BILLINGS — U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Mick Zais toured schools in Billings and Pryor on Tuesday as part of an 18-state tour, with the task of finding schools that don't have a one-size fits-all approach to learning.
Zais' boss, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and three other federal education secretaries are traveling the country. Zais says the goal is to visit "innovative, creative schools that give lie to the notion that one size fits all."
Before coming to Skyview High School in Billings, Zais toured schools in Pryor.
“Obviously they have some struggles there," Zais said. "Talking to the state superintendent of education from Montana, (we are) looking for ways that we can help these struggling schools like we saw on the reservation.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Montana Elise Arntzen showed Zais around Montana schools. She said the state tried to show Zais rural and urban Montana.
"Pryor is not more than a half-hour, 45-minute drive away. But it is as if it is almost 400 miles away from Billings," said Arntzen. "Having a cultural look is what we wanted the Department of Education to see what it is like to be immersed in that.”
Arntzen is happy that the Trump administration has been rolling back federal education regulations.
"We are very proud that this administration, not only from the president, but also from the secretary, now we have the deputy secretary here, is unleashing flexibility," Arntzen said. "Making sure that we, in Montana, know that there are many ways to do things.”
Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham and Skyview Principal Deb Black showed Zais around at Skyview. Zais also met with some students and toured the wood shop, drafting room, theater, and family and consumer science classrooms.
"Skyview and other schools that we have been traveling and visiting in 18 states this tour, demonstrate that you can have lots of options, lots of flexibility," Zais said. "And parents can have the freedom to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child.”
Speaking to students, Zais told them the value of a four-year college degree isn't what it used to be.
“That is not only unfair and untrue. It’s cruel, and it’s a lie," Zais said. "And I’m saying this as a former college president. A four-year college degree is no longer a ticket to the middle class. A person with a six-month certificate in welding makes more than a college graduate with a degree in psychology or sociology."
Zais was the president of Newberry College from 2000 to 2010. The private Lutheran liberal-arts college in South Carolina has about 1,000 students.
Billings School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham introduced Zais to the career coaches that have been placed in the Billings high schools.
Their job is to help students who aren't interested in college find pathways into the workforce out of high school.
"I think it’s fortuitous that we’re being visited by the Department of Education to share some of these ideas," Upham said. “Being able to share those ideas and change this paradigm to create opportunities for students that aren’t there now that could be in the future is really exciting.”
Zais was a fan of the approach Skyview is taking to teaching its students.
“I think the thing about Skyview that’s impressive to me is the combined career preparation and academics preparation," he noted. "The reality is that two-thirds of our students will not go, attend or graduate from a four year college. And with all the career opportunities here, along with the strong academic preparation, it seems like this is a wonderful school that provides that kind of flexibility that we think parents and students are looking for.”