Politics & Government

Betsy DeVos visited a struggling SC school district. Here’s what she saw

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos plays with robots at SC school

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to Brockington Elementary and Johnson Middle in Timmonsville, South Carolina to tour the schools
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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came to Brockington Elementary and Johnson Middle in Timmonsville, South Carolina to tour the schools

As calls for education reform heat up in South Carolina, one of the state’s most troubled school districts received a visit Thursday from the top U.S. education official.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos toured schools in Timmonsville Thursday, saying the schools have improved since the state Department of Education took over Florence District 4 last year.

Students at Brockington Elementary School and Johnson Middle School showed off the district’s robotics program, discussed gene-editing and public health, and demonstrated how to fly drones.

After being led through the district by state education Superintendent Molly Spearman, DeVos sounded impressed with how far Timmonsville has come.

“The course correction that was made was needed,” DeVos said at the end of her tour.

“I applaud the direction the school and the district have taken,” she said, adding the district must “continue to be focused on what students can achieve.”

Spearman led the effort to take control of Timmonsville’s schools away from the local school board last May. The small, rural district was down to 600 students and faced financial peril due to high administrative costs, the S.C. Education Department said.

On Thursday, Spearman said the tour highlighted the “great potential with students who have not had opportunities available to them.”

“Adults need to get creative (and) go across imaginary district lines so students have the opportunity to be successful,” said Spearman, who supports efforts to consolidate districts with fewer than 1,500 students and share administrative costs across neighboring districts.

Spearman recalled a young man, who she spoke to when the state first took over the district, had lamented he didn’t have a chance to take a welding course. Thursday, she spoke to him again. “He’s now in welding.”

Later, DeVos’ group toured the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology at Florence-Darlington Technical College, where students learn traditional manufacturing skills but also apply newer technology, including virtual reality, to their tasks.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Horry, said the region doesn’t deserve its “Corridor of Shame” nickname and is working to overcome that image.

“I’m glad (DeVos) visited so she can see the things we’re facing,” Rice said.

The education secretary was accompanied by Mick Zais, Spearman’s predecessor as S.C. schools superintendent who now is a deputy U.S. education secretary. Zais worked to create technical college programs, like the ones DeVos saw, to push South Carolina’s manufacturing industry forward.

“The reason we have companies like BMW and Volvo is because of the responsiveness of our technical system,” he said.

Since heading to Washington, Zais said he hasn’t closely followed the S.C. Legislature’s education reform debate.

But Zais said he did share some advice with his successor. “To serve the best interests of students, we need to have flexibility,” he said.

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.