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Amanda Ryan brings lifelong passion for education to school board

October 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Serving on the Omaha Public Schools board has got to be one of the more challenging non-paid positions around. First of all, you have to get appointed or elected. Then comes the reality of representing your subdistrict and the community as a whole as a voting member of the governing body that’s over the superintendent and the administration of a very large and diverse urban school district serving 52,000 students. Throw in the fact that public schools are something every one has an opinion about – often a highly critical one at that – plus the fact that education brings up emotionally charged issues surrounding children, families, resources and opportunities, and certain disparities involving them, and you have the makings for one tough job. Despite all this, Omaha Public Schools board member Amanda Ryan loves the work and the responsibility. Her service is part of a lifelong passion she’s had for education. Read my El Perico profile of her here.

Amanda Ryan brings lifelong passion for education to school board
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

When Amanda Ryan and her fellow Omaha Board of Education members couldn’t agree on hiring a new OPS superintendent last spring, it left that search in limbo and the community asking questions.

Now, this emerging young leader is gearing up with her colleagues for a new search sure to be closely followed by stakeholders and media outlets.

The Minden, Neb. native is a third generation Mexican-American on her mother’s side and identifies as a Latina. “That’s something that’s really important to me,” said Ryan, who is single with no children.

The 26-year-old is finishing work on her master’s in sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, just one of several markers she’s surpassed in her family.

“It’s interesting having to navigate being the first one in your family going to college,” she said.

Until winning the race for the Subdistrict 7 school board seat in 2016, she’d never run for or held public office before. She came on the board in a transition period that saw several new members elected to the body. The nine-member board selects the superintendent, sets policy, does strategic planning and oversees the broad brushstrokes of a diverse urban public school district serving 52,000 students, including many from migrant, immigrant and refugee populations.

Ryan feels her ethnic background, combined with her studies, her past experience working for Project Interfaith and her current job with the Institute for Holocaust Education, gives her insight into the district’s multicultural mosaic.

“I think all my education and life experience comes back to cultural understanding. With the wide array of students and staff we have in OPS. I think it’s important to remember those things.”

She sees a need for more minorities to empower themselves.

“In the political atmosphere we live in now, I think it’s really important people from marginalized communities express themselves and show that identity. That’s something I kind of ran on. It’s important kids see people similar to them doing important things so they realize, ‘Oh, I can be a leader, I can strive to do that as well.’ I think that’s something we need more of In Neb. We’re starting to have more leaders of color emerge, but it’s going to take some more time to do that.”

She credits former Omaha Public Schools board member and current Nebraska state legislator (District 7) Tony Vargas with emboldening her to run.

“Tony has been a very big influencer and mentor.”

Her decision to serve was intensely personal.

“Education has been such a huge motivating factor in my life. Everything I’ve done, every career aspiration I’ve had has to do with education. I can pinpoint teachers throughout my educational experience that have motivated me and helped me get to different places. I wanted it to pay it back somehow,”

Running for the board, she got some push-back for not having a child in OPS and for her youth. Regarding her age, she said, “I know during my campaign some people viewed it as a negative, but I think it’s a positive. It wasn’t that long ago I was in public school worrying about everything. I know some of these struggles these kids are going through.”

She has some goals for this academic school year.

“I am going to try in to be in the schools a lot more building relationships and rapport with teachers and administrators. I know morale is low. I think you can see that in board meetings when the teachers’ union and support staff come out and express these extreme frustrations.

“I want to do more community forum-listening sessions so that people are heard.”

In the wake of internal board contention that resulted in stalemates, members participated in a training session to improve communication skills and build unity.

“It was a bad experience for me starting off with all of that – the failed superintendent search, some of us wanting change in board leadership and others not wanting it. Then nobody wanting to work together to fix it. That was really hard.”

She said personality and idealogical differences – “I’m the furthest on the left politically on the board” – are being put aside.

“I do think it’s getting a lot better.”

She said disagreements are bound to occur and can even be healthy.

“Conflict isn’t bad. Out of conflict comes change and that change can be really good.”

About the new superintendent search, she said, “It’s something I really want to make sure we do right. We need to get good candidates and we need to select the right person. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing.”

Incumbent district chief Mark Evans is delaying his retirement a year to shepherd OPS until his successor’s hired and assumes the post next summer. Whoever fills that role, Ryan said, will have a full agenda.

“We’re going to be facing a lot of budget issues and we need somebody who’s going to be creative and progressive in how they deal with that. We are going to have to be very strategic to maximize as many different streams of revenue as we can. We need somebody who is politically savvy to work with state legislators and community organizations.”

Ryan knows something about making one’s own path.

“I’m ridiculously independent,” she said.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Nelson Mandela School Adds Another Building Block to North Omaha’s Future

January 24, 2016 1 comment

If you know me or follow my work then you know I have a heart for North Omaha.  I grew up there.  Went to school there.  For a complex set of reasons having to do with how my life unfolded the first 42-plus years and North Omaha’s role in that, I found myself drawn to writing about some of the dynamics there – past and present.  I still do. I am for anything that has the potential to do good there and when I heard about the new Nelson Mandela Elementary School going into the former Blessed Sacrament campus on North 30th Street it certainly caught my attention.  Here is a story i recently did for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) that gives a glimpse of the school through the perspective of two key people behind it, Susan Toohey and Dianne Lozier.

 

 

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The Nelson Mandela Way

New School Adds Another Building Block to North Omaha’s Future

Published in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

North Omaha may be reversing five decades of capital resources leaving the community with little else but social services coming in. Emerging business, housing, and community projects are spearheading a revitalization, and a new school with promise in its name, Nelson Mandela Elementary, is part of this turnaround.

The free, private school in the former Blessed Sacrament church and school on North 30th Street blends old and new. An addition housing the library and cafeteria joins the original structures. The sanctuary is now a gym with stained glass windows. Vintage stone walls and decorative arches create Harry Potteresque features. South African flag-inspired color schemes and Nelson Mandela-themed murals abound.

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The school that started with kindergarten and first grade and will add a grade each year is the vision of Dianne Seeman Lozier. Her husband, Allan Lozier, heads the Lozier store fixture manufacturing company that operates major north Omaha facilities. The couple’s Lozier Foundation supports Omaha Public Schools’ programs.

Their support is personal. They raised two grandsons who struggled to read as children. The odyssey to find effective remedies led Dianne Lozier to new approaches, such as the Spalding Method used at Mandela.

Mandela sets itself apart, too, using Singapore math, playing jazz and classical background music, requiring students to study violin, holding recess every 90 minutes, and having parents agree to volunteer. Mandela “scholars” take College for Kids classes at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.

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It’s all in response to the high-poverty area the school serves, where low test scores prevail and families can’t always provide the enrichment kids need.

Most Mandela students are from single-parent homes. Sharon Moore loves sending her son, Garrett, to “a new school with new ideas.” Eric and Stacy Rafferty welcome the research-based innovations their boy, William, enjoys and the opportunity to be as involved as they want at school. Moore and the Raffertys report their sons are thriving there.

“Parents are really getting into this groove of being here,” says Principal Susan Toohey. “It’s building a community here and a sense that we are all in this together.”

Community is also important to the Loziers.

“We’re just really connected here,” Dianne Lozier says. “Allan and I have really strong beliefs that the economic inequality in the country and north Omaha is a microcosm of a huge issue. It’s a fairness issue and a belief that, if we want it badly enough, we can make a difference.”

She and Toohey are banking that the school demonstrates its strategies work as core curriculum, not just intervention.

“I’m hoping by the end of the first school year here we’ll be able to compare students’ literacy against other places and show that children have developed stronger reading skills,” Lozier says. “Our longterm goal is that all kids will be grade-level proficient readers by the end of third grade.”

For Toohey, launching and leading a school in a high-needs district is appealing.

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“What an incredible opportunity,” she says. “Rarely do you get a chance to start a school from the ground up and pick everything that’s going to happen there and hire every person that’s going to work there. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but my heart has always been in urban education.”

In preparation for opening last August, she says, “I spent a year researching educational practices and curricula and developing relationships with people.” Her outreach forged partnerships with Metro, College of Saint Mary, the Omaha Conservatory of Music, The Big Garden, and others.

“We really want to be a model of what makes a school stronger, and I think having the community involved makes it stronger so it’s not working in isolation.”

Dianne Lozier, whose foundation funds the school with the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, is a frequent visitor.

NelsonMandelaSchool5“I help out with breakfast,” she explains. “I tie a lot of shoes. I get and give a lot of hugs.”

Lozier says her presence is meant to help “faculty and staff feel a little more supported—because this is hard. Every teacher and para-educator here, even the head of school, would say this is the hardest job they’ve ever had.”

Toohey says the difficulty stems from teaching a “very different curriculum” and “starting a culture from scratch. Families are getting to know us, we’re getting to know the families, and this is a really challenging population of kids. Many have not been in preschool programs that helped them moderate their behavior.”

Despite the challenges, Lozier says, “We have incredible families and kids.”

Drawing on the school’s inspirational namesake, each morning everyone recites “the Mandela mantra” of “Education is the most powerful weapon you can produce to change the world,” and “I will change the world with my hope, strength, service, unity, peace, and wisdom.”

“I hope all those things are what this community sees coming out of this school,” Toohey says, “and that our kids develop those qualities of grit and resilience so critical for success.”

Lozier adds that Mandela is a symbol of hope and opportunity.

“To accomplish the things we’re capable of,” she says, “we have to believe we can do that. It’s an opportunity to make improvements and get past impediments, to use internal strengths and be recognized for what you can bring.”

Visit nelsonmandelaelementary.org to learn more.

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Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book; Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming

September 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Ferial Pearson is an award-winning educator  highly regarded for her work with students who can use some extra TLC.  An experiment in kindness she launched in a metro Omaha classroom proved healing and habit-forming.  Pearson challenged her Avenue Scholars at Ralston High School to become Secret Kindness Agents performing anonymous good deeds at therir school.  To her surprise the students ran with the idea, taking it well beyond what she imagined.  The experience is told in a new book, Secret Kiindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World.

 

 

 

 

 

Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book; Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared online at http://www.thereader.com

 

When the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy happened Ferial Pearson searched for answers and hope. Her bullied young son provided both when he revealed being comforted by her felt better than staying mad.

That got Pearson, an award-winning local educator, thinking bullying and violence might be avoided through kindness. On Pinterest she found an envelope labeled “random act of kindness assignment.” That led her in 2013 to propose a Secret Kindness Agents project to her junior class of Avenue Scholars at Ralston High School.

Doing character-building projects is old hat for Pearson, who went by Mama Beast to her students’ Baby Beasts. She didn’t know how the teens, who’ve since graduated, would respond. All came from challenging backgrounds. Several identified as gay or lesbian and were the target of bullies. She’d hand-out weekly assignments for students to anonymously complete at school – from sitting with someone they didn’t know to picking up trash to writing notes of appreciation.

To her delight the students embraced the idea, even expanding on it, though for some it meant overcoming doubt or embarrassment. The project took on a life of its own and helped students heal, develop confidence and become like family.

“When you’re a teacher you’re used to kids saying, ‘Well, how many points is this worth?’ or ‘Why should I do this if I’m not going to get a grade?’ but they didn’t have any of that kind of a response. It was, ‘We want to go further then what you want.’ They’re great kids.”

The story of how the project inspired and impacted participants is told in the new book, Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World.
Pearson was joined by some former students – she now teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – at an August 31 signing at The Tea Smith, 78th and Dodge.

 

 

 

 

Pearson giving a TEDx talk on the importance of kindness projects. (Photo courtesy Ferial Pearson)

 

 

For the students who took on this let’s-show-a little-kindness role, the experience went well beyond a class project.

“For me, being a Secret Kindness Agent was so much more then doing the assignments each week,” Alyssa Schimbeck says. “I went out of my way to do things for others.

Things as simple as grabbing the door or picking up things people dropped. After everything was over I still found myself being kind to others.”

When Pearson followed up a year later she found the kindness habit ingrained in many Agents, some saying they routinely performed random caring acts, with no expectation of recognition or reciprocation.

“And they’re still doing stuff,” Pearson notes proudly.

Schimbeck describes being at a bowling alley when fellow Agent Lance Otto retrieved a toy bull from a claw machine and gave it to her. Later, she noticed a little girl try but fail to win the same toy, whereupon Schimbeck gave the girl hers.

“It was extremely heartwarming to know the little girl would love that bull more then I would and it brought back all the good feelings from the project. Taking part in it reminded me even the simplest act of kindness can change someone’s life.”

Mackenzie Carlson began as a project detractor.

“I thought it was a terrible idea. My first assignment was to write a letter to an administrator, so I naturally picked the one no one liked, who I just happen to adore. I told her although she is not the most popular…she is doing a great job. I received a letter back saying how much she appreciated the note and how it helped her get through a bad day.

That it meant a lot to hear a student give her positive affirmation.

“At that moment my view on the whole project changed. It made me believe our own pride stops us from helping others. I still have that letter. I read it when I want to believe there is no good left in the world.”

What Pearson calls “the ripple effect” took hold while the project was still in its infancy. The students decided they needed an oath to recite and borrowing from the Green Lantern they crafted one:

I accept wholeheartedly
To fulfill my kindly duties in the most secret way
No good act, no kindness shall escape my sight
Beware our kindness; S.K.A.s’ might!

The class adopted code names to protect anonymity. The students didn’t stop there.

“They found YouTube videos on acts of kindness, they started bringing in social justice songs and stories all tying into kindness. All of it inspired me, too. I was noticing acts of kindness, making sure I was thanking people,” Pearson says.

An entire ritual formed around each week’s assignment.

Then Caslyn Lange asked Pearson’s help to fulfill an act of kindness outside the regular ones. She wanted to give a note of appreciation and $25 to a student who never gets noticed. When Pearson asked staff for nominations, she got several names and donations, resulting in nine students each receiving a note, $25 and Taco Bell coupons.

As Lange wanted her happiness “spread out” by seeing people’s reactions, Pearson enlisted staff to summon the unsuspecting recipients to report to the main office. She and Lange were there to witness the looks of surprise, joy and gratitude on students’ faces.

Other students initiated their own kindness acts as well.

“Even though they were drawing assignments every week they were doing stuff on their own in addition to that,” Pearson says admiringly of her kindness entrepreneurs.

When WriteLife.com publisher Cindy Grady saw Pearson’s posts about the project striking a chord with students she encouraged a book. Grady published an earlier book by Pearson and her then-class at Omaha South High School entitled In My Shoes. Pearson was hesitant but her Ralston students were not. When Pearson suggested proceeds go to a charity, the students elected the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation knowing one of their own, Triston Herring, is diabetic.

“It was really cool to see them vote for JDRF because he was the one who nominated it. They understood what it meant to him. It was a huge show of support.”
Soon after Ralston Public Schools officials found out about the book assistant superintendent Kristi Gibbs authorized 500 copies be purchased.

“We overwhelmingly were impressed with the work of our students and staff,” Gibbs says, “and we wanted to share the project with the entire district to showcase teachers and students from Ralston Public Schools. Our goal is to share wonderful ideas and practices …and the amazing lengths students and staff take to develop a sense of community and belonging.

“The response has been overwhelming.”

After a district event at which Pearson and two Agents spoke they “got hugs, kind words and wonderful notes.”

Gibbs says some Ralston teachers are planning their own SKA projects. Two teachers with close ties to Pearson are planning an SKA project in the Bryan Middle School homeroom they share. Pearson also hears about teachers doing similar programs around the country.

The project lives on in other ways, too.

“It keeps coming back to me,” Pearson says. “I keep thinking about it every time something horrible happens again. That’s what keeps me from spiraling to where I just want to hide and keep my kids with me and never let them go out into the world. It reminds me there are good people out there, there are good things, there is hope.

“My Agents realized it feels better to be kind when you’re in a bad mood than it does to lash out. They are out there now having that ripple effect to make somebody else feel better.”

The book’s available online and at select bookstores.

 

 

 
 

Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent

August 15, 2014 Leave a comment

The Omaha Public Schools District deals with the diversity, needs, and challenges that any large urban school distrect does but it has had more than its share of infighting, controversy, and push back in recent years, much of it revolving around an administration deemed distant and unresponsive. As the following profile of new OPS Superintendnet Mark Evans indicates, there’s a new approach at the top, starting with him, as he has ushered in sweeping changes, much of them having to do with the district being more transparent and inclusive.  This change agent has led the development of a new strategic plan among many other transformative actions.  My piece is now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

Mark Evans, ©ketv.com

 

 

Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

When Mark Evans accepted the job of Omaha Public Schools superintendent in December 2012, he knew the mission would be immense in this sprawling urban district facing myriad challenges.

With 51,000 students spread out over 86 schools located in divergent environments ranging from inner city poverty to suburban affluence, the district responds to a wide spectrum of needs and issues. In his due diligence before starting the job he found the district’s good work often overshadowed by controversy and conflict due to an embattled school board and an aloof administration and no clear, unified vision.

Besides struggling to close the achievement gap of its majority minority student population, many of whom attend overcrowded, poorly resourced schools, the district reeled from internal rancor and scandal. Longtime district head John Mackiel exited with a $1 million retirement payout many viewed as excessive. His replacement, Nancy Sebring, quit when it came to light she’d exchanged sexually explicit emails with her lover during office hours at her previous employer. The often divisive OPS Board of Education and its handling of the matter drew sharp criticism that resulted in its president’s resignation. The perception was of deep rifts among OPS leaders who spent more time putting out fires than making systemic changes,

District elections turned over an almost entirely new board when Evans, who came to OPS from Kan,, officially started in 2013. The board has navigated a flood of changes that Evans has introduced in fulfilling a promise to shake things up and to address identified weaknesses in Neb.’s largest school district.

One of his first orders of business was conducting a needs assessment that sought broad community input. Feedback from parents, teachers, administrators and stakeholders shaped a new strategic plan for the district. The plan outlines strategies for better communication, more transparency and accountability, closer alignment of goals and greater classroom rigor. He reorganized district staff and created new positions in response to an expressed need for better support of schools. He’s overseen a new student assignment plan, a new hiring policy and a facilities wish-list for $630 million in upgrades.

 

 

Evans wants to stem the tide of students OPS loses to other districts, saying that’s difficult “if you don’t have room for them and many of our schools are just packed to the gills.” He adds, “You can’t compete with other districts unless you have facilities of similar caliber and we’re a real inequitable district today. About half our schools are beautiful facilities. The other half there’s a whole list of things that need to be worked on.” The facilities plan may go before voters as a bond issue.

He compares the task of changing the district’s direction to turning around an aircraft carrier at sea. As captain, he plots the course but he relies on a vast team to implement the necessary maneuvers. Evans began the turnaround even before he started.

“I didn’t start officially until July 1 but once I accepted the job I started visiting, collecting information, studying, so that when I did walk in the door I didn’t walk in cold. I walked in running because I’d already met staff and community. I’d purposely reached out. I had a very clearly laid out entry plan that described the things we were going to do.

“You have to have a real clear plan of how you’re going to implement this kind of stuff or you’re going to get lost and lose the prioritization. You’ve still got to do what you’ve been doing but do it better while doing these major lifts. So a lot of it has to do with prioritization and focus. A lot of it has to do with 60-plus hour work weeks.”

 

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Evans likes what he sees on the horizon now that OPS has aligned goals at every level.

“We’ve not had a clearly defined destination until today. What you had was some schools saying, ‘This is my destination, this is what I think is most urgent,’ and they just kind of did it on their own. The difference today is we’ve got clear alignment and we’re creating a system that creates support and accountability throughout. Everyone’s success is contingent upon someone else’s success.

“Accountability is now built in because it’s on paper, it’s in writing:

Here’s your goal for graduation rate, here’s your goal for NESA scores, here’s your goal for the achievement gap…”

He says strategies are being honed “to create that same level of accountability” at all 86 schools and in every classroom.

“That’s the whole restructure piece we created. Principals told us, ‘We want more help in our schools,’ so we shut down a department in the district office and put 30 people out in schools. Then we created four executive directors of school support positions. Each is directly responsible for 21 schools. We spent all summer training them. They’re former star principals who serve at the cabinet level with me and top level staff. They look at the alignment of the big picture goals to the school improvement plan and help principals improve that. Everyone is working towards the same goals.”

He says until the strategic plan there wasn’t a coherent, clearly expressed vision “of where we’re at, where we’re going and how we’re trying to get there,” adding, “I think what I feel best about is we’ve created more transparency and communication from the get go because we asked people what are the strengths and needs of our district. We did forums, we did surveys, we used different tools on our website. That was the start of our saying, ‘We’re going to ask you first and then we’re going to use what you tell us to help us see our critical needs.’ To be honest, I already knew we had critical needs but it can’t be my plan, it’s gotta be our plan, it can’t be my thoughts, it has to be our thoughts, and the truth is most of where we ended up at I would have ended up at, too.”

Engaging people in the process, he says, “is much more powerful” and staff take more ownership for “achieving specific targets.” The changes have been welcomed by some and met with push-back by others. He jokingly says response is “somewhere between embrace and fisticuffs.”

He’s well aware steering this unwieldy district in a new direction will take time given its sheer size.

“You just have to know it’s a big journey.”

He left a good thing at the Andover (Kan.) school district to make this journey.

“I had a great job, we were making progress and nationally recognized. I’d been there eight years and I could have finished my career there fairly easily.”

 

Evans delivers podcast as part of district’s efforts to be more transparent ©wn.com

 

 

He declined OPS overtures before throwing his hat in the ring.

“I knew what it was going to take to do something like this, so I said no twice. The third time they asked me to call some people I knew up here and I did and I heard positive things from them. They said to look beyond the headlines because the headlines had been pretty devastating. In my initial research I saw a mess beyond repair but the further I looked, and I still feel this way a year later, the mess has been at the 10,000 foot level – with the superintendent and the board. It’s about getting rid of the noise and distraction and chaos there.

“It wasn’t easy moving but at the end of the day I thought I could make a difference here. I know how to systemically build schools. Everywhere I’ve gone we’ve been able to have progress with kids because I understand how to bring a system together and to build teams and create collaborative decision makers.”

Making it easier for him to take the plunge was the community support he found here he didn’t find in Wichita, Kan., where he spent 20 years working in that city’s largest public school district.

“I’d spent most of my career in Wichita in a very similar setting – from the size of the schools to the number of employees to the demographics of the kids. But there is one significant difference and this is part of the reason I said yes – the community here is more supportive than Wichita is. This community still cares. People want OPS to be successful. There’s philanthropic support. There’s several foundations and individuals that care about OPS.”

Along with the deep pockets of the Sherwood and Lozier Foundations, OPS has relationships with mentoring initiatives like Building Bright Futures, Partnership 4 Kids and Teammates. Recognizing that many of its students live in poverty and test below grade level, the district partners with organizations on pre-K programs in an effort to get more at-risk children ready for school. New early childhood centers modeled after Educare are in the works with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Evans champions community-driven endeavors aimed at improving student achievement and supporting schools because no district can do it alone, especially one as large and diverse as OPS.

“Not only is it a big district, which creates some challenges, we have more and more free and reduced (lunch) students who qualify for the federal poverty line and we know that brings with it some extra challenges which is why we need community support. We have an increasing number of English as Second Language learners because we have a growing number of refugee families. These young people not only have language barriers but huge cultural barriers.

“We also have more young people coming to us with life challenges and neighborhood issues. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges. What we’re trying to do in many situations is fill in gaps. Organizations are critical because we’re filling in more gaps than we have before.”

 

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Those gaps extend to resources, such as high speed Internet access. Some kids have it at home and school, others don’t because their parents and schools can’t afford it.

He says the efficiencies possible in a corporate, cookie-cutter world don’t fit public schools because no two suppliers, i.e. parents, and no two products, i.e. students, present the same specs.

“We take whoever walks in the door and wherever they’re at is where we take them, whether they have special needs, language arts deficiencies or advanced skill sets. So school A and school B might look different, in fact they’ll inherently look different even though the summative assessments are still going to look the same with standardized testing and those kinds of things. We do have these summative tools that tell us something about whether a school is progressing or not.

“On the other hand, school A may be quite a bit different than school B because school A has 20 percent refugees with some very specific skill gaps and so how we support them and the grade level assessments tied to that curriculum are going to be a little different than school B which has no refugees, no ELA-ELL (English Language Acquisition-English Language Learner) students. Students in school B are prepared and ready for something much different than what students at school A are prepared and ready for. And so we demand that each school and each staff differentiates based on the needs of the young people. You do formative tests to get those early indicators of where are the skill gaps and how are we going to bridge those skill gaps.”

Differences aside, the same overarching goal apply to all schools.

“No matter where they’re at, what you’re looking for is progress in both groups. It’s gotta be about growth and progress, wherever they came from, whether from a refugee camp or a single-parent family or a household where both parents are college graduates. The day they walk out they’ve gotta be better than the day they walked in.”

Closing the achievement gap, he says, “is not just resources,” adding, “There’s a lot of things we can do with existing resources – that’s what we’re trying to do with alignment. For example, if we know of a specific strategy to improve math or language arts skills for kids below level why wouldn’t we train all our staff in that methodology for all our schools? We’d never done that. Instead, school A and school B would pick out whatever strategy they wanted. Some would buy a compute-based piece and some would do a tutorial piece at the Teacher Administration Center.

“There was no collaborative where educators said, ‘Which one has the highest return on impacting those skills?’ That just doesn’t make any sense. So now we’re attempting to scale those things. Part of it is getting out of our silos and scaling the quality and part of it is helping people develop the skill sets to know how to implement that, because not everybody knows.”

   Pam Cohn (Secondary)                                                                                        

 Melissa Comine (Elementary)

Dwayne Chism (Elementary)                                                                                                                                                                                           Lisa Utterback, Elementary

         

 

 

 

His executive directors of school support, including Lisa Uttterback, were principals at high performing schools. Evans has charged them with helping principals adopt best practices at their own schools.

“Lisa had great success in a high needs school (Miller Park). The test scores look good, there’s community partnerships and parent involvement. Kids are walking out the door with pride, ready for middle school. I took grief for taking her out of there but my thinking is she can have more impact by scaling her capacities to 21 schools. I need her to develop her skill sets to these principals she supports and I need the other EDs to do that with the leaders they support.

“The whole concept is to find where it’s working and make decisions collaboratively on best practices and then support the implementation. It doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight at Miller Park, but it did happen. So what happened? Well, you had good leadership. She (Utterback) figured out strategies that work.”

Other principals have done the same thing.

“We’ve got islands of excellence, we’ve got schools doing wonderful things, but then you’ve got other schools that for whatever reasons need more supports and until now there really wasn’t a methodology to try to recognize it and to provide that support.”

To achieve the greater classroom rigor district-wide the strategic plan calls for he says OPS is enhancing efforts started before he came to “retrain teachers on baseline skill sets for instructional practice.” He acknowledges “these are things they should have probably had in college but for whatever reason didn’t.”

In addition to raising performance, there’s a push to keep kids in school.

“In our district right now were at 77.8 percent graduation rate, which by the way is pretty high for an urban setting. But the truth is we’ve got to be higher than that, we’ve got to be over 80 and be moving toward 90, because if they don’t have a high school diploma today the research abundantly shows the opportunities in life are slim.

“Were trying to move 13 percentage points over the next five years,

which doesn’t sound like a big deal but it kind of is a big deal.”

Moving forward, he feels good about the school board he answers to.

“I would say our relationship’s good. They’ve had an enormous learning curve. I think their hearts are really good. I think they’re still struggling with the learning curve – heck, I am. They’re trying to wrap their arms around big stuff, I mean, we’re talking big numbers here – a $600 million facilities plan. We’re talking big information – a strategic plan, a student assignment plan, a new hiring policy. I think they’ve done amazing for the amount of time they’ve had to try to capture this.”

 

 

He says minus drama and acrimony at the top, OPS can thrive.

“We have great schools doing really good things. I thought and I still think if we could get rid of that noise and distraction and have an aligned, coherent system we may have one of the only opportunities in America where a community still values urban education, and they do here. There are very few communities like this.”

He feels good, too, about he and the board having come in together to provide a restart for the district.

“I think this community wanted and desired a feeling of a fresh start. I think people feel like they are seeing something different today than what they saw the last five years. I know we are doing things different because OPS hadn’t done a strategic plan in 10 years, they hadn’t done a bond issue in 15 years, they haven’t done a student assignment plan in many years, they hadn’t done a reorganization with a focus of supporting schools.”

Evans likes where his ship of a district is headed.

“We’ve got the pieces in place to get it lined up. We’re already doing    partnerships, we’re developing better classroom practices, we’re developing leadership for the schools and aligning them to very specific, collaboratively agreed upon goals. If we can pass this facilities plan we can give kids high speed internet access and safer, more secure environments.

“Without those kinds of pieces the ship’s going to go on the wrong course.”

Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School

July 5, 2012 3 comments

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.

Omaha Public Schools
Luisa Palomo

 

 

 

Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School       

©by Leo Adam Biga

Oriignally appeared 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.

The warehouse Liberty called home its first couple years
Liberty Facade
Liberty’s new home

 

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.”

Nancy Oberst
Ilka Oberst

 

 

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.”

Omaha South High Student Marissa Gomez Will Stand, Deliver and Be Heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition

April 8, 2012 2 comments

With Omaha gearing for its own citywide Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival and competition (April 15-22), I profile high school student Marissa Gomez, a talented writer and performer who will be representing with her teammates from Omaha South Magnet High School. She and her fellow teen poets are brave souls for how deep they plumb the depths of their beings. I recently met Marissa for this story.  I interviewed her and saw her perform one of her poems, and I was bowled over by her command of language and her, well, fairly refined poetic sensibilities. She has a maturity about her work and her life that’s beyond her years.  Whether she and her team win or lose at the event is beside the point because she’s well on her way to blazing a trail for herself that will get her to wherever she wants to go.

Marissa Gomez's Profile Photo
Marissa Gomez
Omaha South High Student Marissa Gomez Will Stand, Deliver and Be Heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

When South High Magnet School represents at Omaha‘s first citywide youth poetry slam, Louder Than a Bomb, starting April 15, junior Marissa Gomez will be a performer to watch.

Resident poet Katie F-S, who coaches South’s poetry slam team, has high praise for Gomez:LTaB takes its name and model from a teen poetry festival and competition in Chicago, where slamming was born. A popular documentary about the event has sparked a nationwide youth slam phenomenon.

“Marissa is a fantastic artist. Her writing is authentic and accessible, her performance is compelling, her poetic ear is sharp, and her sense of humor keeps all our work from ever feeling like a chore.”

With friends cheering her on the 16-year-old Gomez took second place in her school’s December slam.

“I let out whatever I had in me,” says Gomez, who rated high-fives and props, even from kids she didn’t know. “It was crazy because (before) these kids would see me in the hallway and just walk past, but once I slammed they heard me.”

 
LTaB co-founder Kevin Coval

 

 

On Fridays South teacher Carol McClellan runs an “open mic” in her creative writing class, where Gomez tries out her latest poems. On April 6 she stood to deliver with equal parts conviction and poise her poem, “For You, I Would Pray to God.” The piece, like all her work and that of her classmates, is deeply personal.

“At the beginning of the year when we first started doing open mics it was difficult expressing these raw emotions to people but as much as we’ve gotten to know each other it’s like we’re home. We just kind of go there and we open up,” she says “We open up things in writing that maybe we wouldn’t normally share.

“We break down in tears when we read sometimes and we’re all there for each other, we support each other, give a big round of applause, give a hug. It’s nice knowing there’s those people who I can read to and they’re not judging, they’re just telling me, ‘Hey, that’s good, I can’t believe you said that, I can’t believe you live with that, I can’t believe you actually told somebody that.'”

“Marissa’s work is fearless,” says Katie F-S..” There’s nothing she won’t say on a stage if she feels it’s important.”

Revealing her inner life to others is freeing and healing for Gomez. The turmoil she often expresses comes with the territory.

“Hey, I’m 16, I have a lot of problems. It’s great to relieve myself into my poetry.”

Her poems and those of her peers are not all angst-filled reels and rants about the pangs of youth. There’s plenty of humor, too. However, despair is a common refrain. “Who I Am” deals with the dark moods that once overtook her.

“I used to be really depressed,” she says. “and this poem is kind of telling people that’s the way I am. One of the lines in it is, ‘Would you still love me if you knew that on the inside my anger and hate it grew.’ I mean, it’s really just being honest that I’m not perfect. Everyone seems to think I’ve got it all going on so good, but again I’m 16, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on, and it’s not always working in my favor.

“Another poem called ‘One, Two, Three, Four’ counts the four biggest heartbreaks I’ve ever gone through. My poem ‘Dear Mom, I Want You to Meet Richard’ is about a co-worker of mine who was killed. I was writing poetry that day and I couldn’t think about anything else but him and I wrote about how I wanted my mom to meet him. My mom and I are best friends, we talk about everything. I got the call at work Richard had been murdered and we were all raw about it. I came home and my mom saw me kind of hit bottom. I just kind of broke down and she sat there with me and tried to help me get through it.”

Marissa Gomez performing at the Omaha South slam

 

 

Anything is fair game for a poem.

“I don’t know, my poems cover a lot of different things. ‘A Letter from Mistake’ talks about how I was an unplanned pregnancy and my parents were actually on the verge of splitting up and everything, and they stuck it out for me. One line is, ‘I hope you don’t blame me for everything and I hope you understand that even though I was a mistake I can still be something you want.’ I write a lot about my family.”

Her work sometimes refers to an older brother serving time in prison. They often exchange letters. Hers contain poems, his include raps.

At LTaB she expects family and friends to support her as always but she’s not hung up on the competition aspect.

“It’s not about points and placing. Yes, we would like to place, we would love to win, but when it’s all said and done if someone heard something and took something from what we wrote, then that’s great,” she says.

Having a platform for her voice is all she really cares about.

“When you’re doing poetry you’re letting yourself be heard. Everyone’s knowing that’s what you’re doing. You’re putting that out. It’s a great experience. I love performing.”

For Omaha slam details visit ltabomaha.org.

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha: Stand, Deliver and Be Heard

April 8, 2012 3 comments

Kevin Coval

 

 

The reverberation of Louder Than a Bomb, the Chicago slam festival, competition, and documentary, has reached Omaha and spawned a youth poetry slam here that runs April 15-22. As movements go, I must admit that while I’ve been vaguely aware of the growing popularity of poetry slams I’ve never attended one and I’ve only seen a few spoken word artists perform.  But it’s not like this is completely foreign territory to me because I have heard and seen my share of authors and storytellers do readings.  In the same vein, I’ve attended a few play readings, and so I do have a pretty fair notion for what this is about.  Of course, the competitive nature of slams sets this apart from the others.  Now that the youth poetry slam format is getting a major showcase in my hometown I find myself covering it, which brings us to the following post, which is essentially a preview of that event through the prism of what is driving this phenomenon of slams springing up around the country, even in my middle America.

NOTE: Check out my companion story on this blog about Omaha South High poetry slam team member Marissa Gomez.  And for all you poetry fans out there, this blog has stories about Ted Kooser, William Kloekforn, and any number of literary lights.

Matt Mason

 

 

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha: Stand, Deliver and Be Heard

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Poetry slams pit individuals or teams in bouts of spoken word street soliloquies that bring performers and spectators to tears and cheers the way performing arts and sports events do.

Omaha‘s long been home to a thriving adult slam scene, thanks to poet Matt Mason and the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC), who’ve lately cultivated youths by sending established resident and visiting poets into schools.

All that nurturing comes to a head at the April 15-22 Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival and competition, when some 120 students from 12 area high schools battle for poetic supremacy. It’s inspired by a movement based in Chicago, where slam began at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge and where Louder Than a Bomb originated with the Young Chicago Authors collective.

It turns out Omaha’s a spoken word hotbed itself.

“We have one of the best poetry communities in the country, the talent level is really through the roof,” says Mason. “We send a team to the national poetry slam every year and we do pretty well in the competition but mostly people come to respect the folks here as writers who do really interesting work. People from other cities come to the Omaha bouts to see what kinds of things we’re writing about and doing. We’ve got nationally recognized poets like Dan Leamen and Johnmark Huscher.”

South High resident poet Katie F-S coaches the school’s LTaB team.

Katie F-S

 

 

“We’re lucky in Omaha that as a crossroads for the nation we get a good amount of really quality touring poets coming through here,” says Mason. “We’re able to take advantage of that and make it even more appealing for them by paying them to run workshops or do shows for students.”

World champion slam poet Chris August came in March.

Mason long envisioned a metro youth poetry slam and began laying the groundwork for it with NWC’s work in schools. “We’ve been running a pilot program at South High called Poets on Loan that sends teams of poets into schools to give students a real taste of some of the best in the field,” he says. With help from those poet mentors South staged a December slam.

Things “accelerated” when a documentary about Chicago’s LTaB became a national sensation. It found a receptive audience at Film Streams. Support quickly surfaced for an Omaha slam modeled after LTaB Chicago. Poet and LTaB co-founder Chicago Kevin Coval visited Omaha in February at Mason’s invitation to do workshops. Mason joined a group of Omahans attending Chicago’s March slam at Coval’s invite. A local contingent may attend a Chicago summer slam institute.

 

 

A poetry slam workshop

 

 

Why all the buzz? South High poetry slam team members Marissa Gomez and Marisha Guffey say the power of spoken word is as simple as being “heard.”

Mason says it provides a safe, communal forum to unleash raw, personal stories and perspectives otherwise denied kids.

“No matter who we are, no matter if you come from a broken background or a well-to-do background, being a teenager is difficult, it’s insane, it’s brutal, it’s all sorts of different things,,” he says. “But something like poetry and this kind of expression of poetry especially is a way of channeling and processing and looking at your world in a different light that makes it come a little bit clearer and easier to deal with or to at least understand.”

“That kind of courage and commitment is necessary for great poetry to flourish,” says Katie F-S.

South High teacher Carol McClellan, who has several of the school’s poetry slam team members in her creative writing class, holds open mic sessions on Fridays.  “I’m often amazed at their candor and honesty. It’s been a gradual process as they developed trust and a willingness to open up in the class. From a teacher’s perspective, it’s extremely gratifying to witness.”

Coval says spoken word fills intrinsic needs.

“We as people just have a desire to be heard and to be seen, so we’re providing public space for young people to talk about things they care about – who they are, where they’re from, what are their dreams, what are their fears, their dissatisfactions. It’s a a very simple form, it’s a very ancient process.,” he says. “We’re doing the work of just standing up in a public space and telling stories. People have been doing that since before civilization, so I think this is in some ways a call back to that. It’s a call to reengage young people in their own process of education.”

Coval uses himself to illustrate the medium’s transformational power.

“I certainly was not the best student in the world, but once I started reading and writing on my own and I could follow my own interests I became hyper-literate, and in part that’s what hip hop taught me to do. I think that’s what the movement of hip hop poetry and spoken word is encouraging other young people to do.”

Marissa Gomez at the Omaha South High slam

 

 

South principal Cara Riggs, whom Coval and Mason give a shout-out for her support of spoken word, sees it as a powerful avenue to engage kids. “The format of a poetry slam is so hip and contemporary to our urban kids. It is a beautiful way for them to express themselves and the audiences are always so amazing in their feedback. The events are contagious to kids…they want more.” Besides, she says, “as a performing arts high school, I just thought it belonged here.”

She says South’s poetry slam had “kids coming out of the woodwork with their own hidden talents and supported by their classmates for their brave expression.”

Mason says schools should embrace spoken word because it promotes “creativity, writing, expression” and it “catches students’ interest and imagination.”

“I think specifically the model of Louder Than a Bomb is about engaging educational institutions around the idea of a team sport in some ways,” says Coval. “And so as opposed to just me as an individual poet coming to a place and reading my poem I’m coming representing a community. You’re going to hear what your city sounds like collectively from the voices of the young people that live here.”

Coval says Omaha like other cities is rife with segregation that divides people and LTaB “is an opportunity to come together across those boundaries that typically keep us from hearing one another.”

 

 

Mason joins Coval in suggesting spoken word can promote harmony, saying, “It can unite a city by bringing students from different parts of the community together in one room telling their stories and finding connections.” Youths interacting in this way, says Mason, realize “that no matter what community you’re from you face some of the same struggles and some that are completely different. Gaining an understanding of those struggles can really help you help our community.”

He hopes to grow the spoken word culture and encourage poets to stay here. “This community has so much talent with creative writing and not a lot of outlets. It’s about creating opportunities for students to explore writing in a fun and constructive way and giving established poets an opportunity to earn money as coaches.”

Yes, LTaB is a competition with points and prizes, but it’s mainly about affirmation and bragging rights. The mantra, says Mason, “is bring the next one up. It’s not about getting to the top of the mountain alone, it’s about helping everybody up. It’s a real pleasure to encourage and recognize young poets.”

Word.

Round One prelims are April 15 at the PS Collective, 6056 Maple Street. Round Two prelims are April 17-18 at the OM Center, 1216 Howard Street. The Finals are April 20 at the Harper Center Auditorium at Creighton University.

For schedule details visit ltabomaha.org.


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