MILPITAS — U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a lightning rod for controversy, visited four classes at Thomas Russell Middle School on Thursday, learning about hypothetical dragon DNA, taking a stab at drawing a self-portrait — and hearing about the virtues of public education that some feels she’s devalued.
The secretary said she chose to visit Russell to see its personalized learning. Officials at the district — which has no charter schools — capitalized on the opportunity to tout their work serving 10,000 students in 13 schools.
“The purpose of discussion was to share our perspectives in public education and try to let her know that for us, here in Milpitas, public education is working for our students,” said Daniel Bobay, president of the Milpitas school board.
The district didn’t learn until Saturday about DeVos’s sudden visit, which was kept under wraps from the public until Wednesday afternoon.
DeVos has ignited fierce controversy among educators with sharp words for opponents and outspoken advocacy for vouchers, charter schools and religious schools. She has rolled back Obama-era initiatives on civil rights protections and for-profit school rules.
The late notice of DeVo’s visit didn’t deter protesters, who mustered about 20 people in a school parking lot carrying signs such as “Take Back Our Education,” “Not for Sale,” “Shame On You, Betsy,” and “School Choice Is a Lie.”
In teacher Julie Norris’s art class on Thursday, seventh-graders Rhea Karanwal and Natalia Kurinnyy guided DeVos in using a grid-drawing technique to get her eyes just right.
DeVos saw students engaged in art, math, science and in an academic-preparation class known as AVID for would-be first-generation college students. Afterward, she declared her visit a success.
“I got to see creative approaches toward empowering students to take control of their learning,” she said.
DeVos was introduced to Milpitas Unified School District by Brian Greenberg, CEO of the Emeryville-based Silicon Schools Fund, according to Milpitas Superintendent Cheryl Jordan. The fund, chaired by GAP heir John Fisher, supports innovative education ventures, mostly charter and private schools, but also some in the Milpitas and San Jose Unified districts.
After chatting with individual students about their lessons and a brief media encounter, DeVos talked with school and district officials.
DeVos’ spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said the secretary these days is not focusing on typed of school, but the ability of parents to have choice in education.
DeVos heads to Seattle on Friday, the end of a three-day West Coast tour.