Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School
Education is not my beat. In fact, I don’t have a beat as a reporter or journalist. Life is my subject matter. Pretty broad, I know. But there are certain subjects and subjects within subjects that I get drawn to and one of these is the downtown Omaha Liberty Elementary School. The following is one of several stories I’ve filed about it and its staff over the years. It’s a special place with special people and hopeflly this story (and the others) conveys why. The woman who headed up the school at the start, Nancy Oberst, has since moved on but her assistant principal Ilka Oberst (no relation) is now in charge and so there’s been a nice continuity there. An example of the superb teaching staff at Liberty is Luisa Palomo, whom I’ve recently profiled and posted about, winner of the 2012 Nebraska Teacher of the Year award. I expect I’ll be drawn back there again to file a future story. Meanwhile, check out the articles filed under my education category and you should find quite a variety there.
Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School
©by Leo Adam Biga
Oriignally appearee in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
For the first time, the largely Hispanic-served Liberty Elementary School has a home to call its own. Located a half-block from the temporary warehouse Liberty occupied since being formed in 2002, the new-look Liberty opens the 2004-2005 school year August 25 in a newly constructed three-level building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Designed by the Omaha architectural firm Zenon Beringer Mabrey Partners Inc., the $7.4 million site is as traditional as the previous one was unconventional.
With a likely enrollment increase from 500 to 600, Liberty’s continuing its mission of educating a high English-as-a-Second Language student base (60-plus percent) and gearing programs to new arrivals’ needs. Sixty-eight percent of its kids are Hispanic. Most are first-generation Americans. The remaining quotient is divided among African-Americans, Native Americans, Africans and Caucasians. Diversity at Liberty is more than a symbol, it’s infused in lesson plans and in the books kids read, in the art they create, in the foods they eat and in the heroes whose praises they sing.
Taking advantage of a downtown locale with such kids-friendly attractions as the Omaha Children’s Museum across the street, the YMCA around the corner and the Rose Theater and Joslyn Art Museum within easy walking distance, Liberty’s formed partnerships that give students and families preferred access to these facilities. Unlike the old Liberty, which lacked a gymnasium and theater, the new Liberty’s outfitted with both. Not having those facilities was spun into a positive when the Y and Rose let students access their athletic and stage resources, respectively.
A hybrid downtown-neighborhood school serving the low income areas just south, east and west of the restored Drake Court Apartments, Liberty’s created a warm school culture that’s arisen, in part, from the makeshift space it held classes in for two years. The school was situated in a former bus barn and paper storage warehouse. The facility, running from 22nd to 20th and Leavenworth Streets, was renovated by its owners, NuStyle Development Corporation, and leased to the Omaha Public Schools. Working with acres of open-floor space and lofty ceilings, Alley-Poyner Architects designed a modular layout of classrooms separated by partitions. With little to baffle sound, Liberty was constantly abuzz with noise. The resulting chorus of youthful voices leaking through the cavernous environs added a homey vitality and charm absent from the sterile confines of most schools, where children are holed-up behind walls except at class breaks, recess and meals.
Liberty brightened a dull industrial setting into a vibrant space. Children’s artwork was plastered everywhere. Without an intercom system or classroom phones, Liberty staff communicated the old fashioned way, not unlike neighbors speaking between fences or hedges. Visitors could overhear or glimpse the rhythms of education unfolding or sometimes spilling-over all around.
Principal Nancy Oberst said she and her staff enjoyed the freedom of a barrier-free school whose informality, in-turn, fostered camaraderie. “It’s something I saw real early on over there. If you needed something, you talked face-to-face or you stood on a chair and you reached over and grabbed that book or yardstick or whatever other resource you needed. We really could bring our staff together quickly because we spent so much time with each other and in such close quarters. We had a lot to overcome and I think because of that we became a real unified, strong staff. We had to be together to do it,” she said.
Beyond the benefits to staff, she feels the more relaxed school atmosphere helped put students and parents, including some immigrant adults facing legal residency issues, more at ease. With the move to the new building and its more spacious and segmented interior, she doesn’t want to lose the essence of what made Liberty such an inviting place. Likening a new school to a gleaming gated community, she wants to avoid the trend that isolates people behind closed doors.
“It’s a concern to us. Everyone on our staff has talked about it. Being a tall, sturdy, large new structure will, in some ways, make some people a little bit more worried about coming in. And, so, we’re going to really work hard on making sure we can keep that family-centered, welcoming, we-are-your-school spirit. We want to say, It doesn’t matter where you come from, we are happy to have you. That’s kind of a charge I’m rekindling with everyone. It’s something I know existed at the old Liberty. We can’t lose that. That’s what made us strong.”
Oberst said the formidable walls and amenities that make some schools cold, imposing places can be broken, “but you have to make an effort. I know a building can be beautiful and not welcoming enough. That part we have to create. We want to warm it up, and the only way you warm things up is by people. You just have to work at it. For example, I still want to know the names of all our kids and parents.”
As Liberty prepares showing off its new digs, Oberst plans leading a team of staff on a meet-and greet-canvassing of the school’s mixed-use residential-commercial district — something they did three summers ago. “We’re going to go door-to-door again and invite all the neighbors to come and see the new school. Now, we really have a great showcase for them to see. I think schools really need to do that. Schools need to reach out to their neighborhoods because schools aren’t neutral ground. They’re a plus, and you really should promote your school as a plus and your students as the future. We need to be providers of hope.”
The hope Liberty embodies carries special import for its immigrant families. Oberst takes seriously the principles and dreams bound up in the name. “We really try to create this feeling that Liberty is THE community and not just this separate place. We want to be the community…the starting point, the Ellis Island, the place where families can come and find things. We represent that ideal for many people. The wonderful thing about this spectacular new building is what it will offer our kids. They’ll be proud to tell everyone this is their school. In a way, it’s a new start.”
For a first-time school plopped-down in a funky area of trendy eateries, light industries and thrift stores and in close proximity to 24-Hour Package Liquor and the Douglas County Correctional Center, it’s been a successful adaptation. The school went to great pains to win over neighbors. It worked with the Omaha Police Department to increase patrols and the City of Omaha to ease traffic snarls. Still, an apartment house only two blocks away has been the site of repeated police calls over drug and prostitution activity. Neighbors are suing its owner.
Oberst, who’s been at Liberty since its start-up, feels the school’s helped stabilize the area. “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, I’m so glad they’ve put a school in that neighborhood.” Mike Nath, branch manager of nearby Motion Industries, said, “I think it’s been a good thing for the downtown community. I think the police have paid more attention to the area.” Lindy Hoyer, executive director of the Omaha Children’s Museum, said, “We’ve been extremely thrilled to have the school as a neighbor, and now that’s it’s just across the street, there’s no telling the potential of that relationship. Liberty’s given this part of downtown more of a sense it is a true neighborhood. We love the fact kids and families are residents of the area and take ownership in it. I think there’s great pride in having the school. It adds a life and personality to this diverse neighborhood.”
Oberst said Liberty’s own diversity is a selling point. It’s why Jim and Barb Farho and John and Jennifer Cleveland elect to send their kids there. She said the fact parents keep their kids enrolled “means we’ve really held their expectation of providing a quality education in a diverse urban environment.” Another indicator of Liberty’s quality, she said, is that several teachers on staff send their kids there.
The sight of Liberty kids walking to and from school in the working-class Columbus Park neighborhood must evoke memories in older residents of Mason School. Now apartments, the former South 20th Street public school was long a magnet for children of the European immigrant families that once anchored the ward. Like then, many Liberty families are starting out or starting over, but one difference is Liberty’s highly mobile student body. Many youths lead nomadic lives due to parents’ seasonal jobs or pending legal status or family issues back home in Mexico, Guatemala or whatever Latin or Central American country of origin they hail from.
Oberst said student turnover has increased as the economy’s slumped. “Some rooms are hit really hard. I had a first-grade teacher who started the year with 15 kids and saw 13 changes. Now, it doesn’t mean that all 13 left, but some kids leave and some kids come back. We often have kids go and come back.” Once gone, a student’s whereabouts can be hard to track. “Sometimes…it’s a quick move in the middle of the night. The family may not have a phone. Then, it takes us awhile to locate where the kid is. And we do work at that. We send people to the house to see if they actually moved or if it was a family emergency. A child may move in with another family member. Or, they may just be attending another OPS school.”
Strict post-9/11 regulations may prompt newcomers to uproot their families, she said, such as the Nebraska License Bureau’s requirement of a birth certificate, green card and social security card. Requirements for registering a child at Liberty remain the same — a birth certificate, immunization record and address verification.
A transient life, she said, is an endemic problem among the poor. “Poverty means having to move often.” The disruption such want causes, she said, is only exacerbated by “not having language.” Then there’s the added burden many
bilingual minority children have of acting as interpreters for their parents, who, in turn, are frustrated by a language gulf that makes them dependent on their kids.
She said many Liberty kids grow up wanting. “There’s no space for the kids to play. There’s no space for the family to have a quiet dinner. All those things that promote communication and closeness — it’s more of a challenge.” She described a recent home visit that found no parent at home to attend the kids, one of whom was sick and absent from school that day, and a living space so cramped that bunk beds were literally jammed in a doorway. “There’s some sadness,” she said.
She estimates 95 percent of Liberty kids lack such basic tools as a home computer. Others lack bare living essentials like a suitable bed to sleep in or a decent pair of shoes to wear. Oberst, like other inner city principals, is forced to beg, borrow and steal for extras that are staples at well-heeled suburban schools. “It’s true. The kids with the greatest needs have the least resources,” she said. “I’m trying to collaborate with anyone and everyone who wants to help…just to make the field more level for our kids — to have at their fingertips what other kids have.”
Liberty’s many partners include Camp Fire, First National Bank and Kutak Rock LLP. Liberty’s working to expand its Y ties to encompass a swimming program. Oberst is seeking support to put an I-book or laptop in every kid’s home. In keeping with its mission of providing care to the underserved and uninsured, One World Community Health Centers makes twice-weekly visits to Liberty for pediatric check-ups, immunizations, physicals — “all the things our community needs but doesn’t have much access to,” Oberst said, adding that One World is after funding to add on-site family health and dental care and behavioral counseling services.
To further address disadvantages, Liberty: maintains a large ESL teaching staff and encourages all staff to be fluent Spanish-speakers; holds English-language and GED classes for adults; specializes in guided reading to promote literacy and language arts; sends staff out to kids’ homes for goodwill-outreach visits; operates a food bank and emergency fund for urgent family needs; and refers families to human service agencies. “We’re a safety net. We also try to teach people how to help themselves by doing budgeting, price shopping and using what’s available in the community,” Oberst said. “Building relationships is fundamental to all of this.”
Academically, Liberty’s a first-time participant in the local Banneker/CEMS initiative to improve math and science performance. Given the obstacles its kids face, progress is measured incrementally. “We’ve made some strides in our standardized test scores. We’ve grown five points, so we’re inching our way up,” Oberst said. “But we’re going to have difficulty keeping up with the No Child Left Behind mark, because that’s a difficult mark to attain. Some standardized assessments don’t really show a child’s progress. We’re teaching towards strengths and measuring how far kids come from where they started. This past year, we identified 50 kids as gifted. The year before we had 14 or 15. We’re not so much into a strata thing as wanting to push all the kids ahead. It is my job to open the doors for all my kids.”
Not all families’ struggles persist. Many, she said, save enough to buy new homes. Some parents attain their GED. Older siblings of Liberty kids find jobs that take advantage of their bilingual skills. All signs of hope for Liberty’s future graduates. “Those are my kids who are going to be marketable” one day, Oberst said. As far as her own future at the school, she said, “I want to be here to see our kids go to junior high. I would like to do that. I love this place. My heart is here.”
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