Katherine Mitchell, '21

August 26, 2020
Senior researches Covid-19's effect on schools during internship with U.S. Secretary of Education

To open or not to open? That is the question K-12 school boards, parents, pundits, and politicians have been debating fiercely for the last five months. It is also the question Katherine Mitchell, ’21, spent much of her summer researching.

She completed her required Jepson internship for her leadership studies major as one of only two summer interns for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Although her internship was remote due to the coronavirus pandemic, she said she interacted regularly with DeVos and her team through Skype calls and email.

“I had a one-on-one Skype call with Secretary DeVos at the beginning of my internship,” Mitchell said. “During this exciting call, I introduced myself and asked her a few questions. I look forward to meeting her in person when I can go into the office this fall.”

Mitchell perfected her internet search skills while scouring newspaper reports, think tank and education organization websites, and public reports and surveys—all in an effort to research Covid-19’s effect on school funding, choice, and reopening in fall 2020.

“I became very well educated on the pros and cons of sending children back to school in the fall,” Mitchell said. “I learned about the abundance of risk factors many towns and schools face when determining the opening of schools. These include, but are not limited to, physical health, mental health, achievement gaps, childcare access, and productive learning environments. The decision to send children back to school affects not only the health of the students but also their academic development and family lifestyles.”

The senior from Dedham, Mass., also researched Covid-19 school funding. “Secretary DeVos and her team will use my data-driven research to assess funding and the state of families as children return to school this fall,” she said.  

Mitchell was grateful for this opportunity to learn about education in America on a macro level during her U.S. Department of Education internship. She said she first became interested in education issues while volunteering as a tutor and mentor with a Richmond-based nonprofit to fulfill the community-based-learning component of her leadership studies class Justice and Civil Society.

“My volunteer experience opened my eyes to a lot of educational issues, such as how language barriers affect education achievement gaps,” Mitchell said. “The majority of students at the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond Southside learning center spoke Spanish at home. They couldn’t ask their parents for homework help because their homework was in English. Working with these students inspired me to become more involved in education, and I picked up a minor in education and society.”

Her leadership studies classes helped her understand various leadership styles in the U.S. Department of Education, she said. And her Education and Public Policy class, which introduced her to the way education policy is created, reformed, and implemented, motivated her to apply for her summer internship. 

Mitchell said she plans to apply to the Jepson Scholars Program to support her in pursuing a master’s degree in education at the University of Oxford.

“I am interested in a career in teaching or education policy because I have a passion for uplifting society through advancing knowledge and an understanding of the world around us,” she said.