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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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Art in the heart of South Omaha

September 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Until I saw a Facebook post about Omaha South putting on a production of “In the Heights” in collaboration with SNAP! Productions. it had somehow escaped me that South was the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual and Performing Arts Magnet. The show, which I saw and was most impressed by, was a fundraiser for a planned visual and performing arts addition at the school, which has a robust arts curriculum far surpassing anything found in another OPS building. Indeed, the quality of the show was so high that it sold me on writing a story for The Reader about the arts magnet emphasis at the inner city school. I then found out from faculty and students just how much is going on there and how passionate these educators and kids are about what they do in the arts. My resulting story is shared here. It appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Art in the heart of South Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appears in the September 13, 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Chances are, you don’t know Omaha has a public high school of performing arts, It may further surprise you that South High School is that Fame-style institution.

South has been the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual & Performing Arts Magnet for two decades. But the architect for the arts emphasis there, retired South drama teacher Jim Eisenhardt, said “by the time we were named an arts magnet, we were already an arts magnet in all but name.”

Dramatic growth in student numbers has seen a corresponding growth in programs that finds South with the district’s most robust arts curriculum. Students can even elect to be an arts major. Seventy percent of all students take at least one arts class. Forty percent take at least two. Participation has exploded, especially in dance and guitar.

The interest and activity have South facing serious space issues to accommodate it all. Thus, the school’s embarked on a $12 million private fundraising campaign for a planned Visual & Performing Arts addition.

Becky Noble, South curriculum specialist and a drts Magnet facilitator, said space is at such a premium that some labs and classrooms meet in cramped former “closets.” Film and music technology classes share the same small digs. Neither has a dedicated studio.

“We can’t grow music tech and film anymore.”

With no permanent spaces for some classes, she said, “they’re constantly moving from place to place.” Even the dance studio is makeshift. The present black box theater lacks flexibility and accessibility.

She described conditions as “maxed out,” adding, “We need space that is appropriate to enhance learning.”

Then there’s the battle for updated technology. She said it can be difficult getting district officials to accept why not just any computers or software programs will do for the high-end things students create in film, digital art and music tech.

“We are so unusual in the district that sometimes they almost don’t know what to do about us.”

Asking for state-of-the-art gear and contracting professionals to teach dance takes some explaining.

“It’s an ongoing kind of beating our heads with having them understand that it is a special thing and it is important, it’s not just a fluff thing. We don’t have students in here for fluff. We have them in here because there is a real, honest curriculum.”

“Our basic philosophy to use art as a springboard to enhance problem-solving and abstract thought,” South theater director Kevin Barratt said.

Noble said the fact teachers make-do and still net great results speaks to their commitment.

“It is really a labor of love.”

The 55,000 square foot addition would add seven general education classrooms, dedicated studio spaces, a new black box theater and an art gallery. Noble said South’s fortunate to have a strong advocate making its case in Toba Cohen-Dunning, executive director of the Omaha Schools Foundation, the project’s fiscal agent.

Administrators, such as former principal Cara Riggs, are arts advocates, too. “She put some additional money behind it and now our current principal Ruben Cano is doing a great job of listening,” Noble said.

“The equity formula of the Omaha Public Schools allowed for dollars to follow students,” Riggs said. “As we received more dollars for our magnet students, we continued to find ways to strengthen our magnet programs, We found it important to create programs in the arts that students couldn’t get anywhere else in the metro: Dance taught by professional dance instructors; a piano lab and a guitar program; a film program and a computer gaming program.

“Our school culture improved and enrollment rocketed, with successful programs and positive word-of-mouth.”

South staffers, past and present, say they hoped the arts would catch fire but Eisenhardt said no one expected this.

“We started a dance class with 12 kids and now it’s up above 400 (with five styles offered). There are over 300 kids in guitar and piano.”

Alum Kate Myers Madsen, who was active in music and theater at South, theorizes why the arts flourish there.

“I think the reason it’s so well-received is that it’s so in the community of people who are incredibly talented but might not come from homes that have the means to put them in private voice or instrument lesson and dance classes. It’s providing huge value to students who normally would not be able to access it.”

This arts infusion didn’t just happen, it was intentionally built by Eisenhardt and Co. from 1982 to his 2006 retirement. He cultivated relationships with community arts organizations that exposed students to professionals in many disciplines. Over time, South became the district’s arts epicenter and the magnet designation naturally followed.

“My colleagues across the district knew what the arts program was at South,” he said. “No one ever asked me why we got it (magnet status) and not somebody else. There were great arts teachers already here like Toni Turnquist and Mary Lou Jackson and Josh Austin working hard to create something important.”

Then-principal Joyce Christensen granted great autonomy and Eisenhardt ran with it.

“She encouraged people to do things that were innovative and making sure the kids had the best experience they could in high school. I would just forge ahead and do something, not necessarily checking with her for permission first, but she supported it. She knew I would never do anything to embarrass South High.

“Roni Huerta, my counterpart as the magnet coordinator for Information & Technology, was a big supporter of what we did in the arts. Because of her we got the dance classes to count as physical education credits.”

Eisenhardt said Jerry Bartee, another former South principal, also lent great support.

Many things make South an arts magnet. Start with the array of class options available and the fact these disciplines have different sections and levels. There are multiple music ensembles as well.

Before coming to South, Eisenhardt was at Omaha Tech, where he formed relationships with Opera Omaha’s Jane Hill and the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Charles Jones. Opera rehearsals were held at Tech. The Nebraska Theatre Caravan rehearsed A Christmas Carol there. When Tech closed, Eisenhardt invited these rehearsals to travel to South. The ties were eventually formalized as Adopt-a-School partnerships.

“Both of those had great impact on our success as a magnet school,” Eisenhardt said.

Omaha music director Hal France worked with Opera Omaha then.

“We had a home on the South High Auditorium stage rehearsing all our shows with international and national opera singers and directors. Despite putting on five shows a year of their own at South, Jim always made the schedule work for us. It was a dream. It was a relationship based on trust that emanated first and foremost from Jim, a magnificent, remarkable host.”

Opera Omaha even collaborated with South on three productions with staff-students. The last of these, Bloodlines, was a 2004 original with a libretto by Jane Hill and Eisenhardt and a score by Deb Teason,

“Jane and I worked with the kids to write a script based on their experiences as immigrants in Omaha,” Eisenhardt said. “The title came from the idea that these immigrants worked the bloodlines in the packinghouses and also the bloodlines of their families.

“That year the Omaha World-Herald named it one of the top ten cultural events in Omaha. It was quite a production and really an important part of the development of the magnet. By the time that was over, the magnet was in full swing.”

Riggs said with those kinds of collaborations, “we were able to create extra-value in the school experience, beyond the many required academic courses.”

Outside district and arts circles, South’s magnet identity is a best-kept-secret. The school’s inner-city location, working-class environment and low achievement scores may not fit some perceptions of what an arts magnet should look like.

“That’s all a big part of it,” Noble said. “It’s our challenge. One of the things we talk a lot about is that we have to continue to get more and more known in the community.”

Noble hopes others see South’s diversity as an asset.

“When we go to some competitions, most of the other schools are all white, but our kids represent what the world looks like.”

Senior arts major Jax Barkhouse, who lives in West Omaha and was expected to follow his friends to a suburban school, battled those perception issues.

“It was especially hard for me because people were like, ‘Why are you going to South?’ They think bad things about it. But I only tell them good things about it.”

South has traditionally been the main receiving school for immigrant, refugee and migrant populations. After a sharp enrollment decline, it’s experienced a renaissance. The rebirth has coincided with the boon of the South 24th business district it borders and the arrival of Latino and Sudanese families in the surrounding neighborhoods it serves.

The school’s home to a dense demographic of Latinos, Africans, Asians, African-Americans and Caucasians. South’s vast arts program and additional magnets in Information & Technology and Dual Language have made it the school of choice for the overwhelming majority of students in its home attendance area.

South also draws students from outside the area attracted to its focused offerings.

Madsen, Barkhouse and junior Ori Parks bypassed their home schools for South due to its arts concentration.

“It surpassed anything I had expected,” said Madsen. “I did a lot of things outside school.”

South funded most of her travel to Great Britain for a Playhouse-sponsored theater immersion. Since graduating in 2006, she’s performed at the Shelterbelt, The Rose and Iowa Western Community College.

“The opportunities afforded me at South allowed me to really identify what it was I loved about the arts and which track I wanted to follow. I had been classically trained up until my freshman year in high school, so the opportunity to do musical theater really allowed me to see what it was that I loved about theater performing,”

Barkhouse followed his heart to South.

“I was supposed to go to Burke, but I chose to come down here because of the performing arts. I’m so glad that I chose South. I love it.”

He plans majoring in musical theater in college.

Parks, who lives closer to Benson, was sold on South because of its rich arts options.

“I was like, whoa, they have all this stuff.”

“Having easy access to the arts here at South is really a great benefit,” said Jennifer Au, among the 80 percent of arts majors on the honor roll. “I think being involved in the arts really helps me with my schoolwork.”

Results like these help explain why there’s such energy and interest from students in going there.

“When I left South, we averaged 1,300 students and now its 2,500,” said Eisenhardt, “and a lot of that’s because of the success the kids have found in the arts, the teachers there supporting the arts and the work the kids do outside the normal classroom.”

It doesn’t hurt that South graduates are findings careers in the arts. Rachel McCutcheon stage managed The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Paul Coate performed with Nebraska Shakespeare, Nebraska Repertory Theatre, Opera Omaha and the Omaha Symphony. Since moving to Minneapolis, he’s acted with the Guthrie Theatre and sung with the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

“My experiences at South were the foundation on which I built my career as a performing artist,” Coate said. “The arts programming and faculty leadership were very strong. I feel very lucky to have been in such a good place at such a pivotal time in my life.

There’s real talent there, too. Just ask director Kevin Lawler, who’s helmed work nationally. He was at the Blue Barn when Hill asked him to direct Bloodlines. In his current post as Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director, he’s made South an integral part of the annual Playfest series. Visiting L.A. playwright Michael John Garces wrote an original piece called South drawn in part from interviews with students that he and the show’s director, Scott Working, conducted.

“The staff work immensely hard to give the education, tools and positive creative channels to these, the next generation of great young creatives and artists of Omaha,” Lawler said. “There is so much talent and energy packed into South High each day that, with the proper support, the impact that it can have on our city in terms of our cultural life and our community will be immeasurable.”

South, with students as the mainstay performers, premiered at the conference in late May to a warm reception. In July, a joint South-SNAP! Productions mounting of In the Heights elicited raves and kicked off the “Art in the Heart of South Omaha” campaign for the new addition. South theater students worked the show, including Aimee Perez-Valentin, who ran tech. Alums participated as well, including Kate Myers Madsen in the role of Vanessa and Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva stage managing.

“It was very interesting being on the other side of it this time in this more mature role,” Madsen said. “”For me, it was very much coming home because that was my first stage where I stepped out as a musical theater performer. For a lot of these students, it was their first show. They were experiencing what I did the first time. I was blown away by their talent.

“We have a lot of talent, not only in Omaha but at this school specifically.”

Theater students have made the cut for the Playhouse’s apprentice program.

Senior Jax Barkhouse earned a role in the Playhouse’s production of Mamma Mia! opening September 15.

Grad Ja’Taun Markel Pratt is attending the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

South’s 2016 production of Check Please was selected to perform at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln. Three students recognized for Outstanding Performances over the last four years

The Show Choir made it to nationals last year.

“We have kids at the top levels of dance who are getting dual enrollment credit at UNO for dance and who are majoring in dance at UNL,” Noble said.

2013 grad and University of Nebraska at Omaha senior Maria Fernanda Reyes performs with UNO’s prestigious Moving Company dance troupe.

Noble said South instrumental music students get a firm foundation in music theory, ear training, sight reading, et cetera. Music tech grads are being prepared to enter audio engineering college studies and careers.

“It’s a pretty amazing curriculum and we have kids going off to college to major in piano performance. Any of our teachers can tell you about the rigor they include in their program. Everyone here understands you meet them where they are and you move them up.

“We want to equip them with whatever they need to go on and be successful at the next level. We want them to be good. We want them to have the right training.”

South’s collaborations with arts professionals continue. Earlier this year vocal students performed in concert with Grammy-recording artist Eric Church at Pinnacle Bank Arena and the CenturyLink Center. “Years ago our choir performed with Michael Buble. We have developed a nice relationship with the Grammy Foundation. We received their Community Award for our wide-ranging arts programs. They are the ones who recommended us for Eric Church, whose people seemed very pleased with our kids.”

Noble knows talent when she sees it.

“I’m obviously biased, but I’m also realistic, and if it wasn’t good, I’d know it.”

Noble is among several staffers with still active careers in the local arts scene. She’s sung with professional ensembles, was the owner-executive director of the Dundee Dinner Theatre and is founder-director of Cabaret Theatre. South theater director Kevin Barratt is a veteran of Omaha stages.

“We have a lot of people on our staff who do work as artists in the community and that’s important to us because that’s how our students learn.”

Guest artists bring additional expertise.

“That’s a big part of the reason why we did In the Heights and brought in some people from the community (including director Michael Simpson from SNAP!). The more people you work with and the more opportunities you have like that the better you get.

“I think a lot of our success has to do with people who are passionate about it and don’t back down. And we are fighters – we do fight for it.”

Eisenhardt said it’s always been this way: “We provided the kids with more opportunities than any other school. The normal school did a couple (theater) shows a year. We did five a year at South (still do). We did things beyond school. We developed Neon Theatre, an improv troupe that provides entertainment for schools and civic groups. Our show choir performs 50 or more times a years. Those kinds of opportunities are important to the development of the magnet.

“South continues to reach out and collaborate with the community. It’s not so insular that it just does its thing and that’s enough. It reaches out to theater groups and art groups and dance groups and music groups and allows the kids to see that there’s more than just school time that needs to be spent on creating great art.”

South hosts a district-wide One-Act-Play Festival. Community professionals do staged readings and judging of the work.

The Opera Omaha and Playhouse partnerships continue, though not as intense.

“I think it’s just a shift in focus on the part of schools and organizations,” Noble said. “Partnerships develop because of a specific project as opposed to just a general partnership. Great Plains and SNAP! are not official partners but we do lots of work with those groups. We enjoy a great relationship with the Omaha Performing Arts education department. They are very supportive of our programs and when touring arts groups come into town, we often have the opportunity for performances-workshops.”

At South, David Weisser teaches the only filmmaking classes offered by an OPS school and he serves on the Film Streams education committee. His students and Josh Austin’s music tech students often collaborate, as do music, theater and dance students.

Noble, who teaches vocal and choral, speaks for her colleagues in describing the charge educators and visiting artists get when things click for students.

“It’s exceptional to see their passion and how they realize that something is speaking to them. You can’t downplay what the arts teach you. You can’t downplay the creativity, the independent thinking, the ability to work together and collaborate and all those things that are the skills you need to succeed in life.”

Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva, a graduate of the Playhouse apprenticeship program, said her intersection with the arts at South “changed my whole life.”

She studied drama, stage craft, guitar, music tech, film, piano and dance all for the first time at South.

“I ended up falling in love with the theater. I had wanted to be a nurse or something and I ended up changing my whole career-life plan. I love where I am right now.”

She’s pursuing an associate’s degree and working shows – currently stage managing Bent for SNAP! at the Shelterbelt.

“I call it my life calling. Theater is my life and I want it to my career. There’s so many things that make this beautiful work of art and I want to help make that art.

“It’s the perfect place for me. It’s my dream job.”

Now, South just needs enhanced facilities to help make more students’ dreams a reality.

“The addition is essential to provide adequate space for the school to develop legitimate “artists-of-the-theater,” Barratt said. “Coupled with our music, dance and visual arts departments, we need the space to help students prepare for the professional world.”

For arts and campaign updates, visit south.ops.org.

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

Omaha School Board: In search of new normal after discord

September 22, 2017 Leave a comment

The Omaha School Board weathered a rough fall 2016 through spring 2017 patch that saw the elected Omaha Public Schools governing body repeatedly fail to reach consensus. Most visibly, the board couldn’t agree on a new superintendent even though the sitting super had announced his plans to retire and selecting his successor was the board’s overriding order of business. That coming to loggerheads over the search was part of a pattern in which strong divisions, in-fighting and intransigence among members resulted in long, drawn- out votes and open bickering. Since much of this went public last year, the board’s been trying to find a new normal after the discord and to move forward with the help of some training to improve communication. Mark Evans has stayed on as superintendent to provide stability as the board gears up for a new search amidst the many other matters before it and the district. This is my piece on what went down and where things are moving. The story’s mostly told through board members’ and the superintendent’s own words. The story appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader.

Omaha School Board: In search of new normal after discord
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)


Mark Evans

When the Omaha Public Schools board failed finding a new superintendent last spring, it marked the continuation of internal conflicts and district dirty laundry being aired.

Between the suspended search and the start of this new school year, holdover superintendent Mark Evans, who earlier announced his retirement, agreed to stay on an extra year. Some board members have openly championed him. Others have been at odds with him. In the wake of all this noise, Evans and board members say they’re moving past their sometimes fractious past.

A major order of business is reactivating the stalled search and reaching consensus on Evans’ successor. That decision, along with implementing a new student assignment plan, opening schools, a pending bond issue and resuming focus on a strategic plan Evans initiated, will be scrutinized by a wary community.

Things got messy enough that over the summer all nine board members participated in trainings conducted by Omaha-based consultant Marj Plumb centered around interpersonal communication and relationship building. More coaching sessions may follow.

Meanwhile, a Board Governance committee is forming to serve as a professional development-oversight body.


Lacy Merica, OPS School Board

Some history is necessary to understand how things got to this point. In January, the newly constituted board required 100-plus votes to elect a president – Lacey Merica. Many 5-4 decisions on district matters followed tense board meetings. When the search dragged on amid sharp division, the final three candidates withdrew from the process, citing dysfunction. Heated criticism from stakeholders peaked after the Omaha World-Herald published acrimonious emails between some board members. The sniping caused some observers to question members’ professionalism and focus.

Rifts have erupted over student achievement – where despite gains, gaps persist – response to disproportionate student suspensions and student transportation snafus.

District leadership has come under fire for not seeking enough educator-public input on instituting an extended school day, rolling out a new sex ed curriculum and calling off the superintendent search.


Bridget Donovan_President, Omaha Education Association_photo by Debra S. Kaplan

Omaha Education Association president Bridget Donovan said she wants leadership to invite principals, teachers and paras to be more involved in the new search “because I think that helps set up the success for the next superintendent.” Without more transparency, she said, “We don’t even know as a public or an employee what criteria they (the board) are using.”

With the new school year now underway, the clock’s ticking and the community’s watching to see how things are different this time around.

“I’m feeling a little bit hopeful they’re going to actually engage us in a meaningful way,” said Donovan, whose organization represents OPS educators. “I do believe the board is making an effort to do that,” though she questions if they’ve learned to constructively disagree.

Evans, Snow and Merica agree the board’s performance will be judged on how the school year proceeds and on the tenor of open meetings. They say since attending the training they note a discernible improvement in how they relate to each other and Evans.

Even with everything on the board’s plate, how members handle the new search will be the most telling marker for where they’ve arrived.

“With as big an issue as it was, I think they (the board) really have to get this right this time,” Donovan said. “They’re going to be under tremendous pressure.”

In August, a subcommittee devoted to the quest voted to cut ties with the previous search firm and to commission a new one. The goal is to move on a fast track and to hire a new superintendent by the end of December.

“We started the committee that will bring back recommendations to the board for what is the next step, what the timeline looks like and how the community’s going to have input in that,” Merica said.

She said it’s key “we get that community buy-in” after complaints OPS hasn’t been sufficiently transparent.

Evans and Co. downplayed any concerns that chaotic events of the past might dissuade qualified candidates from throwing their names in the ring.

“I think the new search firm will tell whoever those candidates are … that we learned from that experience, we’ve grown from that experience,” he said. “Actually, it’s a great time to come because we wound up finding a way to work together in a collective fashion.”

The board training provided insight into individual and interpersonal dynamics member now apply in practice.

“We talked a little bit about ourselves and our personalities,” Lacey Merica said. “It was really helpful to kind of get us all on the same page of hey, look at your (fellow) board members as human beings, too.”

If Snow’s learned anything, he said, It’s to “compromise and understand where people are coming from, and no matter if I disagree with their decision, respect them . . . Our objective is to make a decision as a unified board, not one individual.

Snow said the training was a lesson in swallowing pride.

“Everyone first has to acknowledge the fact that everyone has room to improve. And the fact that we were able to get every board member to show up proved that. The downfall about our board in the past and of most school boards across the country is they (members) only meet at board meetings. They only get the chance to talk about issues in the board meeting when a decision’s made, and if I don’t know you personally, I might take that personally.”

Mark Evans said the training wasn’t a mandate but a mutually agreed upon need.

“It was a discussion we all had. We wanted to send a message that we were going to try to live together and not have the controversies and conflict of the past and to try and get a feel for what caused some of the breakdown in communication and trust. It was just a desire to turn the page.”

“It’s going to be critical as we start the ‘sup’ search,” he said. “The student assignment plan is difficult, the busing issue is difficult. The bond issue – we’ve got board members that have different feelings there and that’s a big issue.

“Three years ago I don’t think we could have compromised on some of those issues. Today, I think we can. I think that’s part of the evolution of the process.”

Snow and Merica say there’s a new appreciation for the board speaking or acting as one.

“We all need to be unified when we are talking about putting up another bond for this school district,” said Snow. “We all need to be unified when we’re talking about launching a new student assignment plan. We all need to be on the same page.”

“I honestly think the Community Eligibility Provision is a good example,” Merica said of the free meal option for low income schools. “It was not a unanimous board vote to not expand the program and it’s something I and Amanda Ryan (fellow school board member) are really passionate about (expanding). Yeah, it’s upsetting, but it’s what’s best for the district. That was the board’s decision. So let’s keep working, let’s fix the problems identified, so that down the road we can expand it.”

No one’s under the allusion there won’t be disagreements, but maintaining decorum is a new emphasis, as is making an effort to have more face-to-face exchanges outside board meetings.


Marque A. Snow, Vice President of OPS School Barrd_Photo Courtesy of Omaha Public Schools

“If we disagree we’re going to sit down one-on-one and have that discussion,” Snow said.

“We have to communicate more with each other and ask questions and talk about issues,” Merica said.

“Chances are you’re going to have differences with different groups you come in contact with, but that doesn’t mean you stop the conversation,” OEA president Bridget Donovan said. “You have to be able to disagree appropriately with one another. It can’t become so personal when you disagree. It has to be worked out.”

The crucible the board underwent was perhaps unavoidable given its inexperience.

“I was hired in December 2012 by the 12-member board that in January, after I had been hired, got ousted,” said Evans. “So, these guys (current board) weren’t even a part of the selection committee for me.”

A new nine member board came on with seven new members.

“There was this whole sense of charge from the community at that point in time, and I think that was a part of the challenge, too,” Evans said. “Everybody had their own interpretation of the charge and I had my interpretation of what I was hired to do: to move student achievement in not only some schools but all schools, including schools that haven’t achieved in the past.”

Then the board underwent another makeover after the 2016 election. For many, it was their first elected public service post.

“I understood the dynamics of the political change,” Evans said. “That was tough on the board. There was not one board member that had a decade of service, for example. Usually when there’s a new board election there’s one or two that have been there a long time who can say to the new board member, ‘Well, this is why it’s this way.’ There wasn’t anyone that could do that. And I couldn’t do either because I was new, too, so I couldn’t give the whole history,”

Added to the challenge is the district’s complex profile.

“We are unique,” Merica said. “We are a large urban district. We have concentrations of poverty and not just poverty, it’s generational poverty, and that is different. We’ve got a large immigrant-refugee population.

“But we also have a community that’s more supportive of its public schools than a lot of other communities.”

Despite what Evans called “some bumps in the road,” he and the board say OPS remains a public education leader.

“When you look at all the things from 10,000 feet ,we are still educating kids, teachers are still showing up and working hard. Over 60 percent of our teachers have a masters degree or above. There are other school districts not even close to that level.”

Bridget Donovan is proud of the high caliber teachers and quality education found in OPS. She appreciates the difficult job the board has overseeing a large, diverse district. She doesn’t want a board that votes in lockstep since members represent different subdistricts and needs. But she also doesn’t want contention.

“We want thoughtful school board members who are voting what they believe is in the best interest. The more they can work together and communicate with one another, the better off they’ll be. I do think they’re working on it.”

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

Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history

October 17, 2016 Leave a comment

South Omaha has been home to machine politics and to legacy families serving in elected office and other avenues of public leadership. Trying to break the mold is Omaha transplant Tony Vargas. The brash New York City native and son of Peruvian immigrants has made quite a splash on the scene since moving here in 2012 with his wife, attorney and South Omaha native Lauren Micek Vargas. He was soon appointed to the Omaha Public Schools board. He co-founded New Leaders Council Omaha. Now he’s running for the Nebraska Legislative District 7 seat. The bi-lingual candidate has been pressing lots of flesh and knocking on lots of doors to better know the constituents and issues he’s vying to represent. The majority of residents in that district are Latino. The demographics roughly parallel those of the Subdistrict 9 OPS Board of Education seat he holds until his term ends this year. Should he win his state senate bid, this outlier would be the first Latino from Omaha to serve in the Nebraska Legislature and only the second Latino ever to serve in the Unicameral.

 

Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Nebraska Legislative District 7 candidate Tony Vargas canvasses homes wearing shoes with soles worn to the nub. Even though his feet get wet on rainy days, he intentionally sticks with that same beat-up footwear.

“It is a reminder that if I’m not knocking on doors, I’m not doing enough,” said Vargas, 32. “There is no substitute for hard work. People in our community are working their tails off trying to provide for themselves and their families and so I should be doing the same thing, which means meeting people where they’re at. There’s no substitute for that type of engagement.”

This bilingual son of Peruvian immigrants is nearing the end of his Omaha Public Schools Board of Education term representing Subdistrict 9.,which encompasses the same heavily Latino South Omaha area as Legislature District 7.

The former New York City public school teacher knows what it took for his family to make it in America. His father is a machinist shop steward and leader in his local union. His mother worked on assembly lines.

“It wasn’t until later in life my family had some success. I’m fully aware of all the struggles and sacrifices my parents made and I carry that with me in everything I do. My parents emphasized it was great our getting closer to the middle class but it didn’t mean anything unless we were helping others do the same.”

A life of public service has followed for Vargas.

“My parents instilled you can’t sit idly by and watch. I worked with Habitat for Humanity all throughout high school doing builds in my community and across the nation. In college I did service work. I became a public school teacher in a lower income community because I wanted to be where it reminded me of places I grew up and where I felt my skills would be most impactful.”

He was a Teach for America adviser and Leadership for Educational Equity’s director of policy and advocacy.

His wife, attorney Lauren Micek Vargas, is a South Omaha native who was a pubic school special education teacher, She worked for Legal Aid Nebraska before joining the Douglas County Public Defender Office. The couple moved here in 2012 so Lauren could finish law school at Creighton University. They have a home in Little Italy and attend St. Frances Cabrini Church. In 2013 Vargas felt called to apply for the vacant OPS Subdistrict 9 board seat. He was appointed over three others to complete the position’s remaining term.

Vargas is now vying for incumbent Nicole Fox’s District 7 state senate seat that she won by appointment when Jeremy Nordquist’s vacated the office. Vargas decisively won the spring primary – taking 10 of 12 precincts – over Fox and runner up John Synowiecki, who is a past District 7 representative. Vargas and Synowiecki both registered Democrats, are facing off in the nonpartisan Nov. 8 general election.

If elected Vargas would be the first Latino state senator from Omaha and only the second ever in the Unicameral. The potential history is not lost on Vargas.

“To me it does mean something and since my district is one of the state’s largest Latino populations, the topic does come up. But what really comes up is how I’m working to earn people’s votes and respect. My wife and I have been knocking on doors for a year. People are excited we are working to understand what their lives look and feel like. Still, some people do remark, ‘And you’ll be the first Latino elected from Omaha to this office.’ and that makes it a little more exciting for them.

“As much as I want to be a voice for the Latino community, I’m serving all people-all populations in my district.”

Vargas said his melting pot experience dovetails with the “very diverse district” he seeks to serve.

“I have many different identities that matter to me: my Latino identity; my immigrant identity; my working-class labor family identity; my public service-public school teaching identity. All those things keep me grounded. One thing my background really taught me is that in our current system there are haves and have nots and it tends to be much harsher on communities in poverty and of color. If we don’t find pathways to support them, we’re not improving our entire city.

“The same real problems I saw affecting people in New York I see in my community now. There are pockets seeing some growth, strength and development. But I see the majority of people still struggling in similar ways to how my family did.”

He said people are voicing “concerns around barriers to accessing quality health care, housing and not making high enough wages or getting enough hours from employers. I am hearing about underemployment and unemployment and the impact it has on kids and families.” Education inequities at inner city schools is another pressing issue. He’s proud of the track record he and his school board mates achieved.

“I think what we’ve done on the school board is really a step in the right direction in terms of improving infrastructure and the safety of our schools, closing the achievement gap in our neighborhoods, improving community engagement, holding the district accountable to what we do well and what we don’t do well and passing a strategic plan.”

His campaign stresses voter education.

As a founding board member of New Leaders Council Omaha, he trains millennials to be Next Gen leaders like himself.

Visit http://www.vargasfornebraska.com.

THE GREAT MIGRATION: WHEREVER PEOPLE MOVE, HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS


I am posting for the first time an iBook I wrote for 3rd graders in the Omaha Public Schools. As explained below, the book is one of two I wrote for a series of Nebraska Department of Education iBooks that paired local authors and artists with educators in exploring various aspects of African-American history. This was all part of the OPS program Making Invisible Histories Visible. The book I’m sharing here covers the Great Migration. Many elements of the book are missing from this post but suffice to say that the actual iBook is a graphic-heavy, interactice experience meant to be used by teachers in classroom settings with their students. I am making a separate post with my second series book that looks at Civil Rights through the lens of the effort that integrated the Peony Park pool.

You can access the Great Migration book in PDF format at-

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebooks/great_migration.pdf

Or you can download this and other books in the series at-

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebook_library.html

 

MAKING INVISIBLE HISTORIES VISIBLE

THE GREAT MIGRATION: WHEREVER PEOPLE MOVE, HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

©ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTORIA HOYT

DEVELOPED BY OCTAVIA BUTLER

 

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

During the summer of 2013, eight Omaha Public Schools teachers each developed an iBook on a topic of Omaha and Nebraska history as it relates to African American history. I wrote two of the 3rd grade books: Civil Rights: Standing Up for What’s Right to Make a Difference and the one shared here, The Great Migration: Wherever People Move, Home Is Where the Heart Is.

Each book paired an Omaha author and artist. Not included in this post are photographs, documents, and other artifacts provided by local community members and through partnership with the Great Plains Black History Museum.

Each book in the series provides supplemental information on the role of African Americans in Omaha and Nebraska history topics.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

The Great Migration: Wherever People Move, Home is Where the Heart Is describes the Great Migration as it pertains to Omaha’s history. Topics covered include jobs, culture, historical events, and local figures. The piece itself is written similarly to a newspaper article, and interviews with local community members inform the majority of the story.

This book is meant to encourage students to compare the experiences of the people in the story to their own lives. There are several activities along the way that allow students to reflect critically on the content of the story. They will explore and analyze photos, newspaper articles, maps, and graphs. Students will examine not only the period of the Great Migration, but also the culture brought to Omaha and other parts of the North because of the Great Migration.

FREEDOM

Freedom means many things to many different people. For some, freedom means the right to be treated equally under the law. Others value the importance of being free to speak one’s mind. Freedom also means the ability to move and travel without limits. Indeed, freedom is about all of these things.

For African Americans, it was important that they be free to move to a place they would be able to express their beliefs, be treated equally under the law, and enjoy other benefits of an open society. With the end of slavery, African Americans began leaving the U.S. South for greater freedom and opportunity in the North and West.

There’s a long history of masses of people moving from one area of America to another. One of the largest internal movements occurred from the 1910s through the 1960s when millions of African Americans fled the South for other regions during the Great Migration.

During both World Wars, the movement of African Americans out of the South rose to such high levels that it became known as the Great Migration. One of the destinations for black people leaving the South was Omaha. African Americans came here not only to enjoy greater freedom but also to take advantage of employment and educational opportunities.

Imagine living some place where you’re made to feel less than a full citizen or even less than human simply based on the color of your skin. For many years African Americans living in the South were treated unfairly and cruelly because they were the black minority and whites were the ruling majority.

The discrimination blacks faced were remnants from the days of slavery. Blacks were denied the same educational, housing, job, voting, and recreational opportunities as whites. The threat of physical violence was real.

These were reasons enough for blacks wanting to leave the South. Other reasons included the hard times that the South experienced in the first half of the 20th century, where most blacks made their living working the land. When crop failures and natural disasters occurred there, some blacks felt they had no choice but to leave to find better fortune in other parts of the country.

Reflect: Can you think of a time you were treated unfairly?

How would it feel to have less rights than someone else because of how you look?

COMING AND GOING

JOBS

Blacks left the South to take advantage of the better paying jobs open to minorities in other parts of the nation. In Omaha, the railroads and the packinghouses were the main job magnets that pulled people here.

Black men could find work as Pullman Porters, baggage handlers and cooks with the railroads, and as laborers in packing plants. Porters dressed in crisp uniforms and prided themselves on giving great customer service to passengers on trains. Packinghouse workers performed physically demanding and dangerous duties. These jobs paid well enough that a black man could support his family and even buy a home.

The Omaha Monitor would promote businesses that hired members of the black community.

The railroad industry provided many jobs for black men

Black women found work as domestic help in well-to-do people’s homes, where they worked as maids, housekeepers, or nannies. Some cleaned offices. Black women were also employed as cooks, laundresses, cleaning help, and aides in hospitals and nursing homes.

It was very important for the black community to promote businesses that not only would serve black customers, but would also hire them for jobs.

Reflect: Why was this important to members of the community when looking for a job?

How did writing about these businesses in the newspaper help the black community?

OMAHA’S GROWTH

The Great Migration had dramatic effects on the communities African Americans left and the communities they moved to. For example, the first wave from 1910 to 1920 doubled Omaha’s black population.

Newcomers were not always warmly welcomed where they moved. Early on in Omaha, blacks lived in multicultural neighborhoods throughout the city. However, outbreaks of racial violence, including the 1919 lynching of a black man, Will Brown, gradually confined blacks to a few neighborhoods on the North and South sides.

Migrants came to Omaha as individuals, couples, families, and groups. They came by bus, train, and automobile. Often, one family member would make the move, find employment and housing, and after getting settled would send for another relative.

 

looking to Omaha Looking to Omaha out of agricultural despair in the South, African-American men “stepping up” from share-cropping to the meat-packing plants.

The vibrant, yet increasingly isolated, black community in North Omaha.

Feeling the effects of destructive segregation and racism from the same Omaha that offered new opportunities.

 

ESTABLISHING COMMUNITY

Blacks largely came here from Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A group of Christians from Brewton, Alabama, established Pilgrim Baptist Church in Omaha in 1917 during that first big migration movement. These church founders helped build a thriving congregation, which their descendants kept alive. Today, Pilgrim is nearly a century old and still going strong.

A half-century later the migration had slowed quite a bit, but was still in progress. Two women who left the South in the 1960s to make new lives for themselves in Omaha are Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson. Moore came from Boligee, Alabama. Jackson came from Brookhaven, Mississippi.

SEEKING A BETTER LIFE

Exactly why migrants left, the mode of transportation they used to get here, and how they did once they arrived differed. But generally speaking everyone wanted a better life, and most found it too. They were motivated to go by the chance for greater equality and freedom and glad to leave behind reminders of slavery.

In the South there were separate facilities and sidewalks for the races. “They had one side colored and the other side white,” Moore recalled. “You just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. There were some stores we couldn’t even go in in my hometown, like exclusive stores that sold very fine clothes. It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening.”

Jackson, whose grandparents were sharecroppers, said blacks would go to town and head right back home because “we were expected to stay in our place. There was no hanging out downtown. You did what you had to do and left because you didn’t know what might happen. I mean, you really had to walk careful.”

Moore wanted to join the civil rights protests happening then but her mother wouldn’t let her. Her father transported demonstrators from their rural homes into town to participate in marches and demonstrations. It was a brave thing to do because if the Ku Klux Klan caught him doing it he could have been in serious trouble.

Moore left Alabama for Omaha after graduating high school and marrying. “I had never left the South before,” she said. “I came here on the bus. When I left Alabama I had to sit in the back of the bus and then by the time we got to St. Louis (Missouri) we could sit anywhere we wanted.”

Venturing North to start a new life stirred “mixed emotions” in her. She was recently married at the time, and her husband moved ahead of her to get work at a packinghouse.

Reflect: Have you ever moved to somewhere new before?

What plans did you have to make before moving?

MAKING A NEW START

Moore found life far different here than it was down South. “The integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the (colored only or white only) signs we saw in Alabama. You could just go anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store.”

However, not everything was open to everybody. Until the 1970s blacks could only live in certain areas and some businesses refused to serve or hire them. But things were far more limiting in the South.

Jackson said the stories she heard about the way things were up North made enough of “an impression” she decided “it was right for me to go.” She came by train. From Mississippi to Illinois, blacks had to ride in separate cars. When they reached Chicago, they could sit anywhere on trains headed West, East or further North. Lorraine headed West to Omaha.

Both she and Moore became beauticians and raised families here. The women, who were able to go into business for themselves here, say they encountered some racism in Nebraska, but overall they feel they made a good choice in coming to the Midwest.

Both have returned to the South almost every year. Their families still own land there. They marvel at how the South has changed. “I can’t believe all the mixed marriages there. And the white people are at the black church,” said Jackson. “I never dreamed I would be seeing this. We’ve got a black mayor there in our hometown. I’m just shocked because I never thought it would ever happen, but it has.”

DRAWING ON THE OLD TO MAKE NEW

African American migrants often feel a strong connection to the South, where their roots are. Their families hold regular reunions, sometimes in their childhood hometowns. Many blacks who left the South have reversed their migration and moved back. Moore said, “Boligee means so much to me because of how my dad risked his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. He always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting.”

Jackson, Moore, and their siblings all finished school and some went on to college. Looking back on how much they overcame, Jackson said it’s “amazing we’re successful – I think it was our upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong and respectful. Faith was a big factor, too.”

Migrants brought their culture wherever they settled. Traditional African American music and food are now staples in the larger culture. North Omaha became a haven for jazz, blues, and gospel music, soul food, stepping, and Southern slang. Emma Hart of Omaha still uses the treasured family recipes for sweet potato pie, candied yams, collard greens, and cornbread dressing brought here from Arkansas by her family. The hospitality southerners are famous for was also brought North.

Similarly, migrants and immigrants of other races and ethnicities have brought and continue bringing their own sounds and flavors. This infusion or blending of cultures has created a richer stew than what existed before.

The Great Migration changed America by dramatically increasing the black population in cities across the land, thus creating a more diverse society.The migrant experience continues to play out in many locales around the world.

SPOTLIGHT: DAN DESDUNES

Dan Desdunes was one of the first major musicians to play in Omaha, and played a major role in North Omaha’s jazz scene and musical culture. He is considered the father of black musicians in Omaha.

Desdunes was born in 1873 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He started studying music when he was 17 years old. He learned to play the violin, cornet, trombone, and trap drums. In 1894, at the age of 21, Desdunes traveled as a musician with different theater companies. During this time, he began to learn to play wind instruments.

After he got married in 1904, Desdunes decided to settle in Omaha. He felt there were good musical opportunities in the city. Since Omaha was in the middle of many bigger cities along the Union Pacific Railroad, many musicians would stop here to perform.

In Omaha, he started the Desdunes Band and the Desdunes Jazz Orchestra. The Desdunes Band started in 1915, and Dan Desdunes led the band until his death in 1929. They played annually in the Ak-sar-ben Parade, and other events for the Chamber of Commerce. The Desdunes Jazz Orchestra was one of the first black orchestras to perform in Omaha.

Desdunes also trained many young musicians. He was a music teacher and bandleader for Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys during the last eight years of his life. He believed that the study of music made people better citizens.

Take a Stand

There were many positive reasons to leave the South and move North. However, the black community still experienced some discrimination in the North.

Make a list of the positive reasons to move North. Then list the struggles still faced in the North.

Think about each list. Next, decide whether you would choose to move North or stay in the South.

Defend your choice by explaining why you chose to move North or stay in the South.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based author-journalist- blogger best known for his cultural writing-reporting about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. His book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is the first comprehensive treatment of the Oscar- winning filmmaker. Biga’s peers have recognized his work at the local, state and national levels. To sample more of his writing visit, leoadambiga.com.

MEET THE ARTIST

Victoria Hoyt is an artist working in Omaha, Nebraska, the city she grew up in. She received her BA from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota and her MFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. You can find her making paintings and things that make her laugh in her North Omaha home studio, or teaching part- time at Metro Community College. To see more of her work, please visit her website at victoriahoyt.com.

Civil rights veteran Tommie Wilson still fighting the good fight


Omaha’s had its share of social justice champions. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes, colors and styles. Tommie Wilson may not be the best known or the loudest or the flashiest, but she’s been a consistent soldier in the felds of doing the right thing and speaking out against bias. Her work as an educator, as president of the local NAACP chapter and more recently as a community liaison finds her walking the walk. Read my profile about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

Civil rights veteran Tommie Wilson still fighting the good fight

Retired public school educator lives by the creed separate is not equal

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Social justice champion Tommie Wilson experienced the civil rights movement as it happened. For her, the good fight has never stopped.

While president of the local NAACP she brought a lawsuit against then-Gov. Dave Heineman over redistricting legislation that would have re-segregated Omaha schools. As Community Liaison for Public Affairs at Metropolitan Community College she chairs a monthly Table Talk series discussing community issues close to her heart, especially reentry resources. A grandson did time in prison and his journey through the system motivates her to advocate for returning citizens.

“I’m interested in how we can help them to have sustainable, productive lives,” says Wilson, who often visits prisons. “You know what they call me in prison? Mommie Tommie.”

Giving people second chances is important to her. She headed up the in-school suspension program at Lewis and Clark Junior High and the Stay in School program at the Wesley House.

“It took the kids off the streets and gave them the support they needed to be able to go back into school to graduate with their classes.”

Though coming of age in segregated Nacogdoches, Texas, she got opportunities denied many blacks. As a musical prodigy with an operatic voice she performed for well-to-do audiences. She graduated high school at 15 and earned her music teaching degree from Texas Southern University at 20.

She knew well the contours of white privilege and the necessity for she and fellow blacks to overachieve in order to find anything ilke equal footing in a titled world.

Her education about racialized America began as a child. She heard great orators at NAACP meetings in the basements of black churches. She read the words of leading journalists and scholars in black newspapers. She listened to iconic jazz and blues singers whose styles she’d emulate vocalizing on the streets or during recess at school.

 

Through it all, she gained a dawning awareness of inequities and long overdue change in the works. She credits her black professors as “the most positive mentors in my life,” adding, “They actually made me who I am today. They told me to strive to do my best in all I do and to prove my worth. They challenged me to ‘be somebody.'”

She and her late husband Ozzie Wilson taught a dozen years in Texas, where they helped integrate the public school teaching ranks. When the Omaha Public Schools looked to integrate its own teaching corps in the 1960s, it recruited Southern black educators here. The Wilsons, who came in 1967 as “a package deal,” were among them.

The couple’s diversity efforts extended to the Keystone Neighborhood they integrated. Tommie didn’t like Omaha at first but warmed to it after getting involved in organizations, including Delta Sigma Theta sorority, charged with enhancing opportunities.

“I’ve never shied away from finding things that needed to be done. I’m a very outspoken and vocal person. I don’t have a problem expressing what I feel. If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, I don’t care who it hurts. That’s my attitude.”

She was often asked to lend her singing voice to causes and programs, invariably performing sonatas and spirituals.

Much of her life’s work, she says, has tried to prove “separate is not equal.” “I’m a catalyst in the community. I try to motivate folks to do what they need to do.”

She feels the alarming rates of school drop-outs, violent incidents and STDs among inner city youth is best addressed through education.

“Education is the key. Children have to feel there’s love and care about them learning in the classroom. Teaching is more than the curriculum. It’s about getting a rapport with your kids, letting them feel we’re in this together and there’s a purpose. It has to be a personal thing.”

Schools can’t do it alone, she says, “It’s got to start with church and home.”

She applauds the Empowerment Network’s efforts to jumpstart North Omaha revitalization.

“I love everything they’re trying to do because together we stand, divided we fall. If we can bring everybody together to start working with these ideas that’s beautiful.”

She’d like to see more financial backing for proven projects and programs making a difference in the lives of young people.

Since retiring as an educator, Wilson’s community focus has hardly waned. There was her four-year stint with the NAACP. She then approached Metro-president Randy Schmailzl to be a liaison with the North O community, where she saw a great disconnect between black residents and the college.

“We had students all around the Fort Omaha Campus who had never even stepped foot on campus.”

She feels Metro is “a best kept secret” for first generation college students,” adding, “For affordable tuition you can get all the training and skills needed to be successful and have a sustainable life.”

The veteran volunteer counts her 15 years as a United Way Loaned Executive one of her most satisfying experiences in helping nurture a city that’s become dear to her.

A7 79, Tommie Wilson finds satisfaction “being able to share my innermost passions, talking to people about their issues, trials and tribulations and teaching and guiding people to change their lives.”

What’s a good day for her?

“A good day is when I make a difference in the lives of others. Hardly a day goes by somebody doesn’t ask for advice.”

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School

December 2, 2014 Leave a comment

In the 1960s the Omaha Public Schools was in need of African-American educators and not finding enough suitable college-educated candidates here the district looked to historically black colleges in the South. The irony of this is that many candidates from Omaha were denied teaching, coaching and administrative positions by a district that practiced blatant racism for much of its history. For decades OPS only hired a small number of black educators and then restricted them to predominantly black schools in the inner city. For years black public educators in Omaha were also restricted to elementary schools. It took a long time for OPS to dismantle those barriers and open the gates of fair employment and placement. One of the many educators recruited here from the South under those conditions was Gene Haynes, a native Mississipian who had actually followed his older brothers to Omaha and lived and worked here for a time before going back to Miss. to attend Rust College, a private historically black college. After he graduated from Rust he applied with and accepted an offer from OPS to teach and in 1967 he began what is now going on a 50-year career in the district. His first 18 years were at Omaha Technical High School and the last 31 have been at Omaha North High School, where he’s been principal since 2001. He’s helped lead a major turnaround at North, whose academic and athletic programs are doing great things. My New Horizons cover profile of Haynes follows.

 

 

 

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horixons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)

 

It is a marvel Omaha North High Magnet School pxrincipal Gene Haynes relates so well to students given how far removed his life experience is from theirs.

The 70 year-old Mississippi native came of age in a time and place unlike anything his students know. Haynes grew up in the grip of poverty and segregation in the post-World War II South. Yet he’s current and cool enough to accept either a handshake or a fist bump from students. He either calls them by name or by “brother man” or “sister girl” as he makes his presence known in the hallways, cafeteria and other common areas every school day.

“When you say their name they know you’re paying attention to them,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in going to the activities and seeing what the young people are doing and encouraging them to do their best.”

He’s such a fixture at North and in the community that he knows most students’ extended families. Omaha Public Schools superintendent Mark Evans says, “It makes a huge difference when the person telling you which direction to go knows not only your mom and dad but your aunt and uncle, your grandma and grandpa. I think it makes kids so responsive to Gene – much more so than most administrators.”

A message Haynes conveys to students is, “Do your best when no one is around.” When he’s around and sees students applying themselves, he says he knows “they want to be highlighted” and thus he singles them out. North students increasingly shine academically and athletically in the transformation he’s leading there.

“When you treat people right, good things happen,” he says. “I make it a point every day I come to this building to be outside greeting kids as they come in. They see this crusty old man. I’m not an office person. I have to do my paperwork on Saturdays or after school. When the kids are moving to and from class I’m out there to see what the kids are doing. You can’t stay in one place, you have to be able to move, and I do, which prompts kids to ask, ‘Are there two of you?’ I show up when they least expect it, not looking to catch them in anything but to give them that extra encouragement they need.

“We have a staff at North High School that cares about every student. The kids know that. I think that’s the key. You have to go in with a positive attitude. Every student is worth something. The young people you’re working with on a daily basis are going to be your future.”

For Haynes, there’s no conflict about his mission.

“The bottom line has been and always will be what’s best for young people, not personally for me. It’s to make a difference in the lives of young people that you come across in your path.”

It’s all about setting expectations.

“If you don’t expect anything from them they’re not going to give you anything but if you have those high expectations and you communicate that there’s no wiggle room. You need to know how to do that. I’ve kind of mellowed in my latter years. I was very aggressive (before). It goes back to my father who said, ‘You’ll catch more bees with honey than you will with a stick.'”

When he sees students acting out he handles it differently today than in the past, though he still bellows “Hit the bricks” to stragglers.

“If you reprimand or put them down in front of their peers you’re not going to get anywhere. The best thing to do is to approach them and treat them with all due respect.”

 

 

 

A credo he likes imparting is, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to worry about repeating it – it’s always going to be there.”

Haynes realizes students confront a lot these days between the pressure to have sex at an early age, the lure of drugs, the threat of bullying and the high incidence of teen depression and suicide. He’s aware many inner city students come from broken families and live in active gang areas where instability and fear rule.

“I think the biggest challenge we face is we don’t have enough time for the magnitude of issues students bring to school. It’s not about books, it’s about time and effort to convince these young people there’s a better way of dealing with issues.”

Rather than an extended school day or extended school year, he advocates schools and communities “provide the best opportunities” for students to develop.

He says parents are vital cogs in their children’s education and he actively solicits their participation.

“I pick up the phone and call them. If I need to go make a home visit I do that. We make them a part of the equation.”

He says “the trust level has improved” among North’s parent base. He
suspects some had bad experiences in school, making it incumbent on himself and his staff “to ease any apprehensions they feel,” adding, “There’s a support system in place to eliminate some of those concerns. We have a very strong PTSO (Parent Teacher Student Organization).”

Coming out of Miss. in an era when blacks were denied basic human and civil rights, he knows about hard times and perseverance. You don’t forge a 47-year career without overcoming odds.

Haynes grew up the youngest of four sons to a sharecropping father and homemaking mother in a country hamlet between Gholson and Preston, Miss. During the off-season his father drove a truck. Like his brothers and cousins he was delivered by his midwife grandmother.

“We came in with the blessings of my grandmother,” is how he puts it.

In that tight-knit community he says, “We kind of looked out after for each other.”

In the fully segregated South he attended all black schools that got “hand-me-down” textbooks from the white schools. As a child he walked miles to a one-room schoolhouse. At 9 he started taking a bus to school. By high school the routine found one bus picking up a white neighbor girl and another bus picking him up, the vehicles taking the youths to “separate and unequal schools.”

Blacks were treated as second-class citizens in every way.

“That was the way of life back in that time. Growing up in the Jim Crow South toughened your skin up.”

His parents never got as far as high school but they stressed education’s importance. The black teachers who taught at the choolhouse boarded with the Haynes family during the week. That close proximity to educators made “a big impact on me,” he says.

An influential figure in his life was a landed white man, Vardaman Vendevender, who took an interest in young Gene.

“This gentleman was very dear to my family. On the weekends I worked for him. I did things around his house. I had access to his tractor, truck, jeep. If he needed things from the store I was able to go into town and get them. He called me Gene Robert after my grandfather. He once said to me, ‘If you ever want to be successful you have to leave the state of Miss.’ Here was a white guy sharing that with me. That was a relationship I treasured for years. Up until he passed every time I would go back to Miss. I would visit him.”

Vendevender’s son, Jake, visited him at North a few years ago. “He said, ‘When I pulled up I couldn’t believe a young skinny kid from Miss. is the principal of this big high school. My father must have made an impression on you.’ That’s something that sticks with me even right now.” Haynes returned the favor, visiting Jake below the Mason-Dixon Line. “We talked about the olden days.”

Haynes was in high school, where he excelled in sports, when the civil rights movement came to Miss. and all hell broke loose. Native son James Meredith integrated “Ole Miss” in 1962 but only with the full force of the nation’s highest court and National Guard troops behind him.

“The most frightening thing in my life was riding the bus to school and having federal marshals on every corner. Tension ran very high.”

 

Every time activists or lawmakers threatened dismantling segregation, racist stakeholders in that apartheid system reacted violently. In 1964, his freshman year in college. a trio of Freedom Riders were killed. The deaths of the Mississippi Three further heightened fear.

Haynes says despite the obstacles and dangers he never despaired things wouldn’t improve. He believed in the power of education and in letting the truth shine through ignorance.

“I could see that because of my training and my teachers, who were always discussing how important it was to get an education. They embedded that into us – that education is a key for success.”

Blacks were also resourceful to find some kind of way through barriers to pursue their goals and dreams.

“We managed in spite of the opportunities denied us.”

Haynes says that as a college-bound African-American then his higher ed choices in the South were severely limited. In much of the region at that time blacks could not attend anything but historically black colleges. “When I was coming out of high school if you were black and you didn’t go to Jackson State, Alcorn, Mississippi Valley State, Rust College or one of the other private black schools, you couldn’t go.”

During the ’60s some challenged this exclusion but not without the federal government enforcing it. Even then there were serious, often ugly consequences. It would be some time before blacks were able to attend schools of their choice without incident.

Haynes was fortunate to have as a mentor a male high school biology teacher who also coached him in football.

“He was very instrumental in working with me from grade 10 on, preparing me for college. He had gone to Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss, and he was very instrumental in my attending Rust. I felt that was the opportunity for me to do the things I need to do.”

Before attending Rust, however, Haynes followed his brothers to Omaha, where the extended family put down roots during the Great Migration blacks made from the South to the North in search of a better life. Omaha’s booming meat packing plants and railroad operations drew many unskilled blacks and other minorities here.

“We had relatives here and they hooked my oldest brother, who came here in ’59. with a job. iI was a kind of networking that went on. He came here on a weekend and he went to work at the packinghouse on Monday. That started a chain of events,” says Haynes, whose other brothers followed. In 1963, Gene did, too. His brothers went to Miss. for his high school graduation and no sooner did the ceremony end then they took him back to Omaha with them.

“I left to the chagrin of my mom and dad. I was the baby and now the nest was empty. In 1964 my mother and father pulled up stakes and moved to Omaha. Mom couldn’t stand not being around her boys.”

 

 

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Unlike his brothers, Gene didn’t work in the packinghouses. Instead, a relative got him on at the fancy Blackstone Hotel, with its distinctive exterior, ornate interior and popular Golden Spur and Orleans Room.

He returned to Miss. to attend Rust, majoring in social studies and economics.

“They provided me with a great education,” he says of his alma mater. The school also served as his introduction to his life partner. “I met a great lady whom I ended up marrying – my wife Annie. We graduated from Rust in 1967 and we got married in 1968.”

Haynes and his wife are the parents of one son, Jerel, and the grandparents of Caleb and Jacob.

Work-study and a scholarship put Haynes through college. He toiled in the dorms and athletic offices to pay his way in becoming his family’s first college graduate. Given the sway educators had in his life, he naturally looked at teaching as a career. Places like Omaha had a dearth of black college grads then, so OPS looked to historically black colleges for candidates. He joined other newly minted educators from the South as OPS hires, including Sam Crawford, Jim Freeman and Tom Harvey, all of whom enjoyed long careers like him.

“A large group of us that went to predominantly black schools came to Omaha to teach,” he says. “We’ve been very blessed because we have carved out a legacy that’s been great. We stuck together.”

Haynes didn’t intend staying in Omaha. When he started at OPS in 1967, at Omaha Technical High School. he came alone while Annie pursued teaching opportunities in Alabama and then Cleveland, Ohio.

“My plan was to teach here one year and go to Miami, where I also applied. I lived with my parents to save money. Forty-seven years later I’m still here and I haven’t saved any money yet,” he says, laughing.

 

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    Haynes with one of his Omaha Tech High basketball squads

 

 

After that first year in Omaha he went to Cleveland to court Annie.

“I convinced her Omaha was the place she needed to be.”

She got a job teaching 3rd grade at Lothrop Elementary. Annie ended up teaching 37-plus years in the district.

Haynes, who earned a master’s degree in education, administration supervision from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1974, taught and coached at Tech until the school closed in 1984. The massive Tech building is now the OPS headquarters, He was an assistant football coach when future University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers played for the school. During his tenure at Tech Haynes became the state’s first black head basketball coach. Breaking that new ground meant dealing with some racist coaches, officials and fans.

“With a predominantly black team we had some skewed eyes looking at us. I had to tell the kids, ‘You have to play above that because let’s face it if it’s close, you can forget it,'” says Haynes, referring to blatantly bad calls that went against his team and other minority-laden teams then at Omaha Central and Omaha South.

“I told the kids, ‘You have to be twice as good as your competition.’ And so we tried to prepare them for that.”

He says he instilled in his players the philosophy – “You give it your best. Winning is not everything, but a sincere effort is.” He says he still believes that today. “It’s not about wins and losses it’s about the success of the young people at the end of their high school term.”

He has fond memories of his time at Tech.

“I can think about so many young people I was fortunate enough to work with.”

One of those is Thomas Warren Sr., who became Omaha Police chief and is now president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska. Warren played basketball for Haynes and remembers his old coach as “a strict disciplinarian who had the respect of his players” because he went the extra mile for them. He sees Haynes doing the same thing today.

“For many of his players he was responsible for facilitating scholarship opportunities. For me individually, he drove me to Sioux City, Iowa in his personal vehicle for my recruitment visit to Morningside College, where I eventually attended. I have watched him spend countless hours serving the students of Omaha North High School and our community. He has been an advocate for at-risk students and I have never seen him give up on a kid. I consider Gene Haynes a friend, mentor and role model and I will always refer to him as ‘Coach.'”

Other students Haynes molded became entrepreneurs, lawyers and professionals in one field or another. He finds it ironic many of them are now retired while he’s still working.

“Doesn’t seem right,” he says, smiling.

He says “the passion the staff developed caring about individual students made all the difference in the world” at Tech “and that’s what I’ve attempted to do and incorporate here at North.” He and his staff work to create an environment where students “feel they can come and talk to us about their concerns and we’ll address the situation.”

When Tech closed Haynes became assistant principal and athletic director at McMillan Magnet School for a year before joining the North High staff in 1987. At North he served as assistant principal and athletic director for 14 years until assuming the principal post in 2001.

Since taking over at North, whose 4410 North 36th Street campus borders some of Omaha’s highest crime areas, he’s credited with leading a turnaround there. But he says the transformation began under predecessor Tom Harvey, who changed the school’s image. Starting in the 1980s North’s once proud reputation suffered under the strain of urban pressures that saw school dropouts and disruptive behaviors rise, along with test scores decline. Haynes says Harvey began the process of turning this wasteland into an oasis of success.

“Tom Harvey was a driving force behind the resurrection of North.”

 

 

 

 

The impoverished neighborhoods around North had fallen into a mire of drugs, gangs, violence, vacant homes and hopelessness but have rebounded with help from community building organizations like Abide.

North’s leaders, Haynes says, made a conscious effort to make the school an anchor and resource in a community hungering for something it could be proud of and call its own.

“Tom Harvey invited the alums and the Vikings of Distinction to turn North High School around. They talked about what would it take to change the perception. There used to be a fence around the place.
When you saw that fence you thought about the prison mentality and we had to change that. The fence came down and there was a trust factor then within the community that North is the place to be.”

Haynes has continued to enhance North’s community engagement.

“North High School is a key component of this community. We have opened up North for community events and activities. We found that when people in the community feel they are part of something your vandalism goes down. They feel they have ownership in this. The second Saturday of the month the Empowerment Network uses our facility. Every Sunday Bridge Church holds services here.”

He says if northeast Omaha is to realize its hoped-for revival then North High and its companion schools must be actors in it.

“If it’s going to change North High School and the Omaha Public Schools are going to be key players in turning things around. Right now I see we’re moving in the right direction.”

Haynes welcomes community partners.

John Backus, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in North Omaha, says, “When we approached him about ways to be helpful in his school he was ready with ideas, answers and the sort of willing spirit that accomplishes things. Gene Haynes is a capable leader and intensely interested in the well-being of his students.”

Perhaps the biggest sea change for North came when it was made a magnet center for STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

“Haynes says, “We wanted the best and the brightest people to be a part of North High School – students and staff. We went out and brought in the best and the brightest and we will continue to do so.”

 

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To accommodate this influx of students and new curriculum Haynes invited the entire North community of staff, students, alums and neighbors to weigh-in on a vision for a new addition. A group of students took the initiative and drew up the initial design for what became the 34,000 square foot, multi-million dollar Haddix Center.

“When the students are active I think it’s important you allow them to have input,” says Haynes. “It took 11 years from the time we started to plan until we were able to build. That was huge. We cherish the fact the alumni association and one gentleman, George Haddix, gave up $5 million. The district bought the project and supported it. We dedicated it in 2010. This is our fifth year in that facility.”

As a magnet center North draws students from around the metro. Haynes says one third of its students come from outside its attendance area. The school’s test scores have soared and the number of academic college scholarship awarded graduates has exploded. OPS superintendent Mark Evans says, “It’s a great success story and his leadership has made a difference there not only in the classrooms but in the extracurriculars. The principal sets the tone and is the leader of that culture and Gene Haynes is one of the best examples of that. When you say North High, you think Gene Haynes – that’s how much identification there is with him there.”

Evans adds that North’s success has a ripple effect on its student body and the surrounding community. “I think it’s huge. I think it sends a message of hope that we can and will succeed. We’ve got some young people who haven’t always thought they were going to be successful but because of North High and Gene Haynes they all believe they can be successful now and they are being successful.”

Haynes feels the STEM experience students receive there is preparing them for working living wage 21st century jobs that demand tech savvy employees. He’s confident as technology becomes ever more important that North’s on the cutting edge of utilizing it in the classroom. For example, some algebra classes are entirely taught on iPads. A new Samsung Smart School Solutions pilot program invites students to use a 75-inch touch interactive display and tablets to make stock market purchases, deliver tech-driven business presentations and get hands-on learning experiences with real life business partners.

“We have the best technology persons in Rich Molettiere and Tracy Sage,” Haynes says of North’s technology coordinators. “We really appreciate what they’ve been able to do. If someone tried to take them out of North High School, it’s on.”

North’s academic progress is matched by the success of its athletic programs. Until recently the school was known for its wrestling dominance, including multiple team and individual champions and at least one Olympic hopeful, Vikings grad RaVaughn Perkins. But more recently North’s football team has been the dominant force, winning back to back Class A state titles behind superstar running back Calvin Strong, a South Dakota commit. and Husker lineman recruit Michael Decker. The 2014 Vikings finished 13-0 and are widely considered one of the top teams in Nebraska prep football history.

 

 

 

 

North has done all this without having a true home field to play on. Its football team plays at Northwest High’s Kinnick Stadium some four miles away. A proposal for North High to build a stadium of its own, right in the neighborhood, is being looked at. As with the earlier Haddix Center, North students did an initial design. Haynes and the school’s foundation are assessing if there’s enough support in the community for what would be a privately funded project costing millions of dollars.

“We want it be state of the art,” Haynes says.

He believes the stadium would be another “bright light for this community” and he says the facility would be available for use by nearby Skinner Magnet School and the Butler Gast YMCA.

Haynes keeps long hours at North, whose doors hardly ever seem to close for all the activity there. He says he goes home satisfied when “I see the kids leaving school with a smile on their face and a pat on the back from the principal and they acknowledge it.” He adds, “I have a post I go to at dismissal that borders the neighborhood. From my perch I can see kids coming and going and if anything’s going to happen from the outside that’s where it’s going to come from. The kids know that and I know that. That’s why I choose to go out there. As the kids walk by I acknowledge them and give them encouragement. That’s what I consider a most gratifying day.

“I try not take anything from school home, and vice versa.”

As for how much longer he’ll be doing this, he’s promised the class of 2017 he’ll walk with them at their graduation.

“That’s the plan – if my health stays good.”

That would make 50 years at OPS.

He won’t have any say in his successor but he and others will be keeping a close eye to make sure this sweet ride continues.

“I feel whoever comes in is going to do the right thing, and if not it’ll be a short tenure.”

Whoever follows him will have big shoes to fill. A measure of the high esteem he’s held in is the street named after him right outside the school. At the dedication for it last summer and on social media people offered tributes, calling him “humble, genuine, dedicated, a role model – commands true respect.” A grateful Haynes takes it all in stride, saying, “The Omaha community has been very gracious to me and my family and now I have to live up to it.”

 

 
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