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“Nebraska Methodist College at 125: Scaling New Heights”

September 15, 2016 Leave a comment

Happy to report that I have a new book being published this fall–

“Nebraska Methodist College at 125: Scaling New Heights”

It is the history of this highly respected and fast growing private college of nursing and allied heatlh located in Omaha. The book was written by NMC president and CEO Dennis Joslin and myself. We are proud to have told the story of the school’s remarkable ascent in a hardbound volume that we hope appeals not only to NMC alums, faculty, staff and donors but to the wider Methodist and Nebraska healthcare community as well.

The NMC story is one of vision, commitment, resiliency, courage amd innovation. Known for most of its history as Nebraska Methodist School of Nursing, the instution established itself early on as a leader in nursing education. From the start, its graduates have been highly sought-after. But as healthcare underwent great changes, schools of nursing conferring diplomas were losing standing and colleges of nursing granting degree were becoming the preferred model. The institution’s crucible test came in the 1980s. Many private nursing schools were closing their doors, either unable or unwilling to transition into colleges. NMC looked past the challenges of small enrollment, less than ideal facilities and the task of going from a school to a college to embark on the first of many ascents. The new heights scaled these past few decades have dramatically grown the student body, added many programs and degrees, built a new campus and positioned NMC as a leader in community engagement.

 

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Now, a century and a quarter after its founding, NMC has arrived at an historical peak that affords a grand view of the college’s rich past, dynamic present and  promising future. “Nebraska Methodist College at 125” charts the course of this persistent journey in excellence. Just as its partner Nebraska Methodist Hospital delivers the meaning of care, Nebraska Methodist College teaches the meaning of care. NMC graduates practice their nursing and allied health professions near, far amd wide. They are part of a rich legacy of students, facult, staff and alums who have contributed to the college’s success. Their voices and stories comprise a good share of the book.

To order “Nebraska Methodist College at 125,” contact:

Angela Heesacker Smith
Director of Alumni Engagement, Nebraska Methodist college
402-354-7256 or Angela.HeesackerSmith@methodistcollege.edu>

 

You know, it’s a funny thing about writing. There was a time when I could never have imagined myself writing books – this despite the fact that for many years I was one of the principal practitioners of long form journalism in this town. As I have come to find out, if you can write a compelling narrative in a 4000 to 6000 word newspaper or magazine article, then it’s really not much of a stretch to do the same in a 75,000 to 100,000 word manuscript.

Book projects are an increasing part of my writing life and career. The book projects I have done thus far have come to me in a variety of ways. I have colleague David Bristow to thank for recommending me to NMC for what became “Nebraska Methodist College at 125.” Some of my other books came as a result of journalism assignments I did.

“Nebraska Methodist College at 125” marks my fifth book. The others are:

“Open Wide: Dr. Mark Manhart’s Journey in Dentistry, Theatre, Education, Family, and Life”

“Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores”

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

“Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden”

I have a new edition of the Alexander Payne book out right now.

Visit my Amazon author’s page at:
https://www.amazon.com/Leo-Adam-Biga/e/B00E6HE46E

If there is a nonfiction book you want written about yourself, your family, your business, your creative work, then drop me a line here or via email at leo32158@cox.net or by calling 402-445-4666.

The Silo Crusher: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 27, 2016 2 comments

Full disclosure: When the University of Nebraska at Omaha unceremoniously dropped the school’s highly successful football and wrestling programs five years ago, I took out my disappointment and frustration in some posts that might have read like rants. The posts were not written as a journalist trying to be objective but as a UNO grad, former UNO sports information staffer and lifelong Omaha resident who had grown close to both programs through my work as a journalist. My posts were my personal opinion and presented as such. The only time I wrote anything about those events in my role as a journalist was in a New Horizons cover story I did on Mike Denney in the immediate aftermath of it all. My siding with Denney definitely bled over into the story and I make no apologies for that because it was a passionate and honest response to a traumatic severing. My sympathies were entirely with Denney and I let him have his say, though he was actually quite tame in his comments, even though he was deeply hurt by what happened. I do regret not getting athletic director Trev Alberts and chancellor John Christensen to comment for the story, though I think I tried. If I didn’t, well then that’s my bad. As fate would have it, I was recently assigned to do a piece on the state of UNO athletics five years after those events and this time around the assignment called for me to tell the story from UNO’s point of view, which meant interviewing Alberts and Christensen. I must say that after talking to those two men, particularly Alberts, I have a mcuh better appreciation and understanding of why the deicison to eliminate the two sports was made and just how wrenching it was for them to make. I believe the rationale they lay out today is more telling than what they communicated then, but that may be a function of my not wanting to hear what they said before. I am sharing here the new story that I did for Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s featured in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue.

 

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The Silo Crusher

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit baxterarena.com for more information.

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Girls Inc. makes big statement with addition to renamed North Omaha center


Girls Inc. of Omaha has added to the heavy slate of north side inner city redevelopment  with a major addition that’s prompted the renaming of its North O facility to the Katherine Fletcher Center. Though the center’s longtime home, the former Clifton Hill Elementary School building, remains in use by Girls Inc. and is getting a makeover, the connected 55,000 square foot addition is so big and colorful and adds so much space for expanded programs and new services that it is the eye candy of this story. Here is a sneak peek at my story for the June issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) about what the addition will mean to this organization and to the at-risk girls it inspires to be “strong, smart and bold.” The $15 million project is another investment in youth, opportunity and community in North O on top of what has already happened there in recent years (NorthStar Foundation, No More Empty Pots, Nelson Mandela School) and what is happening there right now (Union for Contemporary Art getting set to move into the renovated Blue Lion Center, the North 75 Highlander Village under construction, the three new trades training buildings going up on the Metro Fort Omaha campus). But so much more yet is needed.

 

 

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North Omaha Girls Inc. makes big statement with addition

New Katherine Fletcher Center offers expanded facilities, programs

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the June 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A poor inner city North Omaha neighborhood recently gained a $15 million new investment in its at-risk youth.

The Girls Inc. center at 2811 North 45th Street long ago outgrew its digs in the former Clifton Hill Elementary School but somehow made do in cramped, out-dated quarters. Last month the nonprofit dedicated renovations to the old building as well as the addition of an adjoining 55.000 square foot structure whose extra space and new facilities allow expanded programming and invite more community participation. The changes prompted the complex being renamed the Katherine Fletcher Center in honor of the late Omaha educator who broke barriers and fought for civil rights. The addition is among many recently completed and ongoing North O building projects worth hundreds of millions dollars in new development there.

This local after school affiliate of the national Girls Inc. takes a holistic approach to life skills, mentoring, career readiness, education enrichment and health-wellness opportunities it provides girls ages 5 through 18. Members are largely African-American, many from single parent homes. Others are in foster care. Young girls take pre-STEM Operation SMART through the College of Saint Mary. Older girls take the Eureka STEM program through the University of Nebraska at Omaha. There are also healthy cooking classes, aquaponics, arts, crafts, gardening, sports, field trips and an annual excursion outside Nebraska. Girls Inc. also awards secondary and post-secondary scholarships.

The addition emphasizes health and wellness through a gymnasium featuring a regulation size basketball court with overhead track, a fitness room, a health clinic operated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a space devoted to yoga, meditation, massage and a media room. Amenities such as the gym and clinic and an outdoor playground are open to the public. The clinic’s goal is to encourage more young women, including expectant and new mothers, to access health care, undergo screenings and get inoculations.

Dedicated teen rooms give older girls their own spaces to hang out or study rather than share space with younger girls as in the older facility. Multi-use spaces there became inadequate to serve the 200 or so girls who daily frequent the center.

“I think we’ll see more teens in our programs because this expansion separates them from the younger girls and provides more opportunities to get drawn into our programs,” says executive director Roberta Wilhelm. “They may start as drop-ins but we foresee them getting involved in the more core programs and becoming consistent members. So, we think we’ll impact more girls and families.”

A big, bright, open indoor commons area, the Girls Hub, is where the brick, circa 1917 historic landmark meets the glass and steel addition.

“The design team showed great respect for how to best join the two buildings and for the importance of this space and for the social aspects of how girls gather and interact,” Wilhelm says.

The impressive, brightly colored, prominently placed new addition – atop a hill with a commanding view – gives the organization a visual equivalent to its “strong, smart and bold” slogan.

“It’s a big statement,” says director of health access Carolyn Green. “It speaks loudly, it brings awareness, it turns heads. People can’t wait to come through and see what is all in here.”

 

Roberta and Mychael

 

Before the open house program director Emily Mwaja referenced the high anticipation. saying, “I’m ready, the girls are ready, we’re ready for everything.”

Girls Inc. member Desyree McGhee, 14, says, “I’m excited for the new building. I feel it’s giving us girls the opportunity for bigger and better things and bringing us together with the community. I just feel like a lot of good things could come from it.” Her grandmother, Cheryl Greer, who lives across the street, appreciates what it does for youth like Desyree and for the neighborhood. “It’s just like home away from home. I have seen her grow. She’s turning into a very mature, respectful young lady. I think Girls Inc. is a wonderful experience for these girls to grow up to be independent, educated adults. The center is a great asset for them and the community.”

McGhee says Girls Inc. empowers her “to not just settle for the bare minimum but to go beyond and follow your dreams. It’s really given me the confidence to thrive in this world. They really want you to go out and leave your mark. I love Girls Inc. That’s my second family.”

Girls Inc. alum Camille Ehlers, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, says caring adults “pour into you” the expectations and rewards youth need. “It was motivating to me to see how working hard would pay off.” She says she felt called to be strong, smart and bold. “That’s what I can make my life – I can create that.” Mentors nudged her to follow her passion for serving at-risk students, which she does at a South Side of Chicago nonprofit. Denai Fraction, a UNL pre-med grad now taking courses at UNO before medical school, says Girls Inc. nurtured her dream of being a doctor. Both benefited from opportunities that stretched them and their horizons. McGhee is inspired by alums like them and Bernie Sanders National Press Secretary Symone Sanders who prove anything is possible.

Wilhelm says, “Girls Inc. removes barriers to help girls find their natural strengths and talents and when you do that over a period of years with groups of girls you’re helping affect positive change. A lot of the girls are strong and resilient and have chops to get through life and school but if we can remove some barriers they will go so much farther and be able to accomplish so much more. We see ourselves in that business.

“If you help a girl delay pregnancy so she’s not a teen mom, it’s a health outcome, an education outcome, a job outcome, it’s all of those things, they’re all tied together. If you are feeding girls who are hungry that impacts academics and also impacts growing bodies. I do think our holistic model has become more intentional, more focused. We use a lot more partners in the community who bring expertise, We are all partners with parents and families in lifting up girls. The Girls Inc. experience is all these things but the secret sauce is the relationships adult mentors, staff and volunteers cultivate with youth.” Alums come back to engage girls in real talk about college, career and relationships. The shared Girls Inc. expereince creates networking bonds.

She says support doesn’t stop when girls age out. “Even after they graduate they call us for help. We encourage that reaching out. They know there’s someone on the other end of the phone they can trust.”Assistance can mean advice, referrals, funds or most anything.

 

Girls Inc. of Omaha

 

Everyone from alums and members to staff and volunteers feel invested in the bigger, bolder, smarter Girls Inc.

“It’s not just about the million dollar donors,” Wilhelm says. “We all have ownership in this. I always tell the girls, ‘The community invests in you for a reason. They want you to create a better future for yourself, to be a good student, to focus on education, to live healthy, to make good choices. They think you’re worth this investment.'”

She says there’s no better investment than girls.

“Girls make decisions when they grow up for their families for education and health. To the extent you can educate girls to make wise decisions and choices you really do start to see cycle breaking changes. How you educate girls, how you treat girls, how you invest in girls matters over time and we’re a piece of that, so we’re foundational.

The girls graduating college now are maybe going to be living and working in this community and hopefully be a part of the solution to make North O more attractive to retain the best and brightest.”

Visit girlsincomaha.org.

 

Where Love Resides: Celebrating Ty and Terri Schenzel

February 2, 2016 Leave a comment

Where Love Resides: Celebrating Ty and Terri Schenzel
TY AND TERRI SCHENZEL
Laying a Foundation of Hope
Faith. Hope. Love. A Legacy.

I was privileged to write this Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) piece to commemorate the lives and works of the late Ty and Terri Schenzel as part of the pub’s Journeys series. The new issue is themed Loving Legacies: Love that Lingers, Love that Lasts. Anyone that knew the Schenzels know that they embodied love. The unconditional kind.

Laying a Foundation of Hope

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February-March-April 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

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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Interface Web School: Coding, Collaboration, Community

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Shonna Dorsey is the face of one of Omaha’s new technology success stories, Interface Web School, and she does a great job of selling the endeavor through her personality and passion and her savvy use of social and traditional media. She’s the rare co-founder of a tech company with a real facility and flair for communication. This is a short piece I did for B2B Omaha Magazine on Shonna and Interface Web School. I will soon be posting a longer feature I did about her and the company for another publication. She is a real force on the Omaha startup scene and she does a great job, as the headline of my piece here says, of combining coding, collaboration and community. She’s passionate about putting the tools and skills of technology in the hands of more people. We will all be hearing much more from her in the years to come as she’s sure to consolidate her place as a dynamic leader and entrepreneur.

 

Shonna Dorsey

 

 

Interface Web School: Coding, Collaboration, Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Winter 2016 issue of B2B Omaha Magazine

(http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/)

Shonna Dorsey has merged an aptitude for technology with a desire to help others via Interface Web School, Omaha’s latest cyber ed alliteration. It’s not the first time she’s combined her entrepreneurial, networking and community interests. She’s done that as a Leadership Omaha participant and as co-founder of the monthly Coffee and Code meet-up she hosts with Autumn Pruitt of Aromas Coffee.

Long tabbed a real comer, Dorsey’s been recognized with the 40 Under 40 Award from the Midlands Business Journal.

In 2013 she cofounded Interface with Dundee Venture Capital’s Mark Hasebroock and others. She serves as managing director of the school that until recently housed in north downtown’s tech-haven Wareham Building but now offices in the AIM Building, which is also known as The Exchange at 19th and Harney Streets.

The North High graduate studied technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A turning point for me as a master’s student came working on a project for an organization that serves child abuse survivors – Project Harmony. Our small student team developed an application to store and monitor videos. That was such a meaningful project. It really sparked something to see that people can really benefit from what techies like us know and do.

“It made me think, How can I do this and make it my career?”

While working corporate jobs she mentored for Hasebroock’s startup accelerator Straight Shot. Before long, they formed Interface.

“I’ve always had a knack for saying, ‘OK, this is risky but I can see the reward on the other side.’ That was how I felt about Interface,” Dorsey recalls. “Even though it was definitely a huge leap of faith at the time it made sense when I looked at the market and what the needs were.”

Many tech jobs go unfilled in-state due to a shortage of qualified prospects. Interface strives to bridge that gap.

“We’ve all been affected by this need for more talent in technology, whether it be web developers or project managers or user interface designers,” she articulated in a Nebraska Entrepreneurship video. “We wanted to put together a pretty intensive program people could go through, which started at 200 hours over 10 weeks and has been adjusted to 200 over 15 weeks, meeting three times per week to accommodate students who need to hold down full-time positions during training..”

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Dorsey concedes there are online services that teach coding, but she says many Interface students “have tried those tools and realized a more structured approach is necessary.” Among the benefits of a physical versus virtual class is having on-site mentors who personally “help you overcome hurdles and explain why your code isn’t working.”

Interface serves largely nontraditional students.

She says, “Currently 80 percent are full-time employees. Ten percent are minorities. Most are mid-career, late 20s-early 30s, just looking for a way to transition into a new career in web development or tech or to add more skills in order to add more value to their organization. Or to potentially start their own business.

“We usually have a stay-at-home mom or two in every class.”

Interface requires prospects complete an on-line application, in-person interview and assessment.

“It’s been a really effective tool to gauge aptitude and motivation,” she says. “Those things help determine how successful applicants might be.”

Flexible, interactive class offerings are proving popular.

“Students complete weekly evaluations of their performance and how they feel about the class. It allows us to make tweaks and changes as they’re going through it. Students constantly apply what they learn, build on what they know. It’s all pretty hands-on. We’re able to get you to a level of proficiency where you’re marketable at the end.”

In 15-week courses, students design actual applications, portals, websites for nonprofits.

“That’s an important part of what we do. Students really get excited about creating something that is their own by applying what we’re teaching to something very specific. It’s pretty impactful knowing you’re helping organizations who otherwise couldn’t afford development work. It’s a great way for students to get experience working with a client and building a real-world product. It’s good for clients to understand what it’s like to work with developers.”

 

I'm developing a new tech training scholarship fund with AIM and Omaha Community Foundation

 

It all follows Interface’s emphasis on immersive serving learning.

“The nonprofit projects give our students a chance to extend the learning beyond the classroom and maybe learn something new.”

Developer-client Interactions are just as critical as programming.

“There’s so much to web development that cannot be taught in a class. Even if you’re a great technologist if you can’t work well with people then it makes it difficult to stay employed or get promoted. Skills like collaboration, project management and communication are important no matter what our students decide to do outside Interface.”

Dorsey says employers are hiring and promoting Interface grads, many of whom report salary gains. Some employers partner with Interface.

“We’re happily surprised with how much traction we’ve gained in terms of employer support. We have several companies, including Hudl and Agape Red, that offer tuition reimbursement for our students. That’s really helped us on the student enrollment side.”

Dorsey and her partners have cultivated” close relationships” with the AIM Institute and the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, Heartland Workforce Solutions provides financial assistance and  Affirm provides tuition financing.

From the school’s inception Dorsey’s been its most public face through the networking and training she does.

“I started offering free workshops through the Omaha Public Library. It proved a great way to get Interface’s name out there and help people get exposed to web development and all the opportunities available. Since then I’ve transitioned to teaching at small startups almost every weekend. We’re starting to offer workshops outside Omaha.”

She says when Interface announced its bootcamp approach, some skeptics questioned its effectiveness.

“Our average reported starting salary is $51,000 after training with us. We’ve had students make $20,000 a year more in a new position. That’s a pretty incredible return on investment. So, the outcomes are real and what students are able to do is real and their jobs are real.”

For Dorsey, having a hand in making people tech savvy and empowered is a heady thing.

“I really do enjoy it so much and I love what we’re able to do in terms of the life changes we help facilitate and get to witness. I could not ask for a better job.”

Visit https://interfaceschool.com/.

 

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

October 9, 2015 1 comment

The more researchers explore the human brain the more evidence there is that very young children, even infants, learn from the very start of life and then so much of their continued development is dependent on how they are nurtured and stimulated and what they are exposed to.  The more enriching and interacive the environment it seems, the more children thrive and the better prepared they are to succeed as they progress through those critical developmental years.  Sam Meisels knows all about that and a lot more when it comes to early childhood.  He leads the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and he and his staff work hard to make Nebraska the standard by which early childhood progams and initiaitives are judged.

Samuel J. Meisels

Sam Meisels

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.

The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett’s first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.

The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.

The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That’s why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute’s tag lines read: “Start Early, Start Well” and “All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life.”

In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI’s founding executive director and as Neb.’s new Pied Piper for the cause.

“Sam is the real deal. He’s a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam’s vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I’m convinced we’ll get there,” she says.

“Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.’s youngest learners.”

Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.

The University of Rochester graduate with a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he’s spent much time observing early child ed programs.

Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.

On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.

Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.

Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.

These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.

“A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don’t learn very much. They meet in places where there’s very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it’s from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they’re doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.

“We’re talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We’re talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children’s work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas.”

A Vision of the Future

Meisels doesn’t often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.

“Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It’s like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade.
That doesn’t work.”

Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what’s happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.

“When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I’m taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.

“Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea.”

He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.

“If you’re going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you’re going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you’re going to short change everybody.”

He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.

“That’s a terrible salary given that who’s more important to us in the world than our children. We’re also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.

“Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result.”

All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren’t enough early childhood educators to meet the need.

With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.

“These are generally young people and they can’t be stretched very far,” Meisels says.

Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.

“Many people are unlicensed and then they’re totally unregulated,” Meisels says.

Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, “We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule.” He says, “For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that.”

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The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska.”

Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. ”

Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It’s a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs.”

A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.

Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.

“For example, we know if children aren’t exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they’re going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade,” Meisels says. “And we know there’s a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.

“So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development.”

He says it’s not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children’s age appropriate behavior.

“We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there’s always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don’t know that.”

He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.

“We’ve got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There’s no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That’s not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time.”

He says education intervention is generally well-received.

“Because you’re very alone when you’re the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you’ve been through is very important.”

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He says the early childhood field’s come a long way.

“We have learned what to do with kids, we’ve learned how to do it better. We’ve learned that children can learn a great deal. We’ve learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we’re doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.

“A more recent revolution is we’ve learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It’s these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we’ve learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years.”

He says early childhood has more visibility “than at any time” and
“the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect.”

When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated “more testing than we’ve ever seen and most of it has not been useful.” He adds, “A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational.”

“The assessment work I do,” he says, “is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.

“It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching’s a tough job and this actually improves your teaching.”

Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.

“It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls.”

Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn’t surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.

“There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before.”

Samuel J. Meisels

He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.

“Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying ‘no running,’ others won’t, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.

“It’s our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It’s a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world
and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher.”

Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.

“Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.

“There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we’d have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds.”

Overall, he says, “there’s room for a lot of improvement and there’s a lot of strength to build from.”

He says the investment made to support the Institute’s work sends a message that “the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university,” adding, “Most universities don’t do that and this is one saying that it’s important enough for us to do it.”

The Institute’s interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.

“What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they’re born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.

“So in a way it’s a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it’s an investment.”

Visit http://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu.

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