Archive for July 24, 2012

Project Improve aims to make best of bad situation with illegal immigrant detainees

July 24, 2012 2 comments

No matter how you feel about the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S. you have to sympathize with parents whose only crime is living here without proper documentation who have the misfortune of being arrested and then detained in jail, all while awaiting deportation, and in the meantime finding themselves separated from family, including children.  We’re not talking about identity theives.  We’re talking about people holding down jobs and raising families and abiding by laws except for that murky no-man’s land called a border they breeched.  For years the nation looked the other way at what was essentially an open border but now it’s intent on closing that border and throwing back over it anyone who’s managed to cross it illegally, even those who’ve made productive lives for themselves and their families in America.  It’s cruel and unusual punishment that only adds to social disruption and incurs extra costs without really solving anything.  It’s purely a power play by the haves against the have-nots.  This is a story about a small program through the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that offers Spanish-speaking detainees some educational support services during their incarceration and that tries to provide a platform for parents to connect with their children.


Project Improve aims to make best of bad situation with illegal immigrant detainees

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico


With immigration enforcement a national priority, jails are filled with individuals whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.

Out of sight, out of mind behind bars these civil offenders risk being lumped in with the habitually criminalized. Advocates say it’s all too easy to forget many detainees have been law-abiding, gainfully-employed residents. Many are parents. Once arrested and jailed they face separation from loved ones and home.

Being severed from family while the legal process drags on poses challenges the criminal justice and penal system are not necessarily well prepared to address without expert intervention.

With no programs serving its growing population of Spanish-speaking detainees, Douglas County Department of Correction officials asked the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for help in early 2009. OLLAS met with staff and detainees as a first step in creating a detainee-centered program.

Claudia Garcia, a UNO assistant professor of foreign languages, says she and university colleagues attended jail orientation and conducted two focus-groups with detainees in spring 2009 in order to assess concerns and needs.

“The situation of women, many terribly depressed because of being separated from their young children, was especially pressing for some jail authorities, who were sympathetic to these detainees’ situation,” says Garcia.

Beginning in the summer of 2009 OLLAS faculty launched Project Improve as a community service initiative at the Douglas County Correctional Center, 710 South 17th Street. The effort is focused on helping detainees discuss their predicament, connect with family and become empowered through education. The intent is to provide clients a non-punitive advocacy and support outlet.

Faculty engage detainees in writing, reading and discussion activities designed to promote introspection and self-expression. Garcia says on average 16 men and 11 women participate per session.

“Personally, what strikes me the most about the Latino detainees, especially the women, is their strength and good attitude, and also their ability to give each other support,” Garcia says. “I think we provide a space that allows them to reflect, process and articulate their personal journeys.”

OLLAS director Lourdes Gouevia says, “The inmates express their stories through various media and record messages and stories for their children.” UNO assistant professor of education Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni  says participants appreciate the opportunity to respectfully own their own experience: “This is a time for them to have an avenue to be themselves. They’ve told us we treat them with dignity, we treat them like human beings, we don’t look at them like they’re incarcerated.”

The experience has made an impression on the academics.

“It’s been a very intense and enriching learning process,” says Garcia, adding that it’s “one thing is to have an intellectual knowledge” of these issues “but it’s very different to talk, interact and become emotionally affected by the individuals going through these hard times. For me, the big eye-opener is the definition of criminal. Many detainees we work with have violated immigration law, but they are certainly not dangerous criminals. Most are just mothers and fathers who have tried their best to give their families a better life, and have been working without proper documentation.

“Most who come to our sessions are really engaged in a process of self-growth, using this time in jail to re-visit their own lives. They appreciate the opportunity to learn and be better people when they get out. It’s really a very moving experience.”

Brignoni says “it saddens us” that most of the detainees are presumably awaiting deportation. “We get a new group all the time because they don’t stay there.”

After a prolonged break, the project is presuming monthly sessions in December,

Garcia is impressed by DCDC’s embrace of Project Improve.

“It’s been a very welcoming institution. DCDC understands the importance of educational and support programs for their detainee population, and are very proud to have a diversity of volunteers go there and share time and knowledge with the detainees. The officers in charge of educational programs are very helpful and very clear.”

Maria Walinski-Peterson: Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award winner follows her heart

July 24, 2012 2 comments

A lot of negative things are said about the state of American public education but most schools and teachers do a fine job within the parameters they’re given.  If you ever find yourself despairing about the situation give this profile of a master teacher a read and you’ll likely feel a bit better about the caliber of people teaching our kids.  Maria Walinski-Peterson may not be average or typical but she’s certainly not an aberration.  The Omaha South High School social studies teacher is a product of the very system (Omaha Public Schools district) and school she teaches in.  Yes, she’s won some major awards and been recognized as a stellar classroom instructor, but she’s one of many thousands of outstanding teachers fighting the good fight who’ve learned under great teachers before them and are influencing great teachers ahead of them.


Maria Walinski-Peterson:

Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award winner follows her heart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico


When Omaha South High Magnet School social studies teacher Maria Walinski-Peterson thinks about her 2011 Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award, she’s reminded of master teachers she had as a student there. Teachers like Sally Fellows and Jim Eisenhardt.

“They were models of teachers who knew what they were talking about, who had some energy, some enthusiasm, and who made me want to pay attention. They had a kind of charisma. I wanted to do a good job for them,” says Maria.

“That’s a pretty tall order to get that breadth and depth. The fact that anybody thinks I have even a small piece of that…” she says, her voice trailing off. “When that call came about the Alice Buffett, I thought, Really? I’m not Sally Fellows yet, I’m not Jim Eisenhardt yet, I’ve only been doing this nine years, this is too soon.

“But I learned from the best, and I knew if I’m going to truly follow this vocation I have to give these kids something they’re not going to necessarily get from somebody else.”

The recognition and the $10,000 that come with the award means raised expectations.

“There are people looking at me like, ‘Really, you got a Buffet? What’s so great about you?” The pressure is enormous. Other people are like, ‘Oh, just relax and enjoy it.’” To which her response is, “Are you freaking kidding me?’ If students and colleagues have said you’re one of the best in your profession — guess what? — I have to be one of the best. I don’t get to slack off. People are watching.”

She may feel added pressure, she says, “because I’m relatively young. You don’t usually get a lifetime achievement award until you’ve put in a lifetime.”

There’s pressure, too, teaching where she once attended school, but she couldn’t see herself working anywhere else.

“I lobbied diligently to be here. After I got my teaching certificate and master’s degree at Drake University, I was sending emails and calling people back here saying, ‘Make sure there’s a spot for me — I need to student teach in this building, so that I can teach in this building.’ This place gave me so much. It’s simply payback. It’s a calling and I just knew this is where I had to be.”

If anything, her loyalty has only deepened. She says she recently declined “a cushy gig” at a suburban school to stay at South. In light of what happened last fall, she can’t imagine ever leaving. Days from being married, her best friend and intended maid of honor, fellow South social studies teacher Stacey Klinger, died when a truck struck her as she crossed the street in front of school.

 Omaha South High School

Maria will never forget how students consoled her. “These kids literally and figuratively put their arms around me and said, ‘We’re here for you. What do you need?’ We bonded in a way you can’t bond in any other way. We have that history together. They have seen me at a level of humanity they don’t see too many teachers in.”

As an Academic Decathlon and African-American History Challenge coach she’s bonded with yet more kids. “I just know we’re always going to be like this,” she says, clasping her hands together. “I love those people and they love me back.”

The daughter of a retired Lutheran-Episcopal-Orthodox Christian priest, Maria was born in upper New York state. She likes saying she was at Woodstock, where her mother Joan was pregnant with her in 1969. At age 11 Maria moved with her family here when her father was assigned the pastorship at St. Martin of Tours Episcopal Church across from South.

She was expected to attend private school, but she preferred the more diverse public school experience afforded by South.

“I wanted to be in the real world,” she says.

This teacher of human geography loves the cultural melting pot there.

South Omaha’s always had working class diversity and it’s always been an immigrant landing strip,” she says, “but now those immigrants are coming from other places than just western and eastern Europe. They’re coming from the Sudan. We’ve got a lot of Karen kids from Burma. We’ve obviously got a lot of Central and South American kids.

“South High is the most ethnically diverse high school in Nebraska. In any given class period I’ve got that rainbow looking right back at me. We have a microcosm of the planet right here.”

For her, geography is more than a subject. “It’s the world,” she says.“Geography is life.”

As teachers, she says she and her colleagues are “in the business of building people.” The art and science of reaching today’s kids with their shorter attention spans and passive learning habits can be frustrating.

“There are many days when I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this, this is hard, I’m going to quit,’ and my kids all just laugh and go, ‘You’re a lifer.’ Even my husband Glenn says, ‘If you told even one of those kids you’re going to give up teaching, the look on their face would change your mind like that,” she says, snapping her fingers.

She knows he’s right. Besides, she loves “the creativity” of lesson planning. Then too, she says, “I’m really not good for anything else. This is all I know.. so I guess I better stick it out.”

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