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Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas

March 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

When new UNO Office of Latino and Latin American Studies community engagement coordinator Alina Lopez appears at public forums and school assemblies to tout OLLAS academic programs and scholarships, she speaks from experience.

This 2017 magna cum laude University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate found OLLAS opportunities herself as a volunteer and a Next Generation Leadership scholar.

Embedded in her outreach is a desire to help Latinas pursue higher education. She doesn’t want them deferring their dreams due to challenges like those she faced as a young mother in a domestic violence relationship. She lets aspirants know obstacles don’t need to prevent attaining goals. She delayed her college studies a decade until leaving her abuser. Once free, she shined in the classroom and blossomed as a woman and as a professional.

Born in Michoacan, Mexico, she was 3 when her family moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., where they lived until she was 12. Then they moved to Ogden, Utah. Concerns about undocumented status and the death of her grandfather prompted the family’s return to Mexico. Though an exceptional student, she struggled in Mexican schools and convinced her parents to let her return to the States.

She joined an older sister then living in Bellevue, Neb. Lopez graduated from Bryan High School – the last of five high schools she attended.

“I think I grew to be okay with change. I can adapt very well. But when you’re 15-16, parental guidance is essential. Not having that was the toughest part.”

Lopez married young and began having children. She’s the mother of five today.. She was an Omaha Public Schools ESL specialist and administrative aide at her alma mater, Bryan, where she helped coach girls soccer. Assistant principal Tracy Wernsman emboldened her.

“She was a mentor who was like an angel sent from God,” said Lopez. “She talked me through things like, ‘If you leave that relationship, you’ll be okay, you can do it,’ and so in 2011 I finally had the guts to say, ‘No more.’ Tracy told me I had great potential and needed to pursue college. Once I became liberated, I pursued it.”

Another strong influence has been Spring Lake Magnet principal Susan Aguilera-Robles.

“She is a great role model for me. She’s gone through a lot and dedicated her life to helping others. Being the principal of a school takes a lot. I know she has really bad days and really good days, but she’s made it work

and she makes it look easy.”

Lopez worked multiple jobs to support her family while earning an associate’s degree from Metropolitan Community College. Then she enrolled at UNO.

“Trying to figure it all out was very challenging and stressful, but well worth it.”

None of it was possible without first taking her life back.

“It makes you a stronger person. For a woman to get out of it is empowering. It makes you want to mentor other females going through the same. You don’t want anybody else to go through what you went through.”

School provided sanctuary and affirmation.

“After being divorced, you feel like a failure. When I enrolled in college I wanted to feel good about myself and to make up for lost time. It was a personal goal to attain a 4.0 GPA and I did it. I’m hungry to learn. I’m hard on myself. I want to give the best of me. I know what I’m capable of and so I push myself. School has always been my safe place. When I’m studying, it feels peaceful, so I’ve dedicated myself to school.”

She’s now eying a dual masters program in public administration and social work. She expects to earn a  Ph.D. as well.

Her curiosity extends beyond books. She participated in an international student program that took her to Hong Kong for five weeks last summer, where she joined other students from around the world. “I thought if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it, and it was life-changing. If I could go back, I’d do it all over again.”

She went beyond her job description at Bryan to influence young people.

“I was drawn to the kids who carried the most challenges with them. I wanted to know who they were, what they were going through. I also encouraged Latinas to seek post-secondary scholarships. It felt really good.”

While studying at UNO, Lopez became a regular in the OLLAS office and when the community engagement coordinator post opened, it seemed a perfect fit.

“Every single thing has led me to this point. I saw UNO and OLLAS offered the opportunity for more growth and academic success. We’re here to support students.”

She envisions one day realizing another dream – “to start an organization dedicated to young Latino women.” “I feel sometimes we let our culture oppress ourselves,” she said, “especially the immigrant community. We tend to look at our culture as more important than anything. For me, the thought of divorce was not even an option because when you marry, you marry until death do you part. A lot of women stay in a bad life and don’t receive support from family to leave it. I wish to help Latinas who don’t find support elsewhere.”

Lopez, who formed a single parent group at UNO, has come a long way herself.

“It’s been quite the journey.”

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Giving back and moving Forward at heart of Sagrario “Charo” Rangel’s life

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Giving back and moving forward at heart of Sagrario “Charo” Rangel’s life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

A strong work ethic and the value of a good education are two enduring lessons Sagrario “Charo” Rangel carries from her Mexican immigrant parents.

Now in her 25th year with the Omaha Public Schools, the South Omaha native and South High graduate started as a secretary before earning her bachelor’s degree and becoming a classroom teacher. She then went on to obtain her master’s and today is an Educational Accountability Office administrator.

Her work puts her in close contact with Latino youths and families through the Grassroots Leadership Development Program, Bridge to Success and the Latino Academic Achievement Council. She serves as OPS spokesperson on KePadre and Radio Lobo Spanish language stations. Her various efforts brought her the 2010 Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Education award.

“It was a very humbling experience,” she says of the honor. “It inspires me. It tells me I’m doing the right thing and it just gives me motivation to continue.”

She admits she never thought much about higher education or professional development as a young woman. She did, however, graduate from a business school. When OPS needed a bilingual secretary she filled the post.

Later, as a bilingual liaison, Rangel urged students to attend four-year colleges but didn’t feel right not having gone herself. With her colleagues nudging her to broaden her horizons, she decided to act.

“I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people that believed in me and thought I could aspire to be more,” she says. “They encouraged me and inspired me and motivated me to continue on to college.”

She juggled school with being a mother, a wife and a full-time employee. She commuted from Omaha, first to Peru State College, then Concordia University, and finally Doane College.

“There were times when it was very difficult,” says the former Charo Vacquez. “But I learned from my parents you never give up, you work hard, and you do what you need to do. Those are some strong values and beliefs I carry with me today.”

Her husband’s continued his vocational education and her daughter excels in school.

“I would not have been able to do any of this without the support of my husband and my daughter. There were times when all three of us were at the table doing our homework.”

Classroom teaching fulfilled her.

“It was life-altering for me,” she says. “Our classroom was truly like a family, so what affected one affected all of us.”

Though gut-wrenching to leave the classroom, the prospect of having a greater impact convinced her to enter educational administration.

She says, “There was an opportunity to do some positive things in the community, to really make some changes, and be a part of the process and the team.”

Rangel appreciates now being invited to the decision-making table as a peer leader.

“There’s few Latinos in administrative positions in the Omaha Public Schools and nationwide,” she says. “I love the opportunity to work more with the community and to make more of a difference. It’s a passion I have to help the students and families in our community.”

Her own example, she says, is a lesson to students that “yes you can — don’t give up on yourself. I show my students that if you work hard you will see the rewards.” She enjoys being a mentor to others. It’s her way of “giving back” all that she’s been given.

Rony Ortega follows path serving more students in OPS

October 22, 2017 1 comment

To be a public schools advocate, one doesn’t have to be a public education institution graduate. Nor does one need to be a professional public schools educator or administrator, But in Rony Ortega’s case, he checks yes to all three and he feels that background, plus a strong work ethic and desire to serve students, gives him the right experience for his new post as a district executive director in the Omaha Public Schools. He supervises and guides principals at 16 schools and he loves the opportunity of impacting more students than he ever could as a classroom teacher, counselor, assistant principal and principal. He also feels his own story of educational attainment (two master’s degreees and a doctorate) and career acheivement (a senior administrative position by his late 30s) despite a rough start in school and coming from a working-class family whose parents had little formal education is a testament to how far public education can carry someone if they work hard enough and want it bad enough. Read my profile of Rony Ortega in El Perico.

 

 

Rony Ortega follows path serving more students in OPS

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

Rony Ortega has gone far in his 15-year career as an educator. He worked in suburban school districts in Elkhorn and Papillion before recruited to the Omaha Pubic Schools by former OPS staffer and veteran South Omaha community activist, Jim Ramirez.

Ortega. who’s married with three daughters, all of whom attend OPS, has moved from classroom teacher and high school counselor to assistant principal at South High to principal of Buffett Middle School. Earlier this year, he was hired as a district executive director tasked with supporting and supervising principals of 16 schools.

The Southern California native traces his educational and professional achievement to his family’s move to Nebraska. Negative experiences in Los Angles public schools in the 1980s-1990s – gang threats, no running water, rampant dropouts – fueled his desire to be a positive change agent in education. In Schuyler, where his immigrant parents worked the packing plants, he was introduced to new possibilities.

“I’m thankful my parents had the courage to move us out of a bad environment. Really, it wasn’t until I got here I met some key people that really changed the trajectory of my life. I met the middle class family I never knew growing up. They really took me under their wing. We had conversations at their dinner table about college-careers – all those conversations that happen in middle class homes that never happened in my home until I met that family.

“That was really transformational for me because it wasn’t until then I realized my future could be different and I didn’t have to work at a meatpacking plant and live in poverty. I really credit that with putting me on a different path.”

He began his higher education pursuits at Central Community College (CCC) in Columbus.

“I went there because, honestly, it was my only option. I was not the smartest or sharpest kid coming out of high school. Just last year, I was given the outstanding alumnus award and was their commencement speaker. I was humbled. Public speaking is not something I really enjoy, but I did it because if I could influence somebody in that crowd to continue their education, it was worth it. And I owed it to the college. That was the beginning of my new life essentially.”

He noted that, just as at his old school in Schuyler, CCC-Columbus is now a Hispanic-serving institution where before Latinos were a rarity. His message to students: education improves your social mobility.

“No one can take away your education regardless of who you are, where you go, what you do.”

He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and went on to earn two master’s and a doctorate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“I’m really the first in my family to have more of an educational professional background,” Ortega said, “I don’t think my parents quite yet grasp what I do for a living or what all my education means, so there’s some of that struggle where you’re kind of living in two worlds.”

He expects to keep advancing as an administrator.

“I have a lot of drive in me, I have a lot of desire to keep learning. I do know I want to keep impacting more and more kids and to have even a broader reach, and that is something that will drive my goals going forward.

“It’s very gratifying to see your influence and the impact you make on other people. There’s no better feeling than that.”

He’s still figuring out what it means to be an executive director over 16 principals and schools.

“For now, I’m focusing on building relationships with my principals, getting to know their schools, their challenges, observing what’s happening. So right now I’m just doing a lot of leading through learning. It’s quite the challenge with not only the schools being elementary, middle and high schools but being all over town. Every school has challenges and opportunities – they just look different. I’m trying to learn them.

“When I was a principal, I had teachers who needed me more than others. I’m learning the same thing is true with principals – some need you more because they’re new to the position or perhaps are in schools that have a few more challenges.”

Having done the job himself, he knows principals have a complex, often lonely responsibility. That’s where he comes in as support-coach-guide.

“We’re expecting principals to be instructional leaders but principals have a litany of other things to also do. Our theory of action is if we develop our principals’ capacity, they will in turn develop teachers’ capacity and then student outcomes will improve.”

He knows the difference a helping hand can make.

“No matter where I’ve been, there’s always been at least one person instrumental in influencing me. The research shows all it takes is one person to be in somebody’s corner to help them, and there’ve been people who’ve seen value in me and really invested in me.”

His educational career, he said, “is my way of giving back and paying it forward.”

“It’s so gratifying to wake up every day knowing you’re doing it for those reasons. That’s really powerful stuff.”

He purposely left the burbs for more diverse OPS.

“I kept thinking I’ve got to meet my heart. I wanted to do more to impact kids probably more like me.”

He’s proud that a district serving a large immigrant and refugee population is seeing student achievement gains and graduation increases, with more grads continuing education beyond high school.

As he reminds students, if he could do it, they can, too.

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.

Art in the heart of South Omaha

September 22, 2017 1 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.

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