’ve seen and learned on this trip, it’s safe to say we will not propose a policy or a law that would require schools to do some of the things you’ve done here,” DeVos said.
A handful of KCA’s 76 full-time students joined about 150 protesters outside the school, but not sophomore Emma Sayler.
Instead, she wore a “Nevertheless, she persisted shirt,” a catchphrase that’s been associated with the feminist movement since Republicans voted to silence U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren during confirmation hearings in February.
“I didn’t want to rally outside, but I didn’t want to be completely civil,” said Sayler, one of ten students who attended a question and answer session with DeVos, “so I went somewhere in between.”
Sayler says the spotlight on her school this past week has been “insane.” She’s thrilled that KCA has been portrayed in media reports as a safe haven for LGBTQ students, but she wants people to know that’s not the only great thing about her school.
“For example, there are programs to help kids with special needs, which I think is a wonderful thing that some schools might not have great programs for,” Sayler said.
Oh, she adds as an afterthought, and the food’s pretty good, too.
It’s the food – specifically, the farm-to-table culinary arts program that feeds students lunch each day – that may have attracted the education department’s attention.
“How do you feel about a hairnet?” Chef Mark Zukaitis teased as DeVos entered the school kitchen.
Zukaitis showed DeVos how to form veggie burgers from leftover rice and beans.
Down the hall in ceramics, student Spencer Weis did the teaching, explaining how to make a bowl.
“Lift both of your thumbs,” Weis instructed, “sort of at this angle, push down on the center, then slowly pull your thumbs apart and rotate it as you’re doing it.”
“Is this called a pinch pot?” DeVos asked.
DeVos took questions from KCA students, but not the media. She said although she enjoyed her visit, her tight schedule probably wouldn’t permit her to come back.
Outside, protesters were starting to disperse.
Megan Ennis, a recent graduate of KCA, carried a fluorescent sign that proclaimed, “PROTECT THE VICTIM, NOT THE RAPIST.” DeVos, a proponent of school vouchers and education choice, has clashed with progressives over everything from Title IX protections to transgender rights.
“I’m really surprised she chose this private school out of any private schools in the area,” Ennis said. “This private school is completely against pretty much everything she goes for.”
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.