U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is in the Midwest this week on a hastily-planned “Rethink Schools” tour that’s left Kansas and Missouri school leaders scrambling.
To say the call Kansas City Academy received the Friday before Labor Day was unexpected would be an understatement.
Someone from DeVos’ staff wanted to know if the education secretary could visit the tiny private school in Kansas City, Missouri, in two weeks’ time. Head of School Kory Gallagher says he was given until 5 p.m. to decide.
It was already 3:55.
Gallagher describes getting that call as “one of the most bizarre life experiences.” He then quickly grabbed the school’s board president, who happened to be there to pick up his son, and the two started dialing up the rest of the board.
“Our board president, Jim Doyle, and I basically had to talk to every board member we could find, which wasn’t a lot at 4 p.m. on a Friday before a holiday weekend,” Gallagher says.
Gallagher and Doyle were in agreement – DeVos should absolutely visit KCA.
They just weren’t sure why the education secretary would want to.
After all, KCA is known for its liberal, progressive values. The tiny private school practices radical inclusion, and the diverse, outspoken student body is fiercely protective of LGBTQ classmates, who say DeVos’ policies exclude them. The education department under DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance that instructed schools to let students use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
On Tuesday, T minus three days until DeVos’ visit, a grounds crew was tidying up the school at the corner of 79th Terrace and Main Street in Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood.
Case Williams, an eleventh grader with jet black hair and thick, penciled on eyebrows who identifies as non-binary, knew before their classmates did the education secretary wanted to visit because they are a student representative to the school board.
“Primarily my reaction was one of deep and utter distaste,” says Williams, though they have since warmed up to the idea. Everyone else, Williams says, was “gathered for an assembly – all 72 of us” and informed DeVos was coming.
DeVos’ trans-exclusionary positions have rankled many, including KCA seventh grader Max Cowden.
“My parents and grandparents thought it would be great, until I explained to them about Betsy DeVos,” Cowden says. “I told them, ‘She’s part of the Trump administration, and she’s intolerant to LGBTQ.’ They’re on my side now.”
Cowden plans to wear a shirt and hat in support of LGBTQ rights. He’s in culinary class, one of two DeVos will visit. KCA’s innovative farm-to-table culinary arts program cooks school lunches from the school garden.
“It’s always something interesting and new,” says Williams. “It’s not just a piece of cardboard pizza on a styrofoam plate.”
Gallagher hasn’t been able to get a firm answer from education department officials as to why DeVos wanted to visit KCA, “other than she’s going on a tour to observe forms of education that are different from what you find in a traditional public school,” he says, “and that she had yet to visit a school with a strong arts program.”
About a quarter of KCA graduates go on to art school. This week, they’re using those talents to protest DeVos’ visit.
“I’m in the senior social justice class, and we’re putting together a peaceful protest,” says Elly Martinez. “It’s a school-wide art project where everyone makes a board full of drawings, phrases and logos of everything they believe in and support.”
The board Williams is making focuses on their transgender identity and support of organizations the Trump administration has targeted, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.
“I think what’s particularly KCA about this is students have the choice to make themselves heard in whatever way they want to,” Williams says. “You can tell the students to settle down here – it’s not really going to do much.”
Teachers Karla Schaeffer and Tara Varney bust out laughing.
“There’s never a dull moment here,” says Schaeffer, who teaches middle school humanities and acts as curriculum coordinator. “The kids are interesting to talk to. They’re bright, thinking kids.”
Make no mistake: KCA is a private school. Tuition ranges from $9,000 to $12,000, depending on the grade, though Gallagher is quick to add many families receive financial assistance and there are parents who work second and third jobs so they can afford it.
“We have a lot of families who have extended families paying tuition. We have students who face food insecurity issues, who’ve experienced abuse and neglect,” Gallagher says. “We have students who struggle with anxiety and depression.”
But KCA gets to play by its own rules because it’s a private school. Students don’t defer to teachers and other authority figures. They’re expected to ask lots of questions and form their own opinions.
“Sometimes they’re here because they asked a lot of questions” at their old school, says Varney, who teaches theater.
Seventh grader Vico Prelogar says it’s the doctrine of “responsible freedom” that sets KCA apart. For example, he says his teachers trust him to use his cell phone responsibly – it’s fine to look up a word during class or text your friend during passing period.
“The students aren’t governed so strictly by the teachers or the principal or any of the administrators. They take pride in letting students make decisions,” Prelogar says.
But it also explains why some students are so upset that Gallagher agreed to host DeVos. They feel they were left out of the decision.
And Gallagher actually agrees.
“We believe that everybody should have a voice in a decision that impacts them, from students to parents to teachers. Unfortunately, extenuating circumstances made it difficult for us to follow through with that normal procedure,” he says.
The U.S. Department of Education under DeVos may not be following normal procedure either.
On Wednesday, a day before she was scheduled to visit Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, there were few details from DeVos’ staff beyond the date and time.
Usually, visits from the nation’s schools chief are closely-coordinated media events. But in Indiana, where DeVos is scheduled to stop after Kansas and Missouri, reporters didn’t even know which schools she would visit.
When then-education secretary Arne Duncan visited Woodland Early Learning Community in 2015, it was at the invitation of Kansas City Public Schools.
“At the time, Duncan was promoting Obama’s push for free universal access to high quality early education programs,” district spokesman Ray Weikal wrote in an email. “We were pioneering that here in Kansas City at Woodland and saw it as a model for other cities.”
Weikal says a senior policy advisor approved Duncan’s visit about a month in advance, and the district worked closely with the education department to pull it off.
Gallagher still isn’t sure how KCA had ended up on Secretary DeVos’ radar.
“How did the secretary of education find us?” Gallagher wonders. “We’re the best kept secret in Kansas City.”
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.