U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Wednesday during her first stop in Nebraska that Midland University’s coding class is a great example of the innovation she's highlighting on her six-state tour.
“Our goal is to help everyone, including educators and students, begin to think differently about how they do school and this is a really great example here of meeting students where they’re at and really addressing needs in a community,” she said.
DeVos came to Midland's new Omaha campus Wednesday evening, talked to students and teachers, and offered a few comments to the media crowded into the room.
DeVos, noting that there are 400 jobs in the fields of coding and web design in the Omaha area, said the coding program is a good example of creating flexible and relevant courses.
The 11 students in the class — part of a 10-month web foundation academy — introduced themselves to DeVos when she arrived, about an hour later than scheduled.
The students are taking the class for various reasons: training for a new career, getting skills to enhance their current jobs, and those looking for something different than a four-year degree.
DeVos said she hopes to make the federal education department better able to support higher education, looking “more holistically” at how the department approaches it, and focusing more on associate degrees and other career-related education.
“Frankly, I think we’ve done a disservice to young people for many years by suggesting the only path to success is through a four-year college or university,” she said. “This is a great example here today of ... different pathways and options.”
Asked about whether she thinks charter schools should be authorized in Nebraska — one of six states that don't allow them — DeVos said her goal is to make sure parents have the ability to make the right choice for their kids, whether in traditional school settings or charters.
“I visited a lot of schools over the last number of months, many of those approaching education differently than the approach undertaken for many years. I think that’s really good. We need more of that ... it’s not a matter of supporting what kind of school, but really supporting a full range of choice so that students’ needs are best met."
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt, who was with DeVos for her visit to Midland, said he’s proud that Nebraska schools were chosen to highlight innovation.
DeVos will visit two schools in Lincoln on Thursday: St. Mary's Catholic School and Lincoln Public Schools' science focus program.
Her day will start with a trip to Nelson Mandela Elementary School in Omaha from 7:50-9:30 a.m., followed by a visit to St. Mary's Catholic School, 1434 K St., in Lincoln from 10:30-11:30 a.m., and ending with a visit to the LPS zoo school, 1222 S. 27th St., from noon-2 p.m.
Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel made it clear Wednesday he's going to make a strong case for public schools during DeVos' visit.
"Students are very excited about this," he said at a news conference. "It's not a very long visit, but we hope to engineer it in a way that a lot of information is conveyed and she gets an opportunity to see what's right about public education in Nebraska — because we think there’s a lot right, especially in Lincoln."
Joel said he's well aware of the push for charter schools, vouchers and tax credits around the country and in Nebraska.
"Her tour is designed to rethink schools. We're a public school. We're a proud public school ... with a community that supports us, and we are going to take it very, very seriously that we are representing all of the voices of public education."
Joel said the 20-year-old science focus program, known as zoo school, is one of the district's "showcase programs" and LPS officials are proud that DeVos requested a visit.
Wednesday evening, a small group of protesters gathered in the Midland parking lot before DeVos' arrival, and her scheduled stops in Lincoln have prompted concern from some parents and other Lincoln residents who worry the purpose is to further an agenda to promote privatized education.
DeVos, a former Republican Party chairwoman in Michigan, is a longtime supporter of school choice and a force behind the spread of charter schools in her home state. Her nomination by President Donald Trump and narrow confirmation in the Senate drew spirited protests, as have previous visits to schools.
Those who oppose her support of charter schools will be visible Thursday in Lincoln.
The group Suit Up Nebraska-Lancaster County, which has about 800 followers, has issued a “call to action” on Facebook for people to gather on the west side of 27th Street across from the zoo on Thursday to show their support for public schools.
Lincoln Police Capt. Mike Woolman said police are encouraging those who plan to gather during DeVos' visit to the focus program to park in the overflow zoo lot south of A Street. The Lincoln Children's Zoo will be closed to accommodate DeVos' visit, which is not open to the public.
Stand for Schools and the Nebraska State Education Association have planned a “peaceful, positive celebration of Nebraska’s public schools” at a 5 p.m. rally at The Bay, 2005 Y St.
“We want to show our support for all the good things public schools can do when they’re not worrying about charter schools and funding schemes and about money being taken away from those programs,” said Karen Kilgarin, NSEA director of government relations and public affairs.
DeVos' Nebraska visits comes after stops at schools in Wyoming and Colorado schools. She also will head to a school in Overland Park, Kansas, later Thursday and will also visit schools in Missouri and Indiana as part of her “Rethink School” tour.