Nancy Oberst, the Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School
Nancy Oberst is one of those high energy, positive vibe individuals you can’t help but feel better for meeting or knowing, and that’s why it was a distinct pleasure working on two stories about her and her then work as principal at Liberty Elementary School in Omaha. This article for Medium Magazine appeared only months after the school was launched downtown in a former bus barn and still months away from moving into its then under construction dedicated school building down the street. The other piece about Nancy and Liberty appeared shortly after the new school building was complete and Nancy, her staff, and students finally took possession of a building they could call their own. The same enthusiasm and dedication I found the first time was evident when I caught up with her that second time. Nancy’s no longer at Liberty but the school she helped form and lead is still going strong. She and her husband Matt are living in the Washington D.C. area now, but their connection to this place remains strong, just as it does for their famous son, indie rock and Saddle Creek Records star Conor Oberst.
Nancy Oberst, the Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Medium Magazine
Inner city public schools face a litany of challenges that cry out for dynamic, caring leaders willing to defy the low expectations set for their at-risk students. While Liberty Elementary School in downtown Omaha is better off than many of its counterparts, principal Nancy Oberst finds many issues to tackle there in her ebullient, high-energy, never-say-die style.
“Always looking for an angle” to give her fledgling, first-year school’s 400 largely disadvantaged students “a leg up,” she variously charms, prods, lobbies and cajoles “to level the playing field for our kids.”
“She is an advocate for her children like no one I’ve ever seen. I mean, if she wants something she thinks is best for the kids, she will get it. She is a woman of vision. She just really knows what she wants and she goes after it,” says Linda Daly, a Liberty reading-ESL specialist who followed Oberst from nearby Jackson Academy.
The 49-year-old Oberst is intent on making Liberty and the adjacent Drake Court, an historic apartment complex newly restored and occupied, the linchpin of an emerging 20th Street corridor some are dubbing Children’s Row. Liberty, the Omaha Children’s Museum, the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People occupy a four-block strip from Leavenworth to Farnam. “We’re not only part of a new school,” Oberst says, “we’re part of a new community. That’s a big draw for us and a positive spin for the neighborhood. There’s a ripple effect going on with Liberty and Drake Court in terms of adding some stability to the area.”
For Oberst and staff, Liberty is not an assignment, but a mission. Temporarily housed in a renovated former bus barn while awaiting completion of a new three-story building down the street, Liberty serves a racially diverse, working-class student body drawn from downtown’s south side, an area once home to Italian immigrants and now a haven for Latino emigres.
An honor roll listing on a school bulletin board reveals Liberty’s ethnic flavor. Aside from Anglo names like Ruth, Sarah, Adam, Christa, Jenny and Tyler, most names, like Cesar, Wambli, Parisian, Andres, Misael, Juan, Indira, Jesus, Ebony, Shaquia, Dancingmoon, Hynalem and Hoa, reflect the large Latino presence and smaller black, Native American, African, Asian contingents. Oberst, the embodiment of Lady Liberty that stirs this melting pot, says, “There’s a beauty and a richness about a very urban group of kids.”
Alley-Poyner Architects-designed the open floor adaptation for the school’s warehouse setting, whose massive skylight and tall banks of windows bathe the place in golden light and whose cavernous spaces resonate with the sound of youthful voices. As many newly arrived students do not speak English, Liberty makes language arts and literacy its overriding emphasis, piloting the federally-funded Guided Reading program and employing ESL specialists in every classroom. Most staffers and paraprofessionals, like Legna Colon, are bilingual. Liberty also holds adult English classes. Children and families requiring extra support find in Oberst and Liberty a champion and resource center, respectively, attuned to their needs.
The old bus barn that served as Liberty’s first home
“Despite all the charges we have the one thing we are focusing on here is reading,” Oberst says, “because we believe reading is the key. If you can learn to read, math and science isn’t going to be that tough for you. We’re allowed to take the monies we get and buy supplemental books and resources that we feel as a school are going to make the difference with our kids, all the while knowing the goal is to catch up and be where everyone else is. I guess we feel a sense of urgency about what we’re doing. The needs are great.”
She knows the territory well from canvassing the neighborhood last summer, visiting many families’ homes, and from growing up in a working-class Omaha family herself. “We need to help children where the gap is wide and is getting wider. That’s why families come here (from Mexico, El Salvador) — to have a piece of the pie — and to invest in something for the future. That really is what America has been about. We want kids to feel their life is like everyone else’s and that there’s nothing that should get in the way. That’s really what public education promises.” Like the school’s namesake.
Getting past the barriers that cultural-language differences can pose is a matter of building trust. That’s why Oberst routinely has teams of educators make home visits and ensures that all school correspondence is printed in English and Spanish. She also sets a welcoming tone by insisting staff greet parents, holding informal coffees with moms and dads, inviting families to come to events at school — from community forums to special celebrations, like Cinco De Mayo — and encouraging staff to attend kids’ outside activities and even having kids over to their homes.
“It boils down to — How do you make people comfortable? Language is the key,” she says. “To engage people on their own terms and their own turf shows goodwill, respect and a real personalness. It heightens parents’ knowledge that we care and we want them to participate. We want parents to know they are valuable in this.”
Oberst, who takes predawn power walks to stay fit, is seemingly always on the move at Liberty. She hustles greeting the early-bird arrivals at first light and seeing-off the last stragglers at night. She’s outside, even in bad weather, supervising dismissal. She pops inside classrooms to casually survey things or to do formal observations. She’s a whirling-dervish presence at breakfast and lunchtime, seating kids, intervening in conflicts, confiscating contraband and picking up spills.
Displaying a warm paternal demeanor with kids, she makes a point of talking to them about their schoolwork and family. A daily ritual finds kids gathered around a mounted aerial photo of the Liberty hood, which Oberst turns into a lesson by having students identify their homes and area landmarks. Wherever she goes, whether eating with the kitchen staff or chatting-up teachers in the faculty lounge or sitting-in on meetings with the construction gang, she works her mojo as a cool schoolmarm for the new millennium who is down with today’s Generation Z hip-hopese. After all, one of her and husband Matt’s three sons is indie-rock musician Conor Oberst (known as Bright Eyes), who admires his mom’s compassion.
“She loves those kids so much. She wants to take care of them. She spent a good portion of her childhood not having very much, so she understands what it means to not have everything you need,” Conor explains. “Over the years there’s been kids she’s had special relationships with that she’s taken under her wing and had hang out with our family. She obviously has a great heart. She inspires me.”
Complicating the task of connecting with kids is the high mobility of families in the Liberty district — a mixed use ward of commercial-residential rental properties — that results in high student turnover. “Because we realize we’re not going to have them very long, we have to figure out ways to make kids feel welcome, comfortable and engaged,” she says. “We have to stay focused and be able, for however many days we have them, to make an impact.”
Oberst, who taught special ed before joining the administration ranks, makes clear just how much of a gap her students must overcome. “We don’t think many of our children have Internet access or even a computer or books in their home. For a lot of our kids we are their medical provider because families can’t afford a physician or lack health coverage. We’ve paid rent and utility bills and we’ve bought food for families in real desperate need.” Like at Jackson, Oberst has formed an emergency supplies cache to provide indigent families with everything from food and clothes to personal hygiene items. Liberty also acts as a referral center by directing families to social relief agencies.
Whatever obstacles kids face, Oberst refuses to lower student achievement goals because she feels that would send the wrong message.
“We can’t make excuses. We can’t say, Oh, this must be the reason why they can’t achieve. All that does is put people down and not encourage them to be what they can be. All of us have to believe in high expectations for kids” she says. “We need to always stay focused on what our real mission is and that is to make our kids competitive — to win as many awards as other kids. Recently, we took six children to the city-wide spelling bee and our children did very well. Two of them made it to the state competition. It’s all about where we think we can be. That we can have kids as competitive and that read as well as other kids. Our counselors tell them, ‘So what if English is not your first language? Don’t say you can’t, honey, look at what you can do — you’re speaking two languages. That’s even better…you’re even brighter.’”
The new Liberty
Attitude is everything with Oberst, who according to staffer Linda Daly infuses a “we-will-get-it-done” mantra at the school.
“She has such a positive outlook,” Daly says. “If you doubt you can do something she asks you to do, she’ll say, ‘Of course you can do that.’ Like anything else, there’s been growing pains, but Nancy will make it happen here, plain and simple.”
Oberst’s infectious enthusiasm, combined with her talent for networking, promoting and relationship-building, has brought in many benefactors, partners and extras for the school in terms of dollars, programs, in-kind services, supplies and opportunities. Her track record for eliciting support and for launching new schools in inner city environs, as she did at Jackson, is what led Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel to tab her for Liberty.
“Her expertise in working with children and families of diverse backgrounds and educational needs, her experience in starting up new schools and her passion and love for creating school-community partnerships is what made her an excellent candidate,” Mackiel says. Then there is the long-stated desire of Oberst, who enjoys the process of “creating a school culture” from the ground up, “to be in an urban setting. That’s where I want to be. I’m a sort of in-the-trenches person.”
Typical of her pro activeness, she turned what could have been a negative at Liberty, namely the lack of a gym and stage, into a positive by forging ties with the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People that allows students to access those facilities for recreation and drama.
With Liberty located amid a rough business district trafficked by street denizens and in what has become a major construction zone between the ongoing Drake Court renovation and work on the new school, safety issues have surfaced. She has largely quelled those concerns by working with the southeast Omaha police precinct and neighborhood associations to increase cop and adult safety patrols. As the new school begins taking shape, she intends on making the construction site an educational experience by leading groups of kids, in hard hats, to view the progress of Liberty’s future home.
Demographically-speaking, the future is now at Liberty, where diversity is not a buzz word but a simple reality. A tour is a multicultural immersion into an American microcosm — with brown, black, yellow and white faces commingling, colorful folk art hanging and Spanish and English phrases given life through singing, speaking and printing. Oberst embraces the heady brew of this ethnic stew. “I think it makes us all more worldly, more global, more able to really perceive the world as it is,” she says, “and to me that adds such richness and weaves such broader thought. We become bigger people. And I think that’s why diversity is a great experience for children to have. They learn to appreciate the differences in people.”
The next big thing for Liberty is the March 2004 opening of its new 600-plus student capacity building. In the neat symmetry of an old neighborhood reinventing itself, the warehouse Liberty occupies could see reuse as an arts-media center, the Drake Court may spur area renewal and the school should be an anchor of hope and a catalyst for change.
Oberst envisions attracting more students of middle-class parents, including those working downtown, thus bringing more economic diversity to the mix. “There’s a lot of excitement about the new building,” she says. “It will be more convenient than what we have here, but I think convenience is overrated, personally. It’s sort of fun to problem-solve.”
Always one to jones for challenges, she expects more as more students-in-need enroll. Despite “the great needs,” she says, “there’s also great joy” at Liberty. “Everyone just kind of gets pulled in.” Like the staffer who paid for a Statue of Liberty replica mounted on a pedestal outside the main offices. A fitting symbol for a school providing opportunity and for a headmistress embodying Lady Liberty herself.
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