Betsy DeVos visits Johnstown, makes good on promise to visit struggling schools
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made good on a promise to visit struggling schools with a stop in Johnstown on Monday.
Greater Johnstown School District welcomed DeVos to Johnstown Elementary — an unusual honor and a chance to review the school's program for supporting students at risk amid the opioid crisis.
It was her first school visit since a "60 Minutes" interview in which she said she wanted to visit low-performing school districts but wondered aloud, "Will they let me in?"
DeVos' representatives said the visit was not prompted by the "60 Minutes" interview, but rather was part of the Trump administration's outreach on the opioid crisis. Cambria County has the highest overdose death rate per capita in Pennsylvania, DeVos said.
Superintendent Michael Vuckovich said Greater Johnstown is the third-poorest district in Pennsylvania, and the surrounding community had experienced a 67 percent jump in overdose deaths since 2015.
"More and more babies are born addicted to drugs, and coming to school with serious issues," he said in his welcome for DeVos. "This is not a school's failure. It's society's."
Less than a quarter of Johnstown Elementary students scored proficient or above on state math exams in the 2016-17 school year. Thirty-six percent were proficient in literature, and 43 percent were proficient or better in science, according to the state's performance profile . The state lists 83 percent of the school's student body as "economically disadvantaged."
The Greater Johnstown district has focused on screening and intervention at three tiers: a basic social curriculum for all students focused on things such as anger management and conflict resolution; small-group interventions for students with additional problems; and individual safety and behavioral support plans for the toughest cases.
For the "tier 1" program, called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, DeVos observed a kindergarten teacher demonstrating emotional concepts such as jealousy and sharing with a pair of hand puppets, briefly kneeling on the floor with the students before the next part of her school tour.
Justin Zahorchak, the district's director of federal programs, said there is more work to be done in bringing in social services to take care of other physical and health needs for students, including establishing clinics within the district for dental and vision care so students aren't distracted in school by health issues, or bringing in social service agencies that are located primarily outside the city.
"Our support isn't enough," he said. "We want to triple, quadruple the amount of support we get from community partnerships."
DeVos also observed a fourth-grade class's anti-bullying lesson, in which students passed around worksheets writing compliments about each other as a bulwark against unkind comments later.
"When we have a down moment, we can take a look at these and say, 'Oh, somebody said I was funny, or somebody said I was kind,' so we can take that unkind thing and ignore it," said teacher Kathleen Kirwan.
After the classroom observation, DeVos sat in on a counseling session and held a roundtable discussion in the school's library, both of which were closed to the media.
"I've been really impressed with the Greater Johnstown School District's focus on social and emotional learning," DeVos said in remarks after the roundtable. "Its programs are focused on promoting good behavior instead of only reacting to bad behavior."
She noted that the Department of Education had a $43 million budget request for spreading and supporting programs such as Johnstown's.
"The program they've implemented here at Johnstown Elementary is a valuable one and easily replicable by other schools; to start with children as young as kindergarten and help them develop socially and emotionally is something that has heretofore been neglected and forgotten about," DeVos said. "Too many lives here have been affected by opioid abuse, whether it's a parent, a sibling or a friend — everyone knows someone."
DeVos touted Hope Academy in Indianapolis and Bridge Way School in Philadelphia, a charter school and a private school, respectively, that are "recovery schools" for students suffering from drug addiction, as more examples of what the administration hopes to replicate.
DeVos declined to take a firm stance on whether Pennsylvania should join other states in allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons — President Trump and the National Rifle Association's preferred reaction to the Parkland, Fla., school shooting on Feb. 14.
"It's an important discussion for every state to have and every local community to have; it's a viable and important option for some places, and for others it will be deemed not appropriate — but it's an important discussion to have," she said. A school safety commission she is leading will soon start to solicit input on how to improve safety.
After the visit, Vuckovich said he welcomed the opportunity to promote Johnstown's public schools and make a case for where the state and federal government could help more. The Department of Education had proposed eliminating federal funding for after-school programs, but Vuckovich said those were a vital part of the district's offerings.
"We run a tremendous amount of after-school programming," Vuckovich said. "That means they're not out on the streets making bad decisions. ... A lack of funds or eliminating funding would have a devastating effect on us, locally."
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @msantoni.