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Perceptions and pride: What did Betsy DeVos’ Alabama visit change?

When U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Alabama’s Port City on Thursday, her tour clearly was engineered to serve some purposes and not others. The question that might linger is, what did it change?

Was it a chance for DeVos to get a quick first-hand look at a variety of Mobile-area educational offerings? Absolutely. In the span of five hours she toured Alabama’s first charter school; an adult workforce training center that has fueled the explosive growth of the Austal shipyard, among other work; and a magnet elementary school representing the Mobile County Public School System.

Was it a chance for public engagement? Absolutely not. The visit was publically announced less than 24 hours before it started. That, and its whirlwind pacing, left no chance for members of the public to approach and scant opportunity for protestors – who have sometimes turned out in response to DeVos’ presence – to organize.

Was it a chance for DeVos to have quick one-on-one conversations with students ranging from kindergartners to adults? Yes, and she did so continuously at every step along the way. Was it simultaneously tailor-made for photo ops? Also yes, and local media snapped hundreds if not thousands of images of DeVos leaning in attentively.

Was it a chance for open-ending media questioning about issues such as the fears prompted by the threat of federal spending cuts on education? Not at all. And this was never more clear than at the very end of the visit, when U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, DeVos’ host, stepped in and figuratively set a pick as one local TV reporter tried shouting questions at a departing DeVos.

The visit obviously wasn’t all things to all people and was never meant to be. So the lingering question might be: How will education in Mobile be different next week because of what happened last week?

A second chance at a first impression

"I don’t think it makes next week different," said Mobile County Public Schools Superintendent Martha Peek. "I think it’s a good investment in time anytime you can have someone come into the schools … I think it’s important for people to actually come in and have the school experience so they understand what’s taking place. So I don’t know that next week will be any different, but I hope it’ll make an impact that will carry through and be thought-provoking."

For Peek, the hoped-for payoff is partly about the recent past and partly about a longer cycle of philosophies in public education.

In the short term, she said, she hopes DeVos’ transit of Mobile erases an impression that goes back to March, when a Brookings Institution ranked Mobile County Public Schools at the bottom in terms of choice, saying it didn’t do enough to let families know about what options they had. DeVos spoke about the results, picking up the criticism of Mobile County.

Peek objected at the time, saying the Brookings study was based purely on the information available on the MCPSS website, which was on the verge of a redesign. The impression created by the Brookings report was superficial and misleading, she said, because it overlooked the range of options actually available.

On Thursday, Peek didn’t just look on as DeVos toured Council Traditional School. She also got to sit down for a private conversation with the secretary for 10 to 15 minutes.

"There are quality programs and great things happening in the public schools," Peek said. "Right now, I think with all of the changes in thinking throughout the nation, that perhaps public education isn’t getting the respect that it really should, in lieu of any other word. Everyone’s looking for change, they’re looking for quick answers, and our public education system is really the foundation of our country, and I think that we’ve got to be very careful in making people understand what a valuable resource it is."

Peek said one of her priorities was to give DeVos as much information about the options possible within the public school system, from magnet schools such as Council to Mobile County’s Signature Academies program. The latter has created specialized programs at about a dozen area high schools and made it possible for students to transfer to the ones that serve their interests.

DeVos herself said she was leaving Mobile with a positive impression, partly because of what she’d learned about the public schools: "It’s a great city, a great town, and you’ve got great educational options," she said as she departed. "I really enjoyed seeing them."

President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, covered a lot of ground Thursday in a tour of Mobile, dropping in on students ranging from grade-schoolers to adults learning to weld and shape metal for jobs in the shipbuilding industry.

DeVos has been a big advocate of charter schools, voucher programs and other school choice options that provide alternatives to traditional public schools. Peek said she wanted to make a big-picture point when speaking to DeVos: that public schools have been changing and continue to change.

"About eight years ago, it became very evident that nationally charters and vouchers were going to become prominent," Peek said. "So we began at that time to really look at the options that we could put in place within the Mobile County schools." That has led to a proliferation of educational pathways within the system, she said.

"You always want, in education, to watch and be on the cutting edge, if it’s sound, to make sure your students are getting what you need," Peek said. "In Mobile we’ve done that … One of the things we’ve done really well in Mobile is we take the national trends and then we develop them into successful programs in our own schools."

It takes time for that to happen, but it is happening, Peek said. "To be able to share that with Secretary DeVos, I think, was very important. Just so she would realize that there are opportunities … Today it’s a world of choice, and I hope that Secretary DeVos saw that and was impressed with it yesterday."

"I just want there to be a real local, state and national awareness of the quality and importance of public education," Peek said.

‘Substantial conversations’

Lee Hammett, assistant director of AIDT for south Alabama, said some of the gains for AIDT’s Maritime Training Center may be intangible. Maybe DeVos’ visit provided some "free advertisement" for Alabama’s workforce development efforts, he said; maybe "a lot of exposure could possibly lead to some federal funding in the future."

DeVos spoke to a number of the trainees at AIDT and said afterward that she was impressed by their positive attitudes and their belief that their studies there were directly relevant to the jobs they hoped to win.

Hammett said it’s no accident the trainees displayed a sense of engagement. Having a positive attitude is among the "soft skills" that AIDT teaches alongside more tangible subjects such as welding. The secretary of education’s interest both rewards and fuels that engagement, he said.

"She seemed to be very interested and concerned how people were doing," Hammett said. "I think she was a very personable lady … The trainees were all very excited."

DeVos’ encounters with the AIDT trainees, like the interactions seen by media at ACCEL and Council, were quick chats with many onlookers. But Byrne said there "were some pretty substantial conversations" during her visit as well.

At ACCEL, he said, he and DeVos had in-depth meetings with four students. They’d had no success within the traditional academic framework, he said, and were all essentially dropouts until ACCEL offered another option.

The personal stories behind their struggles made an impression, Byrne said. "Those were, by the way, very moving conversations," he said.

Byrne said that DeVos had a breakfast meeting with higher education officials, where she got "some pretty direct responses" about challenges in that realm, and had a lunch meeting with workforce development officials. Aside from her meeting with Peek, she also had some time set aside at AIDT for Austal USA President Craig Perciavalle.

Byrne said he had no doubt the trip had given DeVos a lot to think about. And the visit to Council had shown her willingness to delve into a public school classroom. "She loved that," said Byrne, whose own four children, now grown, attended Council. "You could tell, she was soaking it in."

DeVos’ tour of ACCEL came at a particularly interesting time: The academy just assembled its faculty over the summer and opened its doors for classes a few days ago.

Co-Founder Jeremiah Newell said the occasion gave him a chance to step back, if just for a moment.

"I think for me it was an opportunity to do a little bit of a temperate check about how the culture and climate was developing within the school," he said Friday. "What this does for me is help see that our students are developing an identity."

Newell said that because ACCEL is not only the first charter school in the Mobile area but the first in the state, people are still getting a handle on just what it is. Some have needed assurances that it’s a legitimate option, in terms of its accreditation, programming and diplomas.

Having the nation’s secretary of education visit certainly helps. "I think it gives some credence and legitimacy to our school," he said. And on the flip side of that, he said, it also let charter advocate DeVos hear some fresh impressions about the challenges of starting up a new charter school.

"From a day-to-day standpoint, we’re simply going to continue that long journey to being a great school," he said. "No one visit is going to do that. It’s a day-in, day-out effort."

Talking money

DeVos took media questions briefly at ACCEL Academy and again at AIDT, focusing on her impressions of those two programs. As she left Council Traditional School on the way to the airport, she gave only a brief statement. As aides said she wouldn’t be taking questions, one reporter tried lobbing a few anyway.

Byrne stepped in with the kind of evenhanded response that tends to quash confrontational encounters at his frequent town hall meetings: "We’ve had a terrific day," interjected Byrne. "She’s very impressed with what we’ve done here in Mobile in a lot of different areas. Obviously Mobile has come a long way in education, and that means that we’ve made a lot of progress. Do we have more progress to make? Absolutely. We should be proud of what we’ve done, and it’s a lot more good things that are going to happen in this area."

Among the questions that went unanswered was how DeVos might respond to anyone concerned about proposed cuts to federal education spending. Earlier this year, the secretary found herself on the hot seat defending the $9 billion cut in education spending in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget.

Peek said she had broached the topic.

"I brought the subject up and she heard me say that it was very important, and she acknowledged hearing that," Peek said. "She nodded and smiled." DeVos didn’t share her thoughts about how deep the funding cuts might go, Peek said, but she did listen. "I appreciate that," Peek said.

Byrne, for his part, has encouraged constituents to focus less on the heavy cuts in the proposed Trump budget and more on the cuts in the spending bills that Congress will soon take up. While still substantial, they are billions less. Byrne said he wasn’t yet ready to make detailed comment on the content of the spending resolutions, as his staff was still reviewing them. But he’d be giving them close scrutiny as they come up for discussion, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, he felt there was no downside to having DeVos in Mobile for some one on one, human-to-human interaction. That will count for something in the future, he said.

"I know we now have a friend in the Department of Education," he said.

Gas was seeling $2.55 a gallon at the Shell station at the corner of U.S. 31 an Oxmoor road in Homewood Saturday with prices of $2.49 a gallon at the Chevron across the street. (Paul Beaudry/pbeaudry@al.com)
The go-to price for gasoline seemed to be $2.39 a gallon in Huntsville Saturday afternoon although prices ranged from $2.15 a gallon to $2.49 a gallon in the city. (Lee Roop/lroop@al.com)

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