LINCOLN (SNR/NCC) – U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent her morning in Lincoln Sept. 14 at St. Mary School across the street from the Nebraska State Capitol, where she read to kindergarteners, attended a seventh-grade math class, and listened to the student choir.
The visit to St. Mary came as part of the Secretary’s “Rethink Schools” tour across the Midwest. St. Mary School has been in existence since the early 1900s and educates students from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade.
Related: slideshow of Secretary's visit
“It was exciting to have the U.S. Secretary of Education experience a day in the life of a Catholic school in Nebraska,” said Bishop James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln. “Private, parochial schools have long been a part of our country’s educational fabric, and St. Mary’s exemplifies the faith, diversity, and innovation that help so many students excel.”
Indeed, St. Mary School is an exemplar of innovation and diversity. It was the first school to open its doors to the “Ec3 Academy,” a private nonprofit that employs University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering and math students to provide one-on-one tutoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In addition, more than 50 percent of the school’s student population partakes in the free and reduced lunch program, and the diverse student body speaks nearly a dozen native languages.
“We believe all of our students have a greatness in them that just needs to be inspired and nurtured,” said Dr. Nina Beck, principal of St. Mary. “We have lofty goals and wonderful children.”
Beck voiced excitement for Secretary DeVos to experience St. Mary’s “innovative and different educational approach.” Since the introduction of the Ec3 program in 2014, she said, students at St. Mary have experienced improved test scores in areas such as science and math, along with higher overall confidence in their day-to-day academic lives.
DeVos began her visit by touring the adjacent St. Mary Church, expressing awe at the elaborate stained glass windows and appreciation that the school’s students gather there for Mass at the beginning of each school day.
After reading “The Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss to kindergarteners, she visited a seventh-grade math class taught by Frank McEntarffer, where students began with a reflection on Scripture before presenting Secretary DeVos with gifts of flowers and commemorative items. They proceeded on to the day’s lesson in mathematics and strategies for excelling on the ACT.
Most students at St. Mary School go on to graduate from Pius X High School in Lincoln, whose students boasted an average ACT score of 24.8 in 2016-17 – the highest among all high schools in Lincoln, with nearly 95% of Pius X students taking the test.
“We are grateful for the Secretary’s recognition of the important contribution of all schools, both public and private,” said Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference. “We hope that all people would recognize the public contribution of private schools, and that policymakers would ensure that as many children as possible have the opportunity to attend the school that is best for them.”
In Nebraska, DeVos also visited Nelson Mandela Elementary in Omaha, a free private school that opened in 2015, and the “Zoo School,” a science focus program of Lincoln Public Schools that opened in 1997.