Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo Displays a Talent for Teaching and Connecting
You don’t think of a master teacher as someone in her 30s but that’s exactly what Luisa Palomo of Omaha is. The kindergarten instructor at Liberty Elementary School has mastered the art and craft that is teaching and she is deservedly being recognized for it. The following two stories I did on her, in 2010 and 2012, appeared in El Percio newspaper shortly after she earned major education prizes in those respective years. The school she teaches at, Liberty Elementary, is one I am quite fond of. You’ll find several more articles by me about Liberty on this blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Maldonado Palomo has reached the top of her field as a 2010 Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award-winner.
The Gering, Neb. native is the grade leader at her Omaha school. She heads outreach efforts to parents, many of them undocumented, through the Liberty Community Council. She’s a liaison with partners assisting Liberty kids and families. The school engages community through parenting and computer classes, food and clothes pantries, and, starting in the fall, a health clinic.
Colleagues admire her dedication working with the school’s many constituents.
“She truly reaches the whole child — behaviorally, academically, socially, emotionally — and then steps beyond that and reaches the family too,” said Liberty Principal Carri Hutcherson. “We can count on her to do a lot of the family components we have at Liberty because she gets it, she has a heart for it, the passion, the drive, the focus, all those great things it takes. She’s an expert practitioner on so many levels.”
But there was a time when Palomo questioned whether she wanted to be a classroom teacher. While a Creighton University education major she participated in Encuentro Dominicano, a semester-long study abroad in the impoverished Dominican Republic. She described this immersion as a “huge, life-changing experience” for reawakening a call to service inherited from her father, Matt Palomo.
“My dad has spent his whole life doing for others,” she said. “He comes from a migrant worker family. He gave up a college scholarship to work so he could help support his nine brothers and sisters. From the age of 15 he’s been involved with the Boy Scouts as a scout leader. He just celebrated his 45th year with the Boy Scouts of America.
“He’s always worked with underprivileged youth, Hispanic or Caucasian, in our small town. He’s such a role model for so many young boys who’ve gone through that program. He has such a sense of what’s right and wrong and he’s instilled that in my brother and sister and I.”
In the Dominican Republic Luisa felt connected to people, their lives and their needs.
“You work, take classes and live with families,” she said. “You learn the philosophy and the why of what’s going on. You really learn to form relationships with people, which isn’t something that always comes naturally to Americans. Here, it’s always more individualistic and what do I need to do for myself, whereas in a lot of other countries people think about what do I need to do for my community and my family.”
The communal culture was akin to what she knew back in Gering. When she returned to the States she sought to replicate the bonds she’d forged. “I came back wanting that,” she said. Unable to find it in her first teaching practicums, she became disillusioned.
“I was ready to quit education and my advisor was like, ‘Nope, there’s this new school in a warehouse and Nancy Oberst is the principal and you’ll meet her and love her, give it a shot before you quit.’ So I went there and loved it and stayed there. Nancy and I just clicked and she hired me to teach kindergarten.”
Liberty opened in 2002 in a former bus warehouse at 20th and Leavenworth. In 2004 it moved into a newly constructed building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Oberst was someone Palomo aspired to be like.
“She’s so dynamic and such a good model,” said Palomo. “She has such a vision for how a school should be — it shouldn’t be an 8:30 to 4 o’clock building. Instead it should be a community space where it’s open all the time and families come for all kinds of different services, and that really is the center of the community.”
Oberst and many of Liberty’s original teachers have moved on. Palomo’s stayed. “We have a core group of parents who have been with us from the old building and they know I’m one of the few teachers who have been here all eight years,” she said. “They’ve seen what I do. They know Miss Palomo is the one who spent the night in the ER when Jose broke his arm and started a fund raiser when Emiliano’s house burned down. They know me and they trust me and they let me into their homes.
“They know I’m coming from a good place.”
She said one Liberty family’s “adopted” her and her fiance. The family’s four children will be in the couple’s fall wedding.
Hutcherson said Liberty is “the hub” for its downtown neighborhood and educators like Palomo empower parents “to feel they’re not just visitors but participants.” Whether helping a family get their home’s utilities turned back on or translating for them, she said Palomo and other staff “step out of the walls of this building to get it done.” For two-plus years Palomo mentored a girl separated from her parents.
“It’s that whole reaching out and meeting our families where they’re at,” said Palomo.
Liberty’s holistic, family-centered, “do what’s best for the child” approach is just what she was looking for and now she can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I really love it here. We’re not just a teacher in the classroom. We do so much to really bring our community into our school so our families can come to us for all these different activities and for help with different needs. It’s one of those things where we let them into our lives and they let us into theirs, and we’re both better for it.”
She’s proud to be “a strong Hispanic” for kids who may not know another college graduate that looks like them.
Palomo recently earned her master’s in educational administration from UNO. Sooner or later, she’ll be a principal. Hutcherson said when that day comes “it’ll be a great loss to Liberty but a great gain for the district.”
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Liberty’s Luisa Palomo Named Nebraska Teacher of the Year
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
In only two years Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Palomo, 30, has won Nebraska’s top teacher recognition honors. In 2010 she was named an Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher, an award given top Omaha Public Schools educators, and last November she was selected Nebraska Teacher of the Year.
The Gering, Neb. native applied for the state honor at the prodding of OPS colleagues. She completed the required essays and interviews but held out little hope of winning.
“I felt there’s no way they’re going to choose me because to be quite honest I am young and I’ve only taught for a short amount of time compared to a lot of other teachers of the year. And while I’m passionate about early childhood education I know it’s not on the forefront of everybody’s brain when they think about education.”
She was motivated to put her name in the running because the winner gains a stage and she wanted a platform on education.
“By getting this award you get so much more of an audience,” she says. “By having this title behind my name now finally people will listen to me. I kind of applied for the award thinking this – that I would have a title that would give me a foot in the door.”
As expected, she’s in high demand as a speaker and she says she’s eager to present on “topics I feel really passionate about.”
“What I want the media and the public to know is that there’s so many good things happening in education. The media’s focus on bad news stories is really not an accurate reflection of what’s happening in schools, so I kind of want to put that message out there.
“What I’ll be talking to teachers about is a shift in how we run our schools. Instead of it having to be a traditional 9-to-3, nine months out of the year model, we really need to shift that mentality to what is best for kids. For some kids the traditional school year works beautifully, but for other kids, like the ones I work with in my downtown school, it’s so much more beneficial to them to have an extended day where they’re able to come in early and stay late and have educational opportunities, and to attend summer school through the first week of July.”
She advocates that schools adjust to meet students where they are.
“There doesn’t need to be a one size fits all model for education. Instead it’s what works for the kids you’re serving. It may mean doing what Liberty does, which is coordinate with all these community services to offer Our Completely Kids program. It opens our building at 7 in the morning and closes it at 6 at night.
“Liberty employs this full service community school model where it says if families trust the school, bring in the services. Why send families across town? Why not have a doctor in your school? Liberty allows any of us as teachers to accompany our families through so much of their lives, and we’re better for it and our families are better for it and the children are better for it. Our kids are better adjusted and they’re more connected to school.
“There’s so many different ways to meet the needs of our kids, we just have to be open to accepting it.”
She bristles at the notion a teacher’s duties stop when the last school bell rings.
“I hear some teachers say, ‘But my job is not to be a social worker,’ but really it is because your job is to look out for what’s best for children.”
For Palomo, teaching is about making lives better.
“All kids have a path and the teachers they have in the classroom determine where that path is. There’s so much literature that talks about the effectiveness of quality teachers. If I’m able to reach these kids and get them to love learning I’m changing the outcome of their path. To be a transformational leader is understanding your job is so much more than teaching phonics or number recognition.”
She approaches the school day as a “very purposeful” adventure in which she “guides and encourages” the learning process. “I never talk at our children but with our children and kind of explore with our kids as they learn. It’s a balance of what’s developmentally appropriate and what’s engaging for our kids.”
During 2012 she’ll be meeting fellow teachers of the year at national education events. The first was in Dallas, Texas in late Jan. Upcoming events are in Washington D.C., Huntsville, Ala. and New York-New Jersey. She says she enjoys the prospect of making “connections with people all around the country that I’ll be able call on when I have questions or when I need support.”
She’s already getting to know past Nebraska Teachers of the Year, who work as a cohort on education initiatives. “It’s expected as a teacher of the year you’re continually giving back to the education community,” she says. That’s fine with Palomo since she sees her calling as a service mission. The recognition only confirms that. “This award really makes me think that not only did I choose the right career but I must be doing things right.” She also sees it as validation that quality education happens in inner city schools.
She intends on being an administrator one day but for now is content where she is.
“I want to be in the classroom for a chunk of my career before I move on. I feel like I learn so much every year by being in the foxholes. I work with parents, students, teachers on a daily basis, and it’s very real. I’m not tied up in administrative duties or policy, I’m working with who I want to have the most effect on.”
- Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Awards (omaha.com)
- Teachers from Iowa, Neb., to be celebrated in DC (thegazette.com)