New school ringing in Liberty for students


Lady Liberty With Sword

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The thought of a new downtown elementary school housed in a massive former bus barn situated smack dab in a neighborhood rife with social ills caught my attention.  The barn site was only temporary, but that nontraditional location, plus the red light district around and about it, was enough for me to file a story.  Plus, I liked the fact the school would be serving a diverse student body of Latinos, Africans, African-Americans, and whites.  The space was every bit as interesting and the students every bit as diverse as I had hoped.  Then when I met the dynamo principal, Nancy Oberst, mother of indie rock star Conor Oberst, I was officially hooked.  My story, which originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), is as much about her and and her staff’s passion as it is about this incongruent site for a school.  Liberty Elementary has since moved into its built-from-the-ground up school building just down the street.

 

New school ringing in Liberty for students

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Like a Pied Piper, Liberty Elementary School principal Nancy Oberst set a brisk pace one evening in the Columbus Park neighborhood. It was one of several nights when Oberst and staff went door-to-door in the blue-collar, racially-diverse area to symbolically blow the horn about Liberty, the new downtown K-6 public school. Liberty, which opened August 19 with some 360 students (and more matriculating each day) was conceived in part to relieve overcrowding at two other OPS sites — Jackson Academy and Field Club Elementary — which Liberty is drawing many students from. Consistent with the new OPS emphasis on neighborhood schools,

Liberty is serving a growing school-age populace on downtown’s southside. Temporarily housed in a renovated warehouse running from 22nd to 20th and Leavenworth Streets, Liberty is in a kind of incubator phase while awaiting construction of its own building, slated to open in March 2004.

In naming the school, Oberst wanted something that “embraced as many people as possible and spoke to a lot of things inherent in this society.” Above the main entrance is a phrase from Roman philosopher Epictetus that reads, “Only the educated are free.” Fittingly, Liberty is a beacon of hope to a largely Hispanic ward of recent emigres. An education for these children is more than a right of passage  — it is a burden of dreams. “These kids come from working class families that need to invest in something for the future,” she said. “They’re really wanting for their kids that old dream of learning English and being upwardly mobile.” It is why Oberst insists her staff be fully committed. “When I interview applicants, I say, ‘I’m really looking for people that have the will and the desire to make something special for kids who need a leg up.’” The impetus to learn, she said, is made even greater by the fact children often act as interpreters for their Spanish-speaking parents.

Because everyone is welcome at Liberty, parents are not pressed for their legal status. To register a child, a parent need only provide a birth certificate, an address and some record of the child’s past schooling, if any. Serving a highly-mobile population, Liberty expects to see a high student turnover rate.

 

Nancy Oberst, ©photo by Marlon Wright

 

 

 

Oberst, principal at Jackson the past three years, has many former students assigned to Liberty. During that night canvassing the hood she scanned a roster looking for familiar names. She found one in Diana Ramirez. In a wood-frame house perfumed by the rustic aroma of tortillas and accented by the folksy lilt of Spanish, Diana shyly emerged from a bedroom, bedecked in a fine pink dress, and when her big brown eyes locked on Oberst’s, she warmly embraced her. “There’s a beauty and a richness about a very urban group of kids,” Oberst said. “They’re the nicest kids I’ve ever been in contact with. Just well-behaved, very, very respectful children. They look forward coming to school. It’s very important to their day. I’ve never had one swing at me or push me. Sure, there’s times when one gets mad and tips over a desk or kicks a door, but you’d be amazed at how lovely these kids are. And, you know, the school has to set the tone. Kids have to know this is not just hanging out — this is different. That’s why we call kids if they don’t come and go get them if they can’t get here. They know we love them.”

While children from Spanish-speaking homes predominate, Liberty is also a magnate for area African-American, Sudanese, Asian and Caucasian families. Combined with NuStyle Development’s ongoing renovation of the historic and once stately Drake Court apartments on the north side of Liberty, the school is seen by many as an anchor of stability and a catalyst for redevelopment. The circa 1916-1921 Drake Court, a 14-building complex featuring Georgian Revival and Prairie style design elements, was once the centerpiece of this mixed residential-commercial zoned district. But when the apartments fell into disrepair in the 1970s, occupancy declined and the designated blighted area became a thoroughfare for transients. NuStyle has worked closely with the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (NIFA) to qualify for low income tax credits for the Drake Court project. In anticipation of Liberty moving out in 2004, NuStyle is weighing various reuses of the warehouse, including a day care center, artist studios, a multi-media technology center and condos. It is also eying more area residential and commercial projects.

While most welcome the school and look forward to construction of the permanent Liberty site, a $9.2 million three-story structure to be situated on the corner of 20th and St. Mary’s Avenue, there is concern about introducing a large contingent of children into an area heavily trafficked by motor vehicles and frequented by panhandlers, vagrants, prostitutes and drug users.

“There’s been an undercurrent that this is too tough a neighborhood for a school,” Oberst said. “Some of the families are worried. But OPS is saying we believe in Omaha — we believe neighborhoods can be redeveloped. We know what a renovated North High did on 34th and Ames. That has become a very safe place for people to live. When we held meetings with residents in the spring we said, ‘This is how you do it — this is how you change your neighborhood. You put an anchor in with a school. You make the streets safer for mothers and children to come to and from school.’ I’m a big believer in the community the school is in knowing about the school and being involved in it.”

She said she will do whatever it takes to make Liberty safe, from asking street denizens to respect school property to telling those engaging in illicit behavior to move on. “You want to be a good neighbor. You don’t want people mad at you. You have to do some co-existing. But you also have to draw some lines.” She said when problems surfaced at Jackson, from the school getting tagged with graffiti to men harassing girls, she had students spread the word the school was off-limits and she told harassers their actions were unwelcome. The problems, she said, vanished.

Despite assurances from OPS, extra police patrols and neighborhood watch efforts, some parents still voice concern. “I’m not happy with the location,” said Lisa Arellano, whose son, Gage, is a 5th grader. “We have a lot of homeless people and trouble up on Leavenworth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the police tackling someone on the ground. Walking to and from school is too scary. It puts kids in jeopardy. There’s always reassurances, but there’s no guarantees.” Gatdet Tut, whose daughter Hynalem is in kindergarten, said, “I don’t want my child to walk on these streets.” Other parents, like Craig Hinson, hope OPS-OPD vows to keep a sharp eye out are more than “lip service.”

Commerce of all kinds unfolds around the school. Across 20th Street is the 24-Hour Package Liquor Store and the Motor West used car lot. Three blocks east is the Douglas County Correctional Center. On the south side is Precision Industries. A little farther west is a St. Vincent DePaul Super Thrift store.

The eastern front of the old bus barn housing the school has two ongoing businesses — Grunwald Mechanical Contractors and an auto detailing shop — that maintain active garages. Robert Wilczewski, owner of the property occupied by the firms, feels the volume of kids passing by to enter and exit the school, whose main entrance is off an adjacent alleyway, poses hazards and hinders operations.

“It’s starting to complicate life around here,” he said. “We just have some serious concerns about safety and about restrictions on what we do here. It’s become intolerable. We want business back as usual. They’re going to need to find a different route for children to enter the school.” Wilczewski, who owns part of the alley and a piece of Grunwald, said the company and OPS are signatories to a 1930 agreement prohibiting public alley use. The parties are trying to reach an accord.

Harold Wrehe, co-owner of Motor West, echoed other area businessmen in expressing surprise at the number of Liberty students. “I didn’t believe there’d be that many children going to an elementary school in this area. But I like it. It brings people in. Everything helps.” Mike Nath, branch manager of nearby Motion Industries, agreed the school “will, in the long run, probably be a good thing. It could help clean up the neighborhood.”

The consensus is that whatever undesirable-incongruous elements surround it, Liberty, along with the Drake Court, reopening for occupancy next year, is a keystone for an emerging 20th Street Corridor some envision as an Old Market West. Oberst, busily forging alliances between Liberty and the nearby Omaha Children’s Museum, the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, joins others in referring to 20th Street, from Leavenworth to Farnam, as Children’s Row. As Liberty’s provisional site does not have many school amenities, including a gym or theater, students are attending P.E. classes at the Y and performances at the children’s theater.

For Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of the children’s theater, the concept of “a downtown school is a great idea,” with Liberty adding another dimension to the burgeoning arts-educational scene emerging along the 20th Street strip. “I think between the school, the Children’s Museum, the Y, us, and the Joslyn Art Museum, which is not that far away, the synergy is just going to be wonderful. We’re excited to have the school as a neighbor.”

She envisions the theater and school having an intimate rapport. “We see ourselves developing a very close relationship with Liberty,” said Wilhelm, whose home base, The Rose, is only a stroll away. We will be doing our Every Single Child program in their school…which is where every child — in each grade — has a different experience with the children’s theater through drama residency workshops and dance activities. And that, in my opinion, is just the beginning. I think there’s much more we can do with them in after-school programming. We’d like to see the arts infused in their school.”

Oberst wants that infusion as well. “We’re really wanting to bring art into the school, including artists from the community, and to bring our students to the arts. We hope to build relationships with the Joslyn Art Museum and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. We have to take advantage of where we are.”

The idea of placing a school smack dab in the middle of a bustling urban district is not new for Omaha. Central Grade School operated for decades across from Central High School and in the shadow of the Joslyn and other downtown landmarks. Although Liberty is the first school in the Drake Court-Park East-Columbus Park district since Mason School closed in the 1980s, it is repeating history in that, like Mason, which once served a largely Italian immigrant population, it is educating many new arrivals from Mexico.

What makes Liberty different is that the school is operating — at least the next 18 months — from a makeshift site that once served as a maintenance barn for Greyhound Bus Lines and more recently as a paper-printing supply storage facility for Redfield & Co. The top-to-bottom refurbishment of the old bus barn has revealed a 49,000 square foot space highlighted by the second-story’s free-span, cathedral-high, vaulted wood beam ceiling and elaborate iron truss network. A massive skylight and banks of tall windows bathe the upper level in natural light. Large ceiling fans maintain a constant air flow.

The rehab was funded by NuStyle, which bought the structure from Robert Wilczewski, and designed by Alley-Poyner Architects. OPS, which leases the building from NuStyle, is using large partitions to create classrooms and resource centers in a modular, flexible floor plan. By opening day, each partitioned space was outfitted with all the usual fixtures of a traditional school setting.

 

 Liberty Facade
The new Liberty Elementary School building

 

 

 

In the time in takes for the permanent school to be erected — construction starts this fall — Liberty plans being an established player in the neighborhood by building coalitions that Oberst hopes makes the school a vital contributor to and welcome beneficiary of the revitalization happening around it.

“The idea is to form this community now and for the kids to participate in the building of the new school and to have the neighborhood be involved with the whole redevelopment going on with us and the Drake Court,” she said.

Drawing on her experience forging community ties at Jackson, where she found an Adopt-a-School partner in Picotte Elementary, formed a food pantry with ConAgra Foods and sponsored clothing drives with First Lutheran Church in Omaha, she is already lining-up Liberty collaboratives. A food pantry, serving poor residents, is in the works along with clothing and furniture drives. “Our families sometimes don’t have beds and other basic things and, so, we’ll do a lot of give aways. It’s meant to bridge the gap. That networking with the community is part of my job and, besides, it opens more doors for opportunity for our kids and parents. I’m always looking for an angle,” she said.

Opening day at Liberty was marked by two words: diversity and vitality. Beaming brown, black, yellow and white faces mingled in the old-new environs. The sing-song sound of Spanish and hip-hop reverberated throughout the cavernous space.

Craig Hinson, whose daughter Jamillah is attending the 6th grade, said the diverse urban setting is just what he wants for his child. “I think it’s great. To me, it just adds a little flavor. I think being downtown, where you have blacks and whites and Hispanics and Sudanese, it just gives kids a real sense of the real world.”

As a show of faith in Liberty 3rd grade teacher Michelle Grau enrolled her own daughter Jordan there even though her family lives in Field Club. “I think the more kinds of people and the more kind of cultural experiences you can be exposed to, the better,” Grau said. “That’s why Jordan’s coming here. And to be in on the ground floor — I’m really excited about that. It’s going to be a fantastic thing once it’s finally completed…if you can just see the big picture.”

The promise of bigger things to come is what led Barb and Jim Farho to place their two children at Liberty. “We’re probably one of the few families choosing to go there even though we’re not forced to,” said Barb Farho. “My husband and I are interested in seeing downtown rejuvenated and we think this is one way to do that. A lot of people are afraid of downtown, but we think there’s a lot of cultural experiences awaiting. We also know the principal is very good at getting the community involved and we just think those partnerships are only going to get better. The surrounding area is going to improve for having a school there. Plus, our kids are excited about the fact the new school will be built before their very eyes. It just seems like a fun place to be in on at the very beginning.”

Assuming the school thrives, Oberst anticipates that once the new building opens and the word spreads more pilgrims will flock to Liberty from around the metro. “We are expecting that once the new school is up and once the real cultural-corporate connections are evident that parents from other parts of the city will want to send their kids here.” The new Liberty will accommodate 600-plus kids, yet another reflection of the confidence school officials have in the enterprising area.

Whatever happens, Oberst is sure to stir the melting pot. “What that woman does for and gets out of kids is incredible,” said Linda Daly, an ESL resource teacher and one of several educators who followed Oberst to Liberty from Jackson. “She makes things happen for the kids. She is absolutely a dynamo.”

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