Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited a Northern Virginia school with high-caliber science, technology, engineering and math programs Tuesday to learn about how the school is advancing vocational training.
“I’m thrilled to be here this morning and to learn about what you’re doing here,” DeVos told a group of students and school leaders assembled for the visit to the Academies of Loudoun.
DeVos mostly let students at the Loudoun County school do the talking during a roundtable discussion and school tour, where she stopped to hear from students who examined X-rays in a radiology class and others who fiddled with projects in a room equipped with metalworking machines and laser cutters.
Maya O’Callaghan, an 18-year-old in the biotechnology program, and her classmate, Christopher Hernandez, 17, were testing methods for growing mint leaves in large basins inside the school’s greenhouse when DeVos approached them.
The pair said they hoped the education secretary’s visit would encourage more investment in specialty programs such as theirs and create more opportunities for students. O’Callaghan said it’s “really cool we’re going to get this exposure.”
DeVos’s office contacted the Association for Career and Technical Education about accompanying the organization on the school visit, said spokesman Jarrod Nagurka. Advocates use the month of February to draw attention to and celebrate career and technical training.
“Any time we can show the broader community what we’re trying to do here in Loudoun County,” Principal Tinell Priddy said, “it’s a win.”
DeVos frequently touts vocational training in speeches and, on a June trip to Switzerland, emphasized her desire to learn from the way Swiss students participate in technical and vocational programs and apprenticeships.
County officials and school administrators joined DeVos on Tuesday, but the visit passed with little fanfare from students, who mostly kept to themselves and their work as she toured the facilities.
DeVos, who remains in a wheelchair more than a month after a cycling accident, isn’t always received quietly on school trips in the Washington region or elsewhere in the country.
Protesters barred her from entering a D.C. middle school in February 2017, briefly blocking her from entering a side door and forcing her to retreat into a government vehicle. Her advocacy of school choice and vouchers, along with her lack of experience with public schools, has drawn criticism from the country’s largest teachers unions and other proponents of traditional public schools.
Academies of Loudoun students split their time between a base high school and the expansive Leesburg campus where students take specialty classes in one of three academies — the Academy of Science, the Academy of Engineering & Technology and the Monroe Advanced Technical Academy, which focuses on vocational training.
The school’s opening spurred some Loudoun County School Board members to consider severing ties with the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an elite public school in Fairfax County that enrolls students from across the region, including from Loudoun County.
Like other advanced programs in the system, the academies have also been criticized for underrepresenting black students — a concern school system leaders say they are trying to address amid broader attempts to boost inclusion and diversity.