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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Praises Woods Learning Center In Casper

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos looks at the work of students at Woods Learning Center in Casper on Tuesday.     Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos looks at the work of students at Woods Learning Center in Casper on Tuesday.                                                                                                                                    Tom Morton, Townsquare Media

The innovations at the Woods Learning Center in Casper shows how America can “rethink school,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said today.

“Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren’t the same as the next, which is why no school — not even a great one like Woods — is a perfect fit for every student,” DeVos told students, teachers and Natrona County School District officials.

“Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around,” she said in her prepared remarks.

DeVos launched her multi-state “rethink school” tour in Casper, and will visit other schools in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Indiana. Later today, she is scheduled to visit St. Stephens Indian School on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

She chose the Natrona County School District for its “schools of choice” philosophy and the 164-student Woods Learning Center because of its size and its nontraditional methods.

Before her speech, she met with school teachers and administrators and school district trustees.

She also met with students in their classrooms to talk about what they were learning.

“Your personalized learning program rethinks school because it is structured around you,” DeVos said.

“Each of your learning plans is developed for each of you, recognizing that each of you is different, and that you learn at your own pace and in your own way,” she said. “Your success here at Woods is determined by what each of you are learning and mastering. Not by how long you sit at your desks. That is awesome, by the way.”

During her speech she complimented the school district, citing its “schools of choice” philosophy of allowing families to choose schools for their proximity to their homes, child care or work; teaching styles; family traditions; or word of mouth.

“That’s right! Students, your parents know you best, and they are in the best position to select the best learning environment for you,” DeVos said. “And you deserve a say, too. That’s why I love that your school lets you vote on what activities to do outside the classroom.”

Likewise, teachers are critical to rethinking school, she said.

“For too long, too many teachers have been sidelined, not allowed to be part of the solution,” DeVos said.

“Too many feel like their hands are tied when the “system” tells them when to teach, how to teach and what to teach,” she said. “I believe teachers should be respected as professionals and that they should have the freedom to innovate and the flexibility to meet their students’ needs.”

DeVos cited other schools nationwide that have embarked on innovation, such as the Acton Academy in Austin, Texas; Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Mich.; and Boston Day School with its program for formerly incarcerated youth, dropouts, or young mothers.

But innovation isn’t always welcome in some places and with some people and organizations, she said.

Those who tie teachers’ hands are “so-called ‘education professionals,’ who are often staunch defenders of the status quo,” she said.

The status quo started in 19th century Prussia as a regimented system that had its day and is now obsolete, DeVos said.

She excoriated the defenders of that system, saying it still has its defenders who are naysayers of innovation and the future.

During a press conference after her speech, however, she declined to identify the naysaying “educational professionals,” other than to say in Washington, D.C., there are “pages after pages after pages of organizations that are formed around them protecting and advocating for the way things have been done.”

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