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

December 2, 2014 1 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

Originally appeared in the New Horixons

 

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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Gene Haynes

 

 

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.”

 

 

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

August 15, 2014 Leave a comment

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

 

 

Mark Evans, ©ketv.com

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©omaha.com

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Pam Cohn (Secondary)                                                                                        

 Melissa Comine (Elementary)

Dwayne Chism (Elementary)                                                                                                                                                                                           Lisa Utterback, Elementary

         

 

 

 

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

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

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

Other principals have done the same thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Evans likes where his ship of a district is headed.

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

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

Partnership 4 Kids – Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers

June 3, 2014 2 comments

Omaha Metro Magazine asked me to write a special multi-page insert for its June 2014 issue all about a local nonprofit. Parternship 4 Kids, and its mission to give at-risk youth a pathway to educational success from Kindergarten through college.  Here are the stories.

 

 

 

 

metroMAGAZINE

 

BREAKING BARRIERS AND BUILDING BRIDGES

Transforming Communities…Fostering Life Beyond Limits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Magazine

 

Giving at-risk youth hope and a pathway to success is the core mission of the goal-setting and mentoring collaborative known as Partnership 4 Kids. Serving more than 4,700 K-9 students in 22 schools with the help of 400-plus volunteers, P4K sprang out of two small adopt-a-school programs initiated by Omaha entrepreneurs.

In 1989, local busInessman and philanthropIst Michael Yanney launched All Our Kids at then-McMIllan JunIor High School as away to capture and support the lost youth he saw beIng left behInd In North Omaha. He formed a contract with 20 at-risk youth that had high potential but displayed low achievement and he promised them a post-secondary education if they met a set of expectations. Volunteer mentors were assigned to each student to guide their progress. Mike and his wife Gail became personal mentors to several students. Over the next two decades the program expanded into more schools and touched the lives of more young people, many of whom have realized the dream of a college education and a career.

Business owners Jerry and Cookie Hoberman wanted to give back to the North Omaha community that patronized their firm and in 1996 they put in place an idea called Winners Circle at then-Belvedere Elementary School. At the time North Omaha public schools were lagging far behind in student achievement. Borrowing from the incentives-based program for employees used at the couple’s business, Winners Circle introduced motivational tools to help students set and achieve academic and citizenship goals. Adult volunteers called Goal Buddies encouraged students to succeed. Quarterly celebrations recognized student success. As student achievement rose, the program moved into additional schools.

Joining forces for greater collective impact, in 2007 All Our Kids and Winners Circle merged to create Partnership 4 Kids. By combining resources to provide support from early childhood through college, these efforts can now make a greater impact on participants.

“If you can make the difference in those kids where they start to believe they can succeed, you’re starting to make a huge indentation in the problems we have here in Omaha,”says P4K President Deb Denbeck. “That’s why we’re so passionate about what we do and that’s why we’re looking for more help. We have the groundwork set at the very time kids enter school and then it’s a continuum from Kindergarten through careers that we work with them.”

It’s about breaking generational poverty, which tends to persist with a lack of education.

“Education is at the core of everything we do with youth, but it is the relationship building and providing positive role models in their lives that makes the real difference,” Denbeck says.

Caring adult volunteers remain central to the P4K approach, whether as Goal Buddies, Group Mentors or Navigators.

“Sometimes parents need help. We have parents working three jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Over 90 percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced lunch – the indicator of living at or below the federal poverty level. We have kids come through our program who are the first ones in their family to graduate high school, let alone college. That’s pretty startling.”

Gail Yanney says, “Today, young people have so much more to contend with. That’s where the mentor comes in. They have to have an adult that’s been there, that has common sense, that can perhaps guide them through these perilous waters. Youth are subject to all kinds of bad influences and we’d like to instill some good influences and give them an opportunity to see themselves as successes. Studies show that one meaningful person in a child’s life is the difference.”

Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans says a mentor can be the difference between a child being hopeless and hopeful.

“If you start to believe you’re not going to get opportunities then you’re more apt to skip school, to have disciplinary problems, maybe even dropout,” he says, “but if you believe there’s hope and that light at the end of tunnel is close enough, you say, ‘I can do this, I can get through this and have opportunities.’ Partnership 4 Kids brings that positive adult in to bring that light at the end of the tunnel a little closer to students, where there’s a belief or hope that they can succeed.”

 

My son’s an honor roll student and he’s already looking at colleges around the country. I love the fact I have taught him the power of education. ~ MONIQUE CRIBBS

 

Monique Cribbs

 

Success story
P4K Alum Monique Cribbs enjoying education-career success                                                                                                                          

P4K has many alums whose educational achievements and success illustrate the value of having mentors in their lives.

Monique Cribbs was a senior at Omaha North High with a strong desire to fulfill her and her parents’ dreams of going onto college but she didn’t see a way she could afford school, at least not right away. Then a classmate in All Our Kids introduced her to Mike Yanney and that meeting led to him telling her he saw great potential in her and promising he would pay for her college education. When her life took some unexpected turns in college and presented her with some hard challenges, such as becoming a young single mom, her grades suffered and she strongly considered leaving school. But enough caring people in her life encouraged her to carry on. One of those caring people was Mike Yanney.

“I view Mike as a father figure, a very caring, wise person,” Cribbs says. “I remember going to his house and just crying. I told him I thought I would be dropped from the program. He said, ‘No matter what you do, we support you. Monique, the scholarship will never leave you, we’re here for you.’ and that meant so much to me. I had my son in 1999 and went right back to school.”

She followed her bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication from UNO with a master’s in human relations from Bellevue University and is now pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership and higher education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After stints at the Omaha Home for Boys and Bellevue University she served as Trio Coordinator at Creighton University. Today, she’s Career Services Coordinator at Metropolitan Community College, where she’s also an adjunct instructor.

“There are days when it’s really hard for me, where I’m really overwhelmed and stressed out,” Cribbs says, “but I know when I walk across the stage this next time it will have all been worth it. Now the sky is the limit, there is nothing I cannot do and one day I would like to be a vice president or a president of a college.”

Today she’s doing for current students what was done for her.

“It’s always good to have that advocate in your life to be able to talk about all sorts of things. I always want to have the ability to have contact with students but have the power to make change in institutions. I feel I’m in my training ground right now.”

She’s grateful for what P4K and the mentors she met provided her and continue to provide her 20 years later.

“I’m so appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been given. These people truly are in your life, they truly care for you, and they’re also honest with you as well. It’s important to have someone to tell you, ‘You’re messing up right now,’ or, ‘You’re not making wise decisions but I know you have to live your life.’ As a mentee it’s critical you listen and also realize you do have to go through life making your own decisions while at the same time finding that balance between what your mentors are saying to you and what you want to do. That takes time.

“I think it’s amazing I met Mike (Yanney) when I was 17 and I turn 37 in May, and he’s still there and we still talk. I also still stay in contact with former All Our Kids President Julie Hefflinger. I think that means a lot because it went from being a mentoring relationship to being a friendship. I want them in my life. I appreciate them.”

Denbeck says the journey Cribbs has taken is one of “many compelling stories of people who have been in our program, graduated and are now very successful.” She says Cribbs epitomizes what happens when mentors enter a young person’s life and help pull them forward.

Denbeck says Cribbs does everything she can to give back to the program she credits with giving her so much.

“Monique spoke at last year’s Senior Banquet. Her message was,‘ It’s going to be hard, life isn’t always fair or easy, but don’t ever give up.’”

Indeed, Cribbs, who “was very honored to be the keynote speaker,” says, “I spoke from my heart about the power of education and my experiences in the program and in my life. I told the truth, saying not everyone in this room will make it through college but at the same time you all have people who are here to support you and you have to align yourself with those who want to see you do well.”

Her son Cayden participated in P4K as a 7th and 8th grader, one of several youth following in the footsteps of their parents in the program, and he’s preparing to enter Elkhorn Mount Michael in the fall.

“My son’s an honor roll student and he’s already looking at colleges around the country. I love the fact I have taught him the power of education and that his job is to go to school and do well and my job is to support him and be the role model of continuing my education so he can’t say to me, ‘Mom, I can’t do it,’  because I can say, ‘Baby, you can, because I did. There’s nothing you can’t do because I’m doing it.’“

 

 

 

 

Mike and Gail Yanney

 

A helping hand

When it comes to mentors, the biggest thing is showing up.

“Being a good mentor is about being there,” Denbeck says. “When you’re there consistently kids begin to get the sense that you care about them. That consistency is huge because some of these kids have had adults come and go in their lives all the time. The best thing a mentor can do is to care and to be consistent. Kids just want to know that you’ve got their back.

“When that happens as our Program Coordinators can tell you, you see better behavior and better grades because their mentors help them create hope that there’s a brighter future.”

At each participating school a paid P4K Program Coordinator serves as liaison, facilitator and resource for the school staff and volunteers.

“Our Program Coordinators are embedded more and more in the schools,” Denbeck notes. “That means they’re also doing some intensive case management with kids who need it the most. Our kids see our Program Coordinators at school every day. If we’re going to build relationships the more people see you the more they trust you.”

In some ways mentoring is as simple as giving students guideposts to follow and work towards.

“People growing up in poverty and facing very difficult situations really need a lot of help and it isn’t money they need, they need opportunities, they need people to put their arm around them and encourage them and motivate them,” Mike Yanney says. “It’s about instilling hope and there’s every reason to have hope because in this great nation there are all kinds of jobs available, even today, but young people have to be educated to do those jobs.”

OPS endorsed

All of P4K’s work is done in step with its biggest partner, the Omaha Public Schools, whose students the program exclusively serves. Therefore P4K’s goals mirror OPS goals.

“As a school-based mentoring program we reinforce what the schools are doing,” Denbeck says. “We work in partnership with Omaha Public Schools and we’re a support group that’s giving these kids in-school and after-school support. We work with every kid in 12 elementary schools through our goal setting program and from there students are selected to go into our after-school group mentoring program in middle and high school. The carrot at the end is that we provide a college scholarship.

“We do whatever we can to be a good partner with the schools helping these young people and schools be successful. They have to believe in what we do and we have to bring something of value to the table. Having volunteers in your school is very healthy. It’s that co-connection of community and school.”

OPS head Mark Evans likes that P4K is in sync with his district.

“They are aligning student goals to school goals and district goals, which is really what we’re about right now with our whole strategic planning process,” he says.“We see Partnership 4 Kids aligning to what we’re trying to achieve, whether it’s NESA goals, attendance goals, graduation goals. This is just a great resource to help us see that alignment and keep that focus and to have a community member there helping our young people create those goals.”

Miller Park Elementary School Principal Lisa Utterback, whose school has seen academic achievement dramatically rise during her tenure and P4K’s immersion there, also likes that “the P4K program aligns strategically to what we’re doing,” adding,“We receive support from the Goal Buddies, the Program Coordinator and the P4K program by their presence in the building and their having positive communication with our students and encouraging them to stay the course.”

Similarly, Field Club Elementary School Principal Barb Wild has seen increased student achievement at her school. She says P4K “is a part of that because it’s part of our school culture,” adding,“ It’s integrated into what we’re doing with the acuity data and the state testing. It all connects. It’s not some vague just be good or just do better, it’s a very specific, laid-out thing students can attach to and take ownership of.”

Denbeck says,“We start early focusing on goal setting in math, reading and life skills. Those are real indicators of educational success and life success. The skill of goal setting directly correlates to education. It’s really important kids learn how to do this and the teachers are the ones developing those goals with the kids.”

 

 

 

Deb Debeck

 

P4K makes a big deal of students meeting goals at quarterly celebrations in the schools.

“The celebration each quarter is a culmination of their success,” Denbeck says. “They get to come up to the stage to get a medal and shake hands with the Goal Buddies. They’re recognized in front of the entire school. It’s really a school- wide celebration of the achievement of students. It’s directly related to creating that hope that there’s a brighter future.”

Evans applauds P4K for recognizing student achievement.

“I think the power of that is not that students are just getting an ‘attaboy’ or ‘attagirl’ but that it’s related to an accomplishment,” he says.“Giving support to young people, letting them know we care and celebrating their success is fine but the research says you need something worth celebrating – meeting a goal of some kind – and that’s where the core piece is. They’re tying it into recognition of an accomplishment. That’s when I think it really has value. The things you value most are the things you work hard for.”

 

The amount of people we touch and the lives we change and the results we have seen are pretty phenomenal. ~ DEB DENBECK, P4K PRESIDENT

 

Building blocks
P4K starts early getting kids to think about careers and college.

“In 5th grade we conduct career tours as part of career exploration,” says Denbeck. “We want kids to see all the different career options available. These trips are made possible through our partner corporations and sponsors. Our middle school program prepares kids for strengths-based leadership. Every one of our kids goes through the Strengths Quest program at Gallup to find out what their strengths are. Kids learn moral courage – how to stand up to bullying. They learn all those things that help build character and help in making good decisions. They learn financial vitality, they learn how to write a business plan and to sell a product. They learn both business skills and personal skills. We also begin taking our middle school students on several college visits. We want them to see college as a reality.”

Denbeck says one of the biggest indicators of whether a student will drop out of school is their experience in middle school.

“It’s a very changing and defining time in a young person’s life – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. It’s that whole adolescent change. In our program we address specific issues and lessons in various areas that will help these kids have the skills to succeed and transition to high school. Then, when they get to 9th grade we really talk about what they need to do to graduate. We put a plan together of how they can succeed through high school. As our kids go into their freshman year we call our volunteer mentors, Navigators. They work with groups on those skills students need to succeed in high school. Students look more seriously at career exploration and shadow mentors at their workplaces. We’re always putting careers and college in front of them.”

Navigators meet with the same large group of 9th graders twice a month after school in a classroom setting and at least once per month outside of school.

“It takes some skill to get kids to trust and operate in a group setting,” Denbeck says.“ There’s always time set aside for mentor-mentee relationship building and conversation, which is combined in tandem with a structured curriculum. Outings are reflective of what’s taught in the classroom. We also have a lot of fun group activities. We try to broaden their cultural experience because some don’t get those opportunities very often.”

Although P4K programming strives to provide a comprehensive pathway to success for students room is also made for community collaboration.

“We use these other resources to help students get up that ladder,” Denbeck explains. “As a nonprofit you cannot be everything to every single person, so a year ago our board of directors asked two specific questions: ‘Who needs us the most?’ and‘ Where can we make the biggest impact?’ So we redesigned our program to be a K-9 program. Why K-9? That gets you through the two biggest hurdles a young person goes through – from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. Those big transition years are so key.”

P4K’s added formal partnerships with College Possible Avenue Scholars and Teammates to aid in preparing students’ individual plans for life beyond high school and completing the continuum of care.

Even as students move on into college P4K remains in their lives because of the scholarships they receive from the organization. P4K continues to be an ongoing resource to help keep students on track.

“We’re now working on establishing college campus groups to provide peer-to-peer mentoring,” Denbeck says.

P4K also has informal partnerships with many other youth serving organizations, such as the Trio programs, Upward Bound and Urban League of Nebraska to give students more options for finding the right niche for where they’re at and what they need.

High school students are given college access support via act preparation, admissions application ins and outs, financial aid resources and scholarship opportunities.Sstudents are offered workshops in various professions, job readiness seminars and summer internship opportunities.

 

Roll Call! P4K Introduces 3 New Staffers

 

A proven model
Every student’s path to success includes someone who helped them along the way and Denbeck says she’s proud to lead a program with a 25-year history of helping kids follow their dreams.

“The amount of people we touch, the lives we change and the results we have are pretty phenomenal. Knowing that we graduate 100 percent of kids with 90 percent going on to college and seven of our schools exceeding standards in reading and math tells us we’re doing a lot of things right.

“We’ve grown and we want to continue to grow.”

More donors and volunteers are needed to implement that growth. Denbeck hopes that as more people volunteer with P4K and as more organizations partner with it the added support will follow.

Volunteer coordinator Tracy Wells says the majority of P4K Goal Buddies and Group Mentors come from the corporate community and many return year after year.

“I think the glue that keeps people coming back is that they feel like they’re making a difference and they are connecting to the relationships they build with youth.”

Earl Redrick, a Group Mentor for four youth at Norris Middle School, says, “It is about relationships and having impact on the lives of young folks. Having a mentor, whether both parents are in the home or not, is proven to have some remarkable and positive results on the development of kids.” He knows from personal experience the difference mentoring makes because of the direction he received as a youth at youth serving organizations in his native San Antonio, Texas.

An employee with the Omaha office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Redrick says he goes the extra mile with his mentees, including regular Saturday outings, “because I know the rewards these guys get will go a long ways in life.”

Wells says P4K could always use more volunteers from the professional ranks like Redrick. She’d also like to recruit more retirees like Patti Quinn-McGovern, who began as a Goal Buddy at Field C lub Elementary School while employed at Omaha Public Power District and she and two fellow OPPD retirees have kept right on volunteering.

“Being a mentor is very fulfilling and rewarding,” says Quinn-McGovern. “I can just be standing here and children will come up and give me some hugs. Who can turn that away?”

 

It was important having her in my life because my school wasn’t the best environment all the time and I kind of needed an extra push. ~ BRITTANY GOSSETT

 

Brittany Gossett
While a 7th grade student at McMIllan MIddle School BrIttany Gossett couldn’t escape a school counselor who wanted her to apply to one of the two forerunner programs that merged to form PartnershIp 4 KIds. Seemingly every time the counselor saw Gossett she was championing the mentoring and scholarship resources of All Our Kids (AOK) as a not-to-be-missed opportunity. Gossett didn’t know what to make of it all, little knowing the program would propel her on a path of success.

“She kept pestering me, ‘Did you fill out the application?’ Finally, I filled it out and the program’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had,” says Gossett, now 24. She learned a valuable lesson about seizing opportunities when they’re presented.

Today, Gossett, who with the guidance of a personal mentor went on to graduate from Omaha Central High School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is employed by one of Partnership 4 Kids’ newest collaborators, College Possible. The mission of College Possible is to get students to college by helping them navigate admission, financial aid and scholarship applications. Once students make it there the organization assigns them a coach to support them through the post-secondary experience, on through graduation and into their career. Gossett conducts workshops for middle and high school students to encourage them to start thinking about and preparing for college. She sees her work as a way of giving back for what others did for her.

“I had a mentor in Marsha Marron. She met me when I was in 8th grade at Monroe Middle School and she stuck with me all through high school and college. She did a lot of things with me. We went out to eat. Every year she would let me go school shopping for supplies. She brought me gifts at Christmas. Most of all, she encouraged me. We would talk most every Monday. We do stay in touch even now. It was important having her in my life because my school wasn’t the best environment all the time and I kind of needed an extra push. When people around you are behaving badly you can get sucked into it and I needed somebody to give me guidance and structure and that’s what she provided. I always had my own mind but she was that extra push to say, ‘You need to stay on this path so that you can get to college and be successful in life.’ She was that extra help to give me a reason to be successful.”

In her current work Gossett plays a similar role for students starving for the same kind of encouragement and guidance she needed.

“The thing that keeps me motivated to help students is that I can relate to them. I want to help students because I know they have potential and sometimes they just need the extra push like I did. These students are very hard working but sometimes they get beat up by life. A lot of the students we work with come from homes where the parents are not supportive, where they’re talked down to. Some kids can’t even walk outside their house safely.

“You just have to give them a chance and look beyond what the situation around them is and see their heart and who they are as a person. We get to know them personally. These students sometimes just need somebody to be supportive of them and try to understand where they’re coming from. They just may need somebody to pat them on the back and say, ‘Great job.’”

 

 

When you have people in your corner who support you and encourage you even when you go through those different highs and lows they help to keep you motivated. ~ MONIQUE CRIBBS

 

Monique Cribbs
More than a decade earlIer, Monique Cribbs started her journey wIth the program near the end of her senIor year at North HIgh School. The only reason she came to it at all was that a classmate in the program suggested that she speak to its founder, Michael Yanney. Cribbs did and it changed her life.

“At the end of the conversation Mike said, ‘Monique, I see great potential in you and I want to help you and I will give you a full-ride scholarship to college,” Cribbs recalls. “So I became a part of the program. It was unorthodox because they were starting with kids in 5th or 6th grade and I came in at 12th grade. I had a mentor and I started doing all the same type of activities the other students were doing.

“We graduated that May and two weeks later my friend and I went to Bridge, a summer institute at UNL for promising scholars from across the state.”

The start of her college experience that fall was far from a smooth ride. She didn’t get along with her first mentor. She didn’t much like taking other people’s advice. Her grades slipped. Then after transferring from UNL to UNO, she got pregnant.

“There were a few bumps in the road. It was just a rocky time. I was young and I thought I knew everything.”

She feared she’d blown her chance. But even after those false starts and detours her education was paid for as promised. She’s gone onto great academic achievement and career success with AOK founder Mike Yanney and former director Julie Hefflinger as her mentors.

“When you have people in your corner who support you and encourage you even when you go through those different highs and lows they help to keep you motivated,” says Cribbs.

She says the power of P4K is that it puts people in your life who affirm that anything is possible.

“Having other like-minded people around you is very important because it’s very easy to say I can’t and so I won’t,” she says.

In a higher education career that has her helping students find their path in school and in life, she makes a point of using her own achievements to illustrate what perseverance and mentoring can do.

“Every time you pass a milestone it’s worth it to tell someone else about the process. It’s worth it to share your story with someone and to encourage someone to carry on as well.”

Today, Cribbs is a role model for her son Cayden, a P4K participant himself. She wants her example of being a high achieving woman of color from the inner city to inspire urban youth like her son to not be limited by stereotypes. Her desire is squarely in line with P4K’s premise that circumstances may make one’s road more challenging but they don’t have to define you or to curtail your expectations. She discovered what P4K professes is true – there are human and capital resources available to help you succeed no matter what your story.

“My son is another motivation for me,” she says. “I am a first generation college student from North Omaha and there are so many stereotypes about kids who grew up there and I always said. ‘I don’t want to be that stereotype.’ When I was pregnant I thought, I am that stereotype now, but I wanted to break out of that box and that’s why I continued to push. Yes, I am a product of North Omaha, I am a first generation college student, I have two degrees under my belt, I’m in graduate school, I have a son who’s an honor roll student who enjoys school and talks about going onto college.

“So you can break through people’s perceptions, you can do whatever it is you would like to do and there are people here to support you. You just have to continue to push.”

 

The guidance from these individuals is priceless. Although I am not exactly where I planned to be I have gone far in my goals and have not given up. ~ JEFF RUSSELL

 

Jeff Russell                                                                                            

Twenty-fIve years ago Jeff Russell was a student at then-McMIllan JunIor High when school counselors and staff recommended hIm as a prospect for All Our KIds. Mike Yanney launched the program there because at the time his niece served as principal at the school. The idea was to give underachieving young people the mentoring support needed to get them through school and to pay their way to college.

The way the program worked at the beginning, Russell and his fellow mentees all met one-on-one with Yanney before he matched them with employees of his company, Burlington Capital Group. At a certain point Mike and his wife Gail began mentoring select participants in what came to be informally known as Yanney’s Kids.

“I was originally paired with Gary Thompson, then Dave Vana, but ultimately I had many more throughout as everyone in the program seemed to have a helping hand,” Russell recalls.
Having a mentor, Russell says, meant having “someone we could talk to, seek homework help from, establish goals with. They helped us along our journey through school. Staying with the program meant support all the way through college. I soon started a summer job at Mr. Yanney’s house working for my next informal mentor, Ned Kaup, who showed me the ropes and prepared me to manage the place while he moved on in his life.

“I would have to say though that in the years I was with the Yanneys they were mentoring me the most to become who I am today. They promoted me as a manager of their place, which showed me the leadership skills I didn’t know I possessed. We developed a strong relationship and I was able to see they are two of the most giving people I have ever met and genuinely love and care for the people they help and surround themselves with.”

He says P4K “showed me I have options – I can achieve what I put my mind to.” The combination of a strong home life and the program he says, mitigated against the “bad influences”around him growing up. Until he came to the program he says, “I did not think I had a chance for college.” He pursued but did not finish a horticulture degree.

Russell is married with two boys and works as a nuclear security officer at the Fort Calhoun (Neb.) Nuclear Generating Station. He’s pursuing an industrial electronics degree that he plans to use in becoming an electrician with OPPD.

The Yanneys, who still regard the people they mentored as “our kids,” take great satisfaction in seeing them succeed.

“Jeff had every opportunity to fall into a crack,” says Gail Yanney, “but he was willing to listen and he tried and he essentially has now a piece of the American Dream. He has a wonderful partner, he has a good job that he can advance in, he has wonderful children.

“Monique (Cribbs) has not only a fabulous education and career but she has raised a really beautiful young man who will go on to be a productive citizen.”

Cribbs, Russell and Brittany Gossett are the P4K promise fulfilled.

“They’ve got hope and they’re going where they want to go and they’re getting themselves there,” says Gail Yanney. “I guess that’s the stuff that makes you proud. Some of them still have hills to climb but they’re climbing them.”

“We’re very proud of them,” Mike Yanney says. “They’ve really done some great work. They had some adverse situations but they’ve really risen to the top.”

Perhaps Jeff Russell sums up best what it means to have mentors in your life with, “The guidance from these individuals is priceless. Although I am not exactly where I planned to be I have gone far in my goals and have not given up.”

 

 

 

Miller Park Elementary

 

 

P4K volunteers help students to set goals and local schools to thrive                                                                                                                                                                                    

There’s something oddly perfect about a scene unfoldIng each quarter in the hallways at FIeld Club and MIller Park Elementary Schools. Outside the classrooms they’re assigned volunteer Goal Buddies squirm their way into school desks far too small for their adults bodies and hunch over to meet the eyes of the children they serve. One by one the students file outside the classroom into the hall to sit down and meet with their Goal Buddy. Not surprisingly, some children must be coaxed to speak while others must be urged to quiet down. A team of three Goal Buddies are assigned to each classroom. They work in tandem with teachers in encouraging students to set and meet school and district goals for reading, math and life skills. Each of these informal mentors provides another attentive, sympathetic set of eyes and ears and gives comforting hugs and words to students in need of some extra love and inspiration.

So it goes in this hallmark early education piece of Partnership 4 Kids, the Omaha nonprofit that sends the volunteers into the schools on visits designed to help kids achieve. The model’s working, too, because the schools, one in South Omaha and the other in North Omaha, are both seeing major gains in student achievement on standardized tests. The schools are among seven buildings P4K operates in that report rising student performance and the goal is to duplicate those results in the other schools where P4K’s active.

Patti Quinn-McGovern has been a Goal Buddy at Field Club for several years. She started when still employed at OPPD and she’s continued volunteering there since her retirement. OPPD is one of 29 organizations and companies that feed volunteers to the program. Where some schools have P4K volunteers from several sources, Field Club has a designated corporate sponsor in OPPD, which has more than 50 employees volunteering at the school for its 600-plus students.

“We are really fortunate to have OPPD as a partner in this collaboration with Partnership 4 Kids here,” says Field Club Principal Barb Wild. “They do an awesome job.”

 

 

Support system                                                                                      

Each P4K school has a Program Coordinator to serve as a bridge between the program, the volunteers and the school. At Field Club it’s Neris France. At Miller Park it’s Kris Morgan.

Wild is a fan of how P4K emphasizes the same goals as the school.

“Every student makes a reading, math and life skills goal for each quarter. We have them connect those short-term goals to lifetime goals. Achieving those short-term goals gets them steps closer to long-term goals and success beyond middle school and high school.”

At Miller Park principal Lisa Utterback says P4K “has been very consistent and on point with supporting our school’s mission of success. We’ve taken their program and aligned it to what we’re doing and it’s an added support system and incentive program for our students.” She says, “We are all about goal setting and the importance of students understanding this is what I want to attain and this is the plan to get there. We have empowered our students to own their goals and to accept responsibility for their actions. We firmly believe one of our most important goals is creating a sense of hope and empowerment in our children – that if they set their goals and work hard to accomplish their goals great things can happen. We know it’s our duty to make sure kids understand that even though we’re faced with adversity and we have obstacles in our life we can overcome anything if we set goals, work hard and stay the course. Hope is the essential ingredient in everything we do.”

Wild says each Goal Buddy plays a valuable role because they’re “one more person that that child knows cares about them and is invested in their success. There’s a little bit of accountability to the Goal Buddies, too. That student knows they’re going to meet with and talk to that Goal Buddy about the progress they’re making or not making in that goal and the Goal Buddy is going to talk in a very loving, nurturing, caring way about being accountable to making your goals. It’s giving that consistent message from several different perspectives.”

Quinn-Mcgovern says she volunteers because “I believe strongly in the idea of goal setting and teaching kids this is what you can do and here’s the reward.” Academic goals aside, she says, “I think the life skills goal is really important. It’s common sense, it’s practical. We talk about setting various goals in life. It’s a way to talk about real life in a school situation that I think can be really effective over time. It’s personal, too, it’s not just let’s get down to business. We talk about them individually. We learn about their family situation. We’re just another person to listen to them and to support them.”

Partnering up                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

The 17 Goal Buddies serving Miller Park’s nearly 400 students come from Lozier Corporation and Metropolitan Community College. Lisa Utterback joins with other educators in feeling fortunate to have dedicated volunteers at her school.

“Our Goal Buddies are consistent. Some have been working with our school for years and they’re invested in the success of this school. The kids know who they are and call them by name. I’m telling you it makes a difference in the life of a child especially when there is consistency. Some even come in outside their scheduled time to just to see how they’re doing . They come on field trips with the classes they’re assigned. They come and celebrate our goal achievements.”

Neris France says P4K is most effective where it’s most warmly embraced by principals and staff, such as at Miller Park and Field Club. Once a school is on board, she says, then it’s all about the volunteers.

“The volunteers are critical. They love what they do. They love that we give students hope and get to be role models who inspire them. I get inspired by the students every day. They inspire me and our volunteers to do our job because we want them to do good, we want them to succeed. We share a passion to get the kids to experience the opportunities we’ve been given in life.”

Earl Redrick sIgned up to be a PartnershIp 4 KIds group mentor last summer and after a full school year workIng wIth a quartet of males at NorrIs Middle School he’s eager to worK with them agaIn come the fall.

Group Mentors like Redrick make a two- year commitment to the program, pledging to mentor the same group of three or four students as they progress through 7th and 8th grade.
One of his mentees is Angel, a 12-year-old who learned about P4K from some schoolmates. He’s found the program’s emphasis on goal setting helpful.

“I’ve learned how to set goals and why achieving them will help me. When you meet your goals you get more confidence in yourself that you’ll do other things.”

The power of mentoring is well known to Redrick, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development employee who has experience being a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters in his native San Antonio, Texas and with other organizations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Growing up, Redrick benefited from being mentored himself.

“My dad worked a lot so my uncle was probably my first mentor but I was always involved in the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA. There were always mentors there. Then when I got into sports the coaches were always there to serve as role models and mentors.”

Redrick, who’s relatively new to Omaha, says a presentation he attended about P4K peaked his interest to become involved.

“What caught my attention was the data they’re recording and reporting back on. Some of the outcomes are pretty phenomenal.”

 

Earl Redrick

 

P4K is an outcomes-based program that utilizes research in designing its structured curriculum that parallels what the schools are teaching. Like every P4K volunteer Redrick filled out an application and a background check was done on him. Then he went through the two-hour training P4K conducts. He’s since attended some P4K workshops, including one on how poverty affects youth. Since August he’s been meeting regularly with Angel and his classmates after school and getting together for Saturday outings he leads them on to broaden and enrich their experiences.

“We’ve had some great times,” Redrick says. “These guys bring a lot of energy to the meetings. It’s really interactive. We talk about very useful topics around what’s important to kids at their age going forward. The Partnership does a great job of laying that out for us. The Program Coordinator sends us materials in advance so we can prepare ourselves. It’s a very structured program which really has a defined set of goals and objectives they want to get to with the kids by a certain point. That’s really impressive. It’s led by the mentors but these guys really drive the conversation.

“Some days they are really, really good and some days I have to twist and grind a little bit harder to get what we need out of them, but it’s good.”

As for the Saturday outings, he says, “they’re part educational, part recreational,” adding, “there’s a lot of fun incorporated but there’s other stuff we do that are teachable moments. For example, we went to an event in South Omaha celebrating various cultures. Probably the biggest teaching moment we did for these guys was go to the homeless shelter, where they served lunch. That was a big deal. Seeing those folks has an affect on the soul. We had some serious dialogue after that. It was really good.”

Redrick also accompanied the boys to a career fair. He makes the boys’participation in Saturday trips, whether going to the movies or exploring the Old Market, contingent on them doing what they’re supposed to be doing in school.

“These guys are really smart and any grade under ‘C’ to me is unacceptable. I told them at the start. ‘If you do your part I’ll do my part in showing you whatever you want to do.’ So they have to be accountable and get their grades. One of the kids didn’t go with us one weekend because his grades were not what they were supposed to be.”

Angel says he appreciates all that Earl does for him and his buddies, especially “helping us to meet our goals, pass our classes and keep ourselves together when bad things happen in school and things are going to be stressful, like when we take tests.” He adds ,“I consider him a teacher. When he comes to the school he teaches us things we didn’t know before and he encourages us. He’s helped me talk to my parents more. Instead of just saying yes or no, I’m being honest and trusting to tell them whenever I feel bad.” Angel, who has two older brothers, is being raised by his mother, who’s separated from his father. She works long hours at a greenhouse to support the family. Although Angel’s always liked school and gotten good grades, he says going to college has become a definite goal with affirming adults like Earl in his life helping to keep him focused and motivated. For someone who hopes one day to design and build things for a living, he’s getting the help he needs to build a successful life.

Weighing in                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Society’s shIftIng cultural compact wIth schools and school dIstrIcts asks them to provIde ever more services for an increasIng number of youth presentIng greater educatIonal and lIfe skIlls needs. The delivery of expanded services to districts like the Omaha Public Schools can only be realized with the help of community partners such as Partnership 4 Kids, says OPS Superintendent Mark Evans.

“With an enrollment of 51,000-plus and growing, not only is ours a big district, which creates some challenges, we have more and more free and reduced (lunch) students who qualify for the federal poverty line, and we know that brings with it some extra challenges,” Evans says. “We have an increasing number of English-as-Second Language learners. We have a growing number of refugee families. Four years ago there were 800 refugees in OPS from Somalia, Sudan, Burma, (Myanmar now), and today that number is 2,000. That’s 2,000 young people not only with language barriers but huge cultural barriers because a refugee camp in Sudan is nothing like Omaha, Neb.

“We also have more young people coming to us with neighborhood issues we need community input with. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges a young person has. Increasing needs create extra challenges that task the school district and the community to respond to because we’re trying to fill in gaps in many situations. Community organizations like P4K are just critical because we’re filling in more gaps than we have before.”

Evans says schools are tasked to do more in this no-child-left-behind era when there’s no longer the economic safety net of plentiful jobs that don’t require a high school diploma, much less a college degree. “Back in the 1960s and ‘70s when kids had gaps like language skills they dropped out and no one worried about it. The dropout rate before then was 50 percent and greater but it wasn’t a problem because there was plenty of jobs for a high school dropout. You could go right to work at factories with good living wage jobs with health benefits, a pension program. But about the time of the ‘80s it changed. Ever since then you’re not getting a factory job without a high school diploma. In fact, now we expect a little college or a post-secondary certificate. Those manufacturing jobs of the past don’t exist anymore.”

At the same time, he says, youth in need of special language training either “didn’t go to school or dropped out because we didn’t have any services for them,” adding, “In today’s world we can’t do that – there’s no throwaway young people and they have to have an education. In our district right now we’re at a 77.8 percent graduation rate, and I credit P4K and other programs like it in helping us achieve that.”

Schools welcome community support  

Educating all youth to be prepared for today’s environment is a job bigger than any school district can handle alone. While Evans says the OPS graduation rate “is pretty high for an urban setting, the truth is we’ve got to be higher than that – we’ve got to be over 80 and be moving toward 90 because if they don’t have a high school diploma today the research abundantly shows the opportunities in life are so slim. It’s difficult.”

He says P4K’s continuum of care model that follows students from Kindergarten through college “is what you’re looking for,” though he adds, “I always say it doesn’t have to be college. I want them to have post-secondary training in something, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a certified electrician, for example.” That continuum of care is strengthened, he says, when community partners work in step with schools and school districts, just as P4K does with OPS, in delivering consistent expectations for youth educational attainment.

“If we’re all aligned, that’s where we get the power,” Evans says.

There’s nothing new about community resources flowing into schools but as student needs become more urgent and complex the informal adopt-a-school relationships of the past are evolving into more formalized, intensive collaborations.

Omaha Public Power District  Vice President for Customer Service and Public Affairs Tim Burke is a strong advocate for P4K’s work in the schools and for other community partners like OPPD doing their part in the mosaic of educating and inspiring youth to succeed. Burke knows first-hand the need for pairing caring adults with at-risk students from serving as a P4K Goal Buddy himself.

“In some of these young kids’situations this can be the only positive reinforcement they get about continuing school, about continuing education, continuing that pursuit of growth and development,” he says. “It could be the only positive reinforcer to continue down that path. Partnership 4 Kids gives these kids hope that they can pursue whatever they want to pursue.
I think we truly are making a difference. We are that light, that hope, that opportunity for that student.”

 

Tim Burke

Tim Burke

 

 

Mentors make a difference

Burke, who serves on the P4K board and chairs its development committee, says the Partnership fills an ever growing need, which is why he encourages adults to volunteer as mentors.

“We could always use more volunteers doing this. It’s not a shortage of kids needing assistance but there is a shortage of volunteers willing to make that commitment. The community went on a mentoring campaign last fall and it may be doing that again this year to grow these kinds of volunteers to do this work. There’s always an opportunity to serve more kids. Now’s the time to have this conversation around it in the community.”

Burke echoes Evans of OPS along with P4K President Deb Denbeck in championing the greater collective impact being made now that organizations like the Partnership and other community players are “aligning and doing more things together,” adding, “I think that’s great for the community.” Burke says P4K has been embraced at OPPD for a full decade and his colleagues tell him it’s because they believe in the difference they’re making.

“It has been one of those corporate initiatives that people get really excited about. You never really know what impact you make with these kids but every time there’s an opportunity to show it these kids will come up, give you a hug and show appreciation for what you’re trying to do to help them do the things they want to do. It’s incredibly rewarding to see their growth and development or the way somebody comes out of their shell to look you in the eye or shake your hand at the end of the school year where they didn’t do that before.

“It’s that kind of feedback that really engages our employees in the work of the Partnership in helping these kids move through the most critical time in their life. Our organization has a strong commitment to it. Our participation rates are very high in people coming back time after time after time.”

P4K Volunteer Coordinator Tracy Wells says the nonprofit has up to 70 percent retention of its overall volunteer base, “which is really good and something we don’t take for granted and always need to work on.”

OPS Superintendent Mark Evans says in those buildings where everything comes together in terms of administrative leadership, classroom teaching, youth serving organizations like P4K, volunteers from the community and parental involvement, student achievement soars. Two of several schools where P4K and its volunteers are contributing to verifiable student success are Miller Park and Field Club Elementary Schools.

P4K and growing needs
Evans says, “They’re high performing schools, both of them, with high quality leaders who lead schools showing significant gains in student achievement and success. Kids leave their doors ready for middle school and the next steps.” He says those schools are doing it despite having to respond to extra needs expressed by students and they’re making it happen by getting the community involved.

“We do need to reach out to our community because we’ve got increasing needs. The young people didn’t ask to be at the poverty level or to be a refugee, it’s just where they are.”

Being responsive to these needs requires a multifaceted approach.

“It’s not just us – it’s programmatic support, it’s us reaching out to our parents and families, but it’s also community members supporting our young people. We know the more parents are involved, the deeper investment they have, the program works even better,” says P4K President Deb Denbeck. “We invite parents to all our celebrations and special events. We want families to be even more involved.”

P4K mentoring model co-founder Gail Yanney, who has mentored many young people alongside her husband Mike Yanney, says, “When you consider the number of children who need a meaningful adult in their lives there are way too many of them for us not to be all working together. There’s plenty of this to go around. Everybody approaches it from kind of their own way of doing things but the ultimate thing is you’re giving a kid the opportunity to see the value in themselves and the value in becoming a useful citizen.”

Mike Yanney is grateful things have evolved from when he started the precursor of P4K, All Our Kids, 25 years ago, when it was nearly alone in its formal mentoring model. “One of the great things today is that there are a number of organizations really working aggressively to help these kids turn their lives around and they’re starting to collaborate with each other,” he says. “I think Omaha has a really good chance of making serious progress with a fairly large number of kids and frankly that’s part of our being a very good, caring community. You can look at all the work the Sherwood Foundation and Susie Buffett are doing and that the Loziers and the Weitz’s and the Scotts are doing. There are organizations very heavily involved in it – Girls Inc., Teammates, the Boys and Girls Club. It’s really incredible. All of this collaborating together is coalescing into a fine beautiful program and sooner or later we’ll start seeing some extensive changes in our community and I’m very hopeful for it.”

The origins of Partnership 4 Kids extends back to the late 1980s, a perIod when a societal sea change began posIng added challenges to inner cIty schools and communities. As social and educational disparities have grown over time, Omaha has become a microcosm for a nationwide phenomena that poses increasing challenges for young people and their families attempting to craft meaningful lives. Educators, elected representatives and community leaders have worked long and hard to offer programs and services that attempt to address these issues and needs. P4K has been at the forefront of efforts to provide mentoring and scholarship support to young people at risk of being left behind. Much progress has been made in closing gaps and affording opportunities.

By the numbers
Since 2012, 100 percent of P4K students have graduated high school. P4K leaders say that more than 90 percent of its graduates from 2012 and 2013 report being enrolled in college or post-secondary training for the 2014- 2015 school year. Of the 36 active seniors graduating in 2014, 33 will be attending a two-year or four-year college, with the other three graduates enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserves.

A pair of 2014 graduating seniors epitomize the continuum care model P4K delivers.

Serena Moore, who’s graduating from Omaha Central High School, has been involved in P4K since elementary school, when she was in the Winner’s Circle goal setting program. She’s been a group mentoring participant since 8th grade. She’s also been involved in the Upward Bound math and science program, Delta G.E.M.S and the UNMC High School Alliance. She’s volunteered for the American Red Cross, Open Door Mission, House of Hope and Project Seed. She plans to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha and major in bioinformatics. She’s awaiting word on various scholarships.

Daisy Robeldo, who’s graduating from Omaha South High School, has been involved in P4K programming since middle school and has not missed a P4K meeting in two years, She’s also been active in various community service projects and volunteers at the Latino Center of the Midlands. The oldest of six children from a single mother, she will be a first generation college student when she attends UNO in the fall to pursue her intended major of computer engineering. Moore and Robledo will follow the trend of P4K students, the vast majority of whom go on to attend in-state colleges.

Over its 25-year history 83 recipients of P4K’s All Our Kids Foundation Scholarship have graduated college. Some have gone on to earn advanced degrees. Many other P4K students have also graduated college with the help of different funding and scholarship sources.

 

Doing and seeking more                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

What was once an arena of agencies, players and programs all doing their own thing has become a more collaborative sharing ground. P4K is the direct result of two programs, All Our Kids and Winners Circle, coming together to make a greater collective impact and now with its newest partners, College Possible, Avenue Scholars and Teammates, plus other informal partners, P4K is poised to impact more and more students along that continuum from Kindergarten through careers.

P4K President Deb Denbeck says with more volunteers and donors, “I know we could expand this program to greater heights” and into more schools, especially more middle schools.
She adds, “There will always be families and youth needing an extra boost or helping hand. Before we look at expansion we’re going to do a two-year review process to make sure our programs are the very best they can be and we’re going to learn where we need to go next. Growth in a mentoring organization means dollars and it means volunteers. Volunteers are the heart of our organization. They are like precious gems here. We’re not a mentoring organization unless we have them.they’re so needed. They’re the real difference-makers.”

I know we could expand this program to greater heights…. There will always be families and youth needing an extra boost or helping hand. ~ DEB DENBECK, P4K PRESIDENT

 
 

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

July 24, 2012 2 comments

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

 

Maria Walinski-Peterson:

Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award winner follows her heart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Omaha South High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray fight the good fight helping young men and women find pathways to success

July 13, 2012 10 comments

Omaha’s African-American community has some power couples in John and Viv Ewing; Willie and Yolanda Barney; Dick and Sharon Davis, among others, but the couple with the broadest reach may be Ben and Freddie Gray.  He serves on the Omaha City Council.  She’s president of the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education.  That’s really having your fingers on the pulse of Omaha. Ben is someone I use as a source from time to time for stories I write about North Omaha and he is the subject of an extensive profile you’ll find on this blog.  Freddie is someone I’ve just begun to know and I expect I’ll be interviewing and profiling her again before too long.  They both have compelling stories and individually and collectively they are dynamic people making a difference wherever they serve and it just so happens their passions allign in boosting urban, inner city North Omaha through a variety of community, youth, and education initiatives.

Freddie Gray

 

 

Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success

©by Leo Adam Biga

To appear in the August edition of the New Horizons

If you follow local news then you can’t help know the names Ben Gray and Freddie Gray. What you may not know is that they are married.

He’s instantly recognizable as a vocal Omaha City Councilman (District 2). He’s also a prominent player in the Empowerment Network, One Hundred Black Men and other community initiatives. He was a public figure long before that as a KETV photojournalist and the activist-advocate executive producer and host of the public affairs program Kaleidoscope, which weekly found him reeling against injustice.

Until recently his wife wasn’t nearly as well known, though in certain circles she was tabbed a rising star. She actually preceded Ben in public service when appointed to the Douglas County Board of Health. At the time she was office manager at NOVA, a mental health treatment facility. Along with Ben she co-chaired the African-American Achievement Council. She was also a paid administrator with the organization, which works closely with the Omaha Public Schools. It’s not the first time the couple worked in tandem. They have a video production business together, Project Impact. He produces-directs. She’s in charge of continuity.

She’s also worked as a strategic planning and management consultant.

Her longstanding interest in education led her to volunteer with the Omaha Schools Foundation and serve as a member of the student assignment plan accountability committee. The Grays were vocal proponents of the “one city, one school district” plan. Her public stature began to rise when she replaced Karen Shepard on the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education in 2008. She’s since become board president. The demands of the position leave little time for consulting work, which she misses, but she may have found her calling as a public servant leader.

“I like governance, I really do,” she says. “I have a strong feel for it.”

The size of responsibility she carries can be daunting.

“Sometimes I think about what a big job it is. The Omaha Public Schools district is one of the largest employers in the state and I’m the president of the board that’s in control of this entity. That’s kind of scary. I am not as confident as it comes across but I have a voice and I believe in using it for all these kids.”

Since assuming the presidency her public profile’s increased. In truth her private life was compromised as soon as she became Ben Gray’s wife in 1991. “It put me in the spotlight. There’s so many things that marrying somebody in the public eye does, and you don’t have a choice, you’re going to be public at that point.”

She suspects that sharing his notoriety has worked to her advantage. “There’s a lot of stuff Ben has afforded me the opportunity to do. Without him people wouldn’t know me from a can of paint and that’s probably how I would have lived my life and I would have been comfortable and OK with that.”

That each half of this pair holds a highly visible public service office makes them an Omaha power couple both inside and outside the African-American community.

Each represents hundreds of thousands of constituents and each deals with public scrutiny and pressure that gets turned up when controversy arises. That was the case last spring when he led the fight for the nondiscrimination ordinance the council eventually passed and Mayor Jim Suttle signed into law. In June Freddie found herself squarely in the media glare in the fallout of the scandal that erupted when sexually explicit emails OPS superintendent hire Nancy Sebring made came to light and she resigned under fire.

The couple makes sure to show their solidarity and support in crisis. Just as she turned out for city council hearings on the ordinance he attended the first school board meeting after the Sebring flap.

They act as sounding boards for each other when they feel they need to. “Sometimes we do,” he says, “but most of the time we don’t.” “If I want to bounce something off of him I can do that but I have my board members to do that with and he has his council members,” she says.

“If you’re married and you’re connected you know when it’s time to intervene and say let’s have a discussion about this,” he says. “Sometimes you just want to come home and veg out. The last thing you want is to talk about it. I don’t bring it home unless there’s a strategy, like when the Sebring thing happened we needed my expertise as a journalist, we needed legal counsel, we needed all of that, so that week was all about that.”

He’s proud of “how well she handled that situation, adding, “That was her defining moment.”

A lot of times the conversation is after the fact,” she says, “because I can’t wait to talk to him to respond to the media when they’re in my face. I know if i need to I can reach out and he’s going to respond. The other thing is, we don’t always agree with each other. There’s been times when we’ve been able to change each other’s opinion or stand but not real often. But we don’t fight about it.”

The Grays have been making a difference in their individual and shared pursuits for some time now. The seeds planted during their respective journeys have borne fruit in the public-community service work they do, much of it centered around youth and education.

“We believe in children, I can tell you that, we believe strongly in children,” says Ben. Freddie calls it “a passion.”

Their work has earned them many awards.

They have seven adult children from previous marriages. They mentor more. By all accounts, they’ve made their blended family work.

“One of the things we did was we started having family dinners, and we started that before we got married,” says Freddie, “I still had one daughter at home with me. My older daughter was away from home. His children were still at home with their mom. Both of us were smart enough to figure out that with this new young person, let alone me, in the picture spending time with him that could be difficult. So we started having family dinner on Sunday and all seven of the kids would come. And we still do family dinner today.

“It was a wonderful way to bring our families together. And when people talk about a blended family, if you’ve ever done something like that and made it a tradition of your house for everyone to come together, it really and truly does blend them.”

Two of their kids live out-of-state now, as does one of their 11 grandchildren (they also have a great grandchild), but that still leaves a houseful.

“So generally on Sunday it’s a zoo time,” she says. “He loves it. He’s like they could all move back tomorrow. I’m the one that says no they cannot move back here and they have to go home now. They’re so close.”

Though born and reared in Cleveland, Ben’s made Omaha his home ever since the U.S. Air Force brought him here in the early 1970s. He’s built a life and career for himself and raised a family in his adopted hometown.

She’s an Omaha native but her father’s own Air Force career uprooted her and her six sisters for a time so that she did part of her growing up in Bermuda and in Calif. She returned in the early 1960s. The Omaha Central High School graduate raised a family here while working.

Whether in vote deliberations or media interviews each seems so poised and at home in this milieu of politics. As accomplished as they are today each comes from hard times far removed from these circumstances.

For example, the man Omahans know as Ben Gray is called by his street name “Butch” in his old stomping grounds of East Cleveland, where after suffering the loss of his working class parents at age 13 he fell into a life of organized crime. Numbers running, pimping, drug dealing. His extended family was well-entrenched in the black criminal underworld there. Its pull was something he avoided as long as his parents were alive but once gone he succumbed to a life that he’s sure would have ended badly.

Ben’s older sister Mary Thompson, whom he calls “my guardian angel,” and her husband took Ben and his younger brother Doug in and raised the boys right, modeling a fierce work ethic. But the call of the streets won out.

“The guys that I was dealing with, the guys that I knew, were real life gangsters. They do stories about these guys. Shondor Birns. Don King.

Before he was a fight promoter Don King used to run Cleveland. He ran all the drugs. And then he stomped a guy to death and when he went to prison his territory was split up, primarily between three different individuals and one of them was my uncle.”

Gray was arrested and sentenced to a youth incarceration center. After graduating a year late and near the bottom of his class he entered the military. His life’s never been the same since. “The Air Force changed who I was,” he says. “The military was my way out. Had I not joined I don’t think I would be alive. I was headed down a pretty dark path.” He graduated from aerial photography with honors. “People ask, ‘What was different?’ My response is always the same – discipline and expectations.”

That training is so ingrained, he says, “I’m disciplined about everything,” whether the self-pressed clothes he wears, the tidy home he keeps, the legislation he advances or the youth outreach he does.

“The intention of the military is to complete the mission and I complete the mission. When it came to the equal employment ordinance I had to complete the mission. When it came to the budget I had to complete the mission.”

He says leaving his old environment behind was the best thing he could have done.

“My sister readily tells folks all the time that while she hated to see me go she was in a lot of ways glad to see me go because she didn’t think I was going to make it if I stayed there.”

“That’s what she told me once,” says Freddie. “She said, ‘We’d thought he’d be dead or in jail.’ But they’re so proud of who he is today.”

When he goes back to visit relatives and friends, as he did with Freddie in July, he’s clearly a different person than the one who ran the streets as a youth but to them he’s still Butch. Oh, they see he’s transformed alright, but he’s Butch just the same.

“When we’re in Cleveland I immediately go back to referring to him as Butch,” says Freddie. “That’s what everybody knows him as. I don’t think anybody knows him as Ben.”

“It’s interesting when you leave a place and you come back to it,” he says, “because when I visited the corners I used to be at – even though a lot of the same people were still there – it wasn’t the same for me. They knew it and I knew it. A friend of mine told me, ‘This is not your place anymore,’ and he was right, it wasn’t. I didn’t fit.

“When I was doing the things I was doing I fit right in, as a matter of fact I ran the show for the most part.”

On a plane ride the couple made 20 years ago to spend Thanksgiving with his family in Cleveland Ben revealed his past for the first time to Freddie.

“I said, ‘Babe, when we get to Cleveland you’re going to hear some stories about me.'”

Then he asked her to marry him.

“Yeah, that plane ride was interesting,” she says, “and I still said yes.”

Ben Gray commands respect from many quarters, including young people
 
Freddie gray presiding over an Omaha Public Schools Board of Education meeting

 

 

She has her own past.

Living in the South Omaha public housing projects called the Southside Terrace Garden Apartments, near the packinghouse kill floors her father worked after his military service ended, the future Mrs. Ben Gray grew up as Freddie Jean Stearns.

Life’s not always been a garden party for her. She got pregnant at age 17 and missed graduating with her senior class. She struggled as a young single mother before mentors helped her get her life together.

“It was not all a fairy tale life. The personal feeling of disappointment, not just letting my parents down but all those sisters behind me. That humbled me for a really long time.”

Long before marrying a celebrity and entering the public eye or serving on the school board, she quietly made young people her focus as a mother and mentor. She calls the young people under her wing “my babies.” Just as women helped guide her she does the same today.

She can identify with young single moms “who think their lives are over,” telling them, “I thought that was going to be it, that I was going to be on welfare for the rest of my life. I looked around at where I was, the projects, and I saw a lot of it around me. Mothers who had never been married. I was on public assistance for awhile and didn’t like that at all. I didn’t like the fact welfare workers could just come over my place and go through my stuff.”

She shares her experience of learning to listen to the right advice and to make better choices.

“I talk to these young women now, and I’m very open about it. I don’t preach.”

But she tries to do for them what women did for her. “I was blessed to have those women in my life. A number of them became my mentors. One of them was LaFern Williams. I’ll never forget her and Miss Alyce Wilson, the director of the Woodson Center in South Omaha. I spent so much time there. My big sister Lola Averett was another. There was a time when anything and everything she did I would do. She still models everything I could ever hope to do and to be.”

She says women like her sister, who worked at GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action), along with Carolyn Green, Juanita James, Phyllis Evans, Sharon Davis and Beverly Wead Blackburn, among others, encouraged and inspired her. When Gray attended GOCA meetings she says she was at first too shy to speak up at but Lola and Co. helped her find her voice and confidence.

“They honestly would make me stand up and ask my question.”

“I’ve been very blessed in my life to have great female role models,” she says. “They took special care of me and others. They took care of the community, too. They made it safe. They protected and loved. These women touched a lot of lives.”

Those that survive continue fighting the good fight into their 70s and 80s. “They haven’t stopped. I wouldn’t even say they’ve slowed down.” She says when she sees them “you can bet your bottom dollar I’m in their ear saying, ‘I’m making you proud, I’m doing the right thing.'” It’s what Freddie’s babies do when they’re around her. All of it in the each-one-to-teach-one tradition.

“I’ve always had the passion for those who are behind me, young people. I just collect them, I don’t know what else to say. Anyone who really knows me knows that I talk about my babies. And they know who they are and they know what I expect from them. I can’t tell you how they’re selected, I don’t know how. But there is that group and they are my babies and I love them with all my heart.

‘I’ve told them, ‘My expectations are you’ve got to take care of Miss Freddie when she’s old.’ They laugh at that. But I need them to take care of me. They’re going to be my doctor, my mechanic, my attorney. And then they get it, they understand what I’m telling them. That they’re going to take care of me because I can’t do it forever. So they’re going to have to do these things, they’re going to need to be on the board of health, on the school board, work at NOVA. They need to take care of the world. They know that’s my expectation.”

She is a wise elder and revered Big Mama figure in their lives.

“When they see me they call me Mama Freddie or say, ‘How you doin’ Mama Freddie?'”

She recently lost one of her “babies.” When she got the news, she says, “it knocked me to my knees and I’m not talking figuratively. I was walking down the hall looking at Facebook on my phone when I saw it. I was very thankful Ben was here because I dropped to the floor. And then the phone started ringing and it was some of the other babies calling to check on me and me needing to check on them.”

Just as Freddie’s been a force in the lives of young people for a long time, so has Ben, who’s made at-risk youth his mission. As part of his long-time gang prevention and intervention work he even founded an organization, Impact One, that supports young people in continuing their education and becoming employable.

Because he’s been where they are, he feels he can reach young men and women whose lives are teetering on the edge of oblivion.

“It’s amazing how quickly you can spiral down into some really deep stuff if you let yourself, so I understand,” he says.”When people ask me why I do i deal with gang members it’s because I know ’em. I know how they think, I know what they think, I know most of ’em don’t want to do what they’re doing because I didn’t.

“But you get to a point after awhile where it becomes a lifestyle that makes it very difficult for you to get out of and the only choice you have sometimes, and the only choice I see for a lot of these young men, I hate to say this, is to leave here. I don’t like the brain drain. A lot of these people are really smart. But they’ve cast such a bad shadow that I don’t know how you stay here. I mean, I think there has to be some time between they’re leaving and coming back.”

He says something missing from today’s street dynamic is a kind of mentoring that used to unfold on the corner.

“At that time we had older guys that were able to talk to the younger guys.”

Kind of like what Ben does today.

“Someone might say, ‘Stop, don’t do that, that’s crazy.’ Or, ‘If this is what you’re going to do, here’s how you do it.’ Those kinds of things.

These young men don’t have that. A lot of them don’t. I’m talking about across the country. There’s nobody on that corner anymore who’s older who can tell them…”

“It used to be the young guys on the corner and the wise guys that went back to the corner gave people words of wisdom, and that’s gone,” says Freddie, who’s known her share of hard corners.

“That’s lost,” says Ben.

He says what’s missing from too many of today’s homes and schools in the inner city and elsewhere is the kind of discipline he got from his parents and sister and the military.

“I think most of us want it, we just don’t know we want it. Discipline is a method of working with people and molding people into what they should be as adults. That’s what it is. And that’s what my father tried to do for me in the brief time he was on this Earth.”

Gray sees a disconnect between some of today’s African-American youth and schools.

“I think what’s missing from majority minority schools is a pathway to get young people to know who they are. Our African-American students don’t know why they are. They don’t know the background. In the classroom they get a real strong dose of European history but they don’t get much about who they are.

“When there’s little or no discussion about you then how do you sit there and maintain an interest in being there?”

OPS has struggled closing the achievement gap between African-American students and nonblack students. Gray says before any real progress can be made “you’ve got to get them to stay there and keep them interested,” an allusion to the high truancy and drop-out rates among African-American students.

The problem has thus far defied attempted remedies.

He says, “In spite of efforts by the Empowerment Network, Building Bright Futures and others to address core problems like truancy and drop-outs in the (North Omaha) Village Zone we’re losing kids, they’re not staying in school. And they’re not staying in school because the influence of the street is such a strong influence. I know it. Those streets call you, man, and you can be in that classroom six hours a day but damnit you’ve got to go home and when you dog home you go to an environment that’s primarily unhealthy.

“So in spite of all we’ve done in that Village Zone we’re not winning.”

He doesn’t pretend to have the answers. He knows the problem is complex and requires multiple responses. But he does offer an illustration of one approach he thinks works.

“Teachers are constantly amazed I can address a school assembly and keep kids’ attention. Staff don’t get it. Freddie gets it. I talk about where the kids came from, I talk about who they are, I talk about what their history has been. They listen because they don’t (usually) hear that. That’s part of the missing piece of why they don’t stay. They don’t feel there’s anything there for them.”

He doesn’t claim miraculous results either.

“Any of us who are involved in this effort who talk to these kids know they’re not going to hear everything we say right away. They’re waiting to hear if we’re genuine. I tell them, ‘I’m not here to get all of you, I’m not here to convince any of you of anything. One of you is going to hear what I say, respond and react to what I say by becoming a leading citizen in this community. So I’m just here to get my one.’

“That’s when they start listening. They want to be the one.”

Flanked by Freddie Gray and Ben Gray, grieving parent Tabatha Manning at a press conference in the aftermatth of losing her 5-year-old child to gun violence.

 

 

 

Freddie appreciates better than most the challenge of educating children when so many factors bear on the results.

“We don’t produce widgets, we produce the citizens that are going to run this country. That’s exactly what we’re doing every single day. Every single one of these kids is an individual who deserves to have an individual touch them. It’s about that one-on-one relationship if we’re going to get kids to succeed, and if we don’t get this right then I think that says something about what the state of this country will be.

“Poverty is going to be the thing that kills us if we don’t take care of it and the only way I know to do that is to provide our children with the necessary skills to become employable.”

She’s keenly aware of criticism that the school board has ceded too much power to the superintendent.

“I understand people say that thing about the board being a rubber stamp but they don’t come and listen to the committee meetings and hear the board in dialogue. By the time theres a news sound bite we’ve already talked about it or figured it out or tabled it. Those things happen during the day (when the cameras aren’t on).

“But trust me we’ve got this. My job is to provide the superintendent with guidance in saying, ‘This is what you will do.’ There has to be parameters. We’ve got statutes to follow.”

In seeking solutions to bridge the achievement gap, she say, “I’m talking to other districts’ board presidents and members, not just when I’m on the Learning Community, but other times, too. That hasn’t happened much before.”

She says more collaboration is necessary because studies show that wherever kids live, whatever their race, if they live in poverty they underachieve.

“Poverty is a problem. If we’re not addressing poverty now than 20 years from now we’ll be having the same conversation.”

Breaking the cycle is a district goal.

“At the board level it’s looking at careers. We do kids a disservice when we say everybody’s going to college because that’s a lie and we all know it. But we do need to supply them with the necessary skill sets so they can be productive citizens.

“We’ve got to get these young people to the place where they can get jobs, where they can get out of poverty.”

She says OPS is finding success getting businesses to offer students internships that provide real life work experiences.  He’s been active in the Empowerment Network’s Step-Up Omaha program to provide young people summer training and employment towards careers.

As both of them see it, everyone has a stake in this and a part to play, including schools, parents, business.

“There’s room at the table for everybody and everybody has to have a foot in this and has to step up. The focus has to be on what can we do together,” she says.

Now that she’s solidly in the public eye in such a prominent job she hopes African-American women follow her.

“I have to say this for other women who find themselves feeling like they’re voiceless: If you can see it, you can be it. There’s a lot of young African-American females who are just sharper than sharp, that could run rings around me all day doing this, but they don’t feel like they have a voice.

“And so I really hope they are paying attention because again Miss Freddie is not going to be doing this for the rest of her life and some of them are going to need to be sitting on this board.”

Ben Gray feels the same way about the young men and women of color he wants to see follow him into television or politics or wherever their passion lies.

Both with his own children and those he’s “adopted,” he’s taken great pains exposing them to African-American history and culture and encouraging them to engage in critical thinking and discussion.

“I wanted them to be more aware, I wanted all of our children to be aware of what’s around them and what it takes to survive. And to know who they are and what their history is, and some of them can tell you a lot better than I can tell you now.

“We have two that are like our own who are former gang members. Both of these guys are brilliant young men, and given a different set of circumstances would be someplace else.”

Ben and Freddie Gray are living proof what a difference new circumstances and second chances can make.

Brown v. Board of Education: Educate with an Even Hand and Carry a Big Stick

July 7, 2012 1 comment

I filed this story for a traveling Library of Congress exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic 2004 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that changed the face of education in America by law if not always practice.

 

 

 

 

 

Brown v. Board of EducationEducate with an Even Hand and Carry a Big Stick 
©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown v. Board ruling and its aftermath reveal how far America’s come on the issue of race and how far it still must go. Lauded as a landmark decision against segregated public schools and as a precursor to opening all public institutions, the decree bolstered the nascent civil rights struggle.

Brown was the end game in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund‘s challenge to the Plessy v. Ferguson separate-but-equal doctrine that sanctioned segregation. The NAACP legal team framed the argument for overturning Plessy in legal, social and moral terms.

The court’s unanimous decision held that school segregation violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment. But the integration and equity mandated by Brown has proven elusive.

One only has to look at Omaha for how insufficient the remedies to implement that finding have been. Before and even long after the ruling, black public school students here were largely confined to a few buildings on the north side. Black faculty were assigned to all black schools. It took a federal lawsuit filed by concerned Omaha parents and a resulting 1975 court-ordered busing program before the Omaha Public School district opened all its doors to students of color.

Thirty years later Omaha, like other urban centers, “is close to the point we were when Brown was decided, which is an educational system that is divided, if not solely on the basis of race, then clearly on the basis of class,” said Omaha attorney and former mayoral candidate Brenda Council. She said the problem will not be fixed until “we openly discuss it and take steps to ameliorate it.”

The OPS One City, One School District plan is the latest remedy offered by proponents of educational equity.

Suburban districts oppose the initiative and counter with options promising incentives and quotas to increase minority student placements.

Anyone interested in what led to Brown and to efforts at undoing or resisting its mandate can get a good primer on the topic by viewing With an Even Hand: Brown v. Board at Fifty at the Durham Western Heritage Museum.

The 100-plus items on display from the Library of Congress include intimate glimpses inside the precedents and processes behind Brown. There are photos, original legal briefs, even handwritten notes from Supreme Court justices and NAACP lawyers, that delineate history in the making. Some Omahans have personal connections to this history. Brenda Council’s late aunt, Geraldine Gilliam, was the first black teacher to integrate the schools in Topeka, Kansas. “I’m proud of that fact,” Council said.

 

 

Topeka native Norman Stanley, who now lives in Omaha, attended pre-Brown Topeka’s Monroe Elementary School. He was the product of a schizoid system whose elementary schools were segregated, but junior highs were integrated.

“It made no sense. You segregate a kid for the first six years and then integrate for the rest? Nobody could ever explain that to me,” Stanley said.

Although proud of the education he received under segregation, he embraced change. He was in the Air Force overseas when the Brown decision came down. “‘Thank God it’s over,’ I said. ‘By the time my grandkids are in high school, everything will be solved.’ How wrong I was.”

A Nov. 8 Durham panel discussion made clear Brown’s legacy is still a potent touchstone for equal rights advocates. Council was joined on the panel by KETV Ch. 7 “Kaleidoscope” host/producer Ben Gray, Creighton University law professor Mike Fenner and Glenwood (Iowa) Community Schools superintendent Stan Sibley.

Council pointed out the sad irony that 50 years after Brown, debate continues on how to fulfill its charge. She spoke of the need for “an enlightened citizenry to engage in open, honest discussion of the issues.”

Gray said equal education remains unrealized as “race, class and white privilege” have “disenfranchised” blacks, who are relegated to schools that have fewer resources. He said equality “ought not just be the law, it ought to be the moral imperative.” A vocal advocate of the OPS plan, he said segregation is back because “we’ve never, ever had a meaningful dialogue about” the issues behind it. “People of goodwill are just going to have to get out of their comfort zone and address this seriously.”

Sibley, a former OPS administrator, said, “It is true that not all of the people in the city of Omaha have a vested interest in the education of all the children in Omaha, and they really ought to. The dialogue has to happen, and if the dialogue focuses on what’s good for kids, then I think it will work out.”

Council said given the debate sparked by the OPS proposal, “It’s almost serendipitous this exhibit has come here at this time in Omaha.”

Rendered by a timid court, Brown was a gerrymandered decision built on “one compromise after another,” Fenner said. Its ambiguous 1955 order to proceed “with all deliberate speed” allowed individual states and school districts to implement the law in fits and starts or to outright ignore or defy it. It took later rulings, including forced busing, to achieve even partial and temporary desegregation.

Social trends like white flight have created entrenched suburban enclaves whose tax-rich districts serve predominantly white student bodies, resulting in the kind of defacto segregation that existed before. As whites have fled older, poorer inner city districts populated mainly by minorities, inner city schools have come to primarily serve students of color. The demarcation that exists along racial and social economic lines in schools reflects the same segregation patterns in housing.

A less than comprehensive response to the conditions that cause segregation has left loopholes for circumventing the spirit of the law. Beyond stifling diversity in schools, segregation critics contend the practice creates an unequal distribution of educational resources, thereby compromising the education of students lacking basics like books, computers, pencils, et cetera.

Mandatory busing forced the hand of school districts like OPS to integrate schools. Since the end of court-ordered busing in Omaha in 1999, OPS has lost most of its upper and middle-class student-tax base.  As more students opt out of OPS for the Millard, Ralston, Elkhorn or Westside districts, OPS loses revenues and any semblance of a racially and socioeconomically balanced educational system.

The Brown exhibit includes a ’50s-era political cartoon by Bill Mauldin that sums up the struggle for equality in America. Three black children push mightily against an oversized door with the words “School Segregation” on it. Despite their best efforts, the door is only opened a crack. The caption reads: “Inch by Inch.” Brown opened the door, but forces continue to try and push it shut.

“It was a decision the majority of the country wasn’t really ready for,” Norman Stanley said. “I’m not sure even today we’re ready to do what the court told us to do.”

 

Fast times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: Evolution of a school

July 5, 2012 3 comments

Education is not my beat.  In fact, I don’t have a beat as a reporter or journalist.  Life is my subject matter.  Pretty broad, I know.  But there are certain subjects and subjects within subjects that I get drawn to and one of these is the downtown Omaha Liberty Elementary School.  The following is one of several stories I’ve filed about it and its staff over the years.  It’s a special place with special people and hopeflly this story (and the others) conveys why.  The woman who headed up the school at the start, Nancy Oberst, has since moved on but her assistant principal Ilka Oberst (no relation) is now in charge and so there’s been a nice continuity there.  An example of the superb teaching staff at Liberty is Luisa Palomo, whom I’ve recently profiled and posted about, winner of the 2012 Nebraska Teacher of the Year award.  I expect I’ll be drawn back there again to file a future story.  Meanwhile, check out the articles filed under my education category and you should find quite a variety there.

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

For the first time, the largely Hispanic-served Liberty Elementary School has a home to call its own. Located a half-block from the temporary warehouse Liberty occupied since being formed in 2002, the new-look Liberty opens the 2004-2005 school year August 25 in a newly constructed three-level building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Designed by the Omaha architectural firm Zenon Beringer Mabrey Partners Inc., the $7.4 million site is as traditional as the previous one was unconventional.

With a likely enrollment increase from 500 to 600, Liberty’s continuing its mission of educating a high English-as-a-Second Language student base (60-plus percent) and gearing programs to new arrivals’ needs. Sixty-eight percent of its kids are Hispanic. Most are first-generation Americans. The remaining quotient is divided among African-Americans, Native Americans, Africans and Caucasians. Diversity at Liberty is more than a symbol, it’s infused in lesson plans and in the books kids read, in the art they create, in the foods they eat and in the heroes whose praises they sing.

Taking advantage of a downtown locale with such kids-friendly attractions as the Omaha Children’s Museum across the street, the YMCA around the corner and the Rose Theater and Joslyn Art Museum within easy walking distance, Liberty’s formed partnerships that give students and families preferred access to these facilities. Unlike the old Liberty, which lacked a gymnasium and theater, the new Liberty’s outfitted with both. Not having those facilities was spun into a positive when the Y and Rose let students access their athletic and stage resources, respectively.

A hybrid downtown-neighborhood school serving the low income areas just south, east and west of the restored Drake Court Apartments, Liberty’s created a warm school culture that’s arisen, in part, from the makeshift space it held classes in for two years. The school was situated in a former bus barn and paper storage warehouse. The facility, running from 22nd to 20th and Leavenworth Streets, was renovated by its owners, NuStyle Development Corporation, and leased to the Omaha Public Schools. Working with acres of open-floor space and lofty ceilings, Alley-Poyner Architects designed a modular layout of classrooms separated by partitions. With little to baffle sound, Liberty was constantly abuzz with noise. The resulting chorus of youthful voices leaking through the cavernous environs added a homey vitality and charm absent from the sterile confines of most schools, where children are holed-up behind walls except at class breaks, recess and meals.

Liberty brightened a dull industrial setting into a vibrant space. Children’s artwork was plastered everywhere. Without an intercom system or classroom phones, Liberty staff communicated the old fashioned way, not unlike neighbors speaking between fences or hedges. Visitors could overhear or glimpse the rhythms of education unfolding or sometimes spilling-over all around.

Principal Nancy Oberst said she and her staff enjoyed the freedom of a barrier-free school whose informality, in-turn, fostered camaraderie. “It’s something I saw real early on over there. If you needed something, you talked face-to-face or you stood on a chair and you reached over and grabbed that book or yardstick or whatever other resource you needed. We really could bring our staff together quickly because we spent so much time with each other and in such close quarters. We had a lot to overcome and I think because of that we became a real unified, strong staff. We had to be together to do it,” she said.

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

 

Beyond the benefits to staff, she feels the more relaxed school atmosphere helped put students and parents, including some immigrant adults facing legal residency issues, more at ease. With the move to the new building and its more spacious and segmented interior, she doesn’t want to lose the essence of what made Liberty such an inviting place. Likening a new school to a gleaming gated community, she wants to avoid the trend that isolates people behind closed doors.

“It’s a concern to us. Everyone on our staff has talked about it. Being a tall, sturdy, large new structure will, in some ways, make some people a little bit more worried about coming in. And, so, we’re going to really work hard on making sure we can keep that family-centered, welcoming, we-are-your-school spirit. We want to say, It doesn’t matter where you come from, we are happy to have you. That’s kind of a charge I’m rekindling with everyone. It’s something I know existed at the old Liberty. We can’t lose that. That’s what made us strong.”

Oberst said the formidable walls and amenities that make some schools cold, imposing places can be broken, “but you have to make an effort. I know a building can be beautiful and not welcoming enough. That part we have to create. We want to warm it up, and the only way you warm things up is by people. You just have to work at it. For example, I still want to know the names of all our kids and parents.”

As Liberty prepares showing off its new digs, Oberst plans leading a team of staff on a meet-and greet-canvassing of the school’s mixed-use residential-commercial district — something they did three summers ago. “We’re going to go door-to-door again and invite all the neighbors to come and see the new school. Now, we really have a great showcase for them to see. I think schools really need to do that. Schools need to reach out to their neighborhoods because schools aren’t neutral ground. They’re a plus, and you really should promote your school as a plus and your students as the future. We need to be providers of hope.”

The hope Liberty embodies carries special import for its immigrant families. Oberst takes seriously the principles and dreams bound up in the name. “We really try to create this feeling that Liberty is THE community and not just this separate place. We want to be the community…the starting point, the Ellis Island, the place where families can come and find things. We represent that ideal for many people. The wonderful thing about this spectacular new building is what it will offer our kids. They’ll be proud to tell everyone this is their school. In a way, it’s a new start.”

For a first-time school plopped-down in a funky area of trendy eateries, light industries and thrift stores and in close proximity to 24-Hour Package Liquor and the Douglas County Correctional Center, it’s been a successful adaptation. The school went to great pains to win over neighbors. It worked with the Omaha Police Department to increase patrols and the City of Omaha to ease traffic snarls. Still, an apartment house only two blocks away has been the site of repeated police calls over drug and prostitution activity. Neighbors are suing its owner.

Oberst, who’s been at Liberty since its start-up, feels the school’s helped stabilize the area. “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, I’m so glad they’ve put a school in that neighborhood.” Mike Nath, branch manager of nearby Motion Industries, said, “I think it’s been a good thing for the downtown community. I think the police have paid more attention to the area.” Lindy Hoyer, executive director of the Omaha Children’s Museum, said, “We’ve been extremely thrilled to have the school as a neighbor, and now that’s it’s just across the street, there’s no telling the potential of that relationship. Liberty’s given this part of downtown more of a sense it is a true neighborhood. We love the fact kids and families are residents of the area and take ownership in it. I think there’s great pride in having the school. It adds a life and personality to this diverse neighborhood.”

Oberst said Liberty’s own diversity is a selling point. It’s why Jim and Barb Farho and John and Jennifer Cleveland elect to send their kids there. She said the fact parents keep their kids enrolled “means we’ve really held their expectation of providing a quality education in a diverse urban environment.” Another indicator of Liberty’s quality, she said, is that several teachers on staff send their kids there.

The sight of Liberty kids walking to and from school in the working-class Columbus Park neighborhood must evoke memories in older residents of Mason School. Now apartments, the former South 20th Street public school was long a magnet for children of the European immigrant families that once anchored the ward. Like then, many Liberty families are starting out or starting over, but one difference is Liberty’s highly mobile student body. Many youths lead nomadic lives due to parents’ seasonal jobs or pending legal status or family issues back home in Mexico, Guatemala or whatever Latin or Central American country of origin they hail from.

Oberst said student turnover has increased as the economy’s slumped. “Some rooms are hit really hard. I had a first-grade teacher who started the year with 15 kids and saw 13 changes. Now, it doesn’t mean that all 13 left, but some kids leave and some kids come back. We often have kids go and come back.” Once gone, a student’s whereabouts can be hard to track. “Sometimes…it’s a quick move in the middle of the night. The family may not have a phone. Then, it takes us awhile to locate where the kid is. And we do work at that. We send people to the house to see if they actually moved or if it was a family emergency. A child may move in with another family member. Or, they may just be attending another OPS school.”

Nancy Oberst
Ilka Oberst

 

 

Strict post-9/11 regulations may prompt newcomers to uproot their families, she said, such as the Nebraska License Bureau’s requirement of a birth certificate, green card and social security card. Requirements for registering a child at Liberty remain the same — a birth certificate, immunization record and address verification.

A transient life, she said, is an endemic problem among the poor. “Poverty means having to move often.” The disruption such want causes, she said, is only exacerbated by “not having language.” Then there’s the added burden many
bilingual minority children have of acting as interpreters for their parents, who, in turn, are frustrated by a language gulf that makes them dependent on their kids.

She said many Liberty kids grow up wanting. “There’s no space for the kids to play. There’s no space for the family to have a quiet dinner. All those things that promote communication and closeness — it’s more of a challenge.” She described a recent home visit that found no parent at home to attend the kids, one of whom was sick and absent from school that day, and a living space so cramped that bunk beds were literally jammed in a doorway. “There’s some sadness,” she said.

She estimates 95 percent of Liberty kids lack such basic tools as a home computer. Others lack bare living essentials like a suitable bed to sleep in or a decent pair of shoes to wear. Oberst, like other inner city principals, is forced to beg, borrow and steal for extras that are staples at well-heeled suburban schools. “It’s true. The kids with the greatest needs have the least resources,” she said. “I’m trying to collaborate with anyone and everyone who wants to help…just to make the field more level for our kids — to have at their fingertips what other kids have.”

Liberty’s many partners include Camp Fire, First National Bank and Kutak Rock LLP. Liberty’s working to expand its Y ties to encompass a swimming program. Oberst is seeking support to put an I-book or laptop in every kid’s home. In keeping with its mission of providing care to the underserved and uninsured, One World Community Health Centers makes twice-weekly visits to Liberty for pediatric check-ups, immunizations, physicals — “all the things our community needs but doesn’t have much access to,” Oberst said, adding that One World is after funding to add on-site family health and dental care and behavioral counseling services.

To further address disadvantages, Liberty: maintains a large ESL teaching staff and encourages all staff to be fluent Spanish-speakers; holds English-language and GED classes for adults; specializes in guided reading to promote literacy and language arts; sends staff out to kids’ homes for goodwill-outreach visits; operates a food bank and emergency fund for urgent family needs; and refers families to human service agencies. “We’re a safety net. We also try to teach people how to help themselves by doing budgeting, price shopping and using what’s available in the community,” Oberst said. “Building relationships is fundamental to all of this.”

Academically, Liberty’s a first-time participant in the local Banneker/CEMS initiative to improve math and science performance. Given the obstacles its kids face, progress is measured incrementally. “We’ve made some strides in our standardized test scores. We’ve grown five points, so we’re inching our way up,” Oberst said. “But we’re going to have difficulty keeping up with the No Child Left Behind mark, because that’s a difficult mark to attain. Some standardized assessments don’t really show a child’s progress. We’re teaching towards strengths and measuring how far kids come from where they started. This past year, we identified 50 kids as gifted. The year before we had 14 or 15. We’re not so much into a strata thing as wanting to push all the kids ahead. It is my job to open the doors for all my kids.”

Not all families’ struggles persist. Many, she said, save enough to buy new homes. Some parents attain their GED. Older siblings of Liberty kids find jobs that take advantage of their bilingual skills. All signs of hope for Liberty’s future graduates. “Those are my kids who are going to be marketable” one day, Oberst said. As far as her own future at the school, she said, “I want to be here to see our kids go to junior high. I would like to do that. I love this place. My heart is here.”

Grassroots Leadership Development Program provides opportunities for students

March 25, 2012 9 comments

 

Here’s a story about a long-standing program in Omaha that exposes Latinos to leadership development opportunities.  The several week Grassroots Leadership Development Program designed by the United States Leadership Institute based in Chicago is implemented by organizations across the nation.  In Omaha’s it was offered for many years by a local entrepreneur and philanthropist, Robert Campos, who more or less paid for it out of his own pocket.  More recently it’s been offered under the auspices of the Omaha Public Schools, though funding comes from grants and donations.  Where the program in Omaha used to serve people of all ages it’s now focused on seniors from the district’s seven high schools.  Students who display leadership potential are recommended for the program by educators.  Participants who successfully complete the nine-week program, which introduces them to local, county, and school district government leaders, attend a recognition dinner in their honor and go to Chicago for the USHLI Conference, where they get to meet program graduates from around the country and listen to inspirational stories by presenters.  Program facilitators encourage students to go onto college and most do.  Co-faciliator Sagrario “Charo” Rangel is held in high regard by the students.  Look for a profile I did on her to be posted here soon.

 

Grassroots Leadership Development Program provides opportunities for students

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico

 

Students completing the Grassroots Leadership Development Program through the Omaha Public Schools were rewarded with an all expense paid trip to Chicago to attend the Feb. 16-19 United States Hispanic Leadership Institute Conference.

Seventy seven senior graduates from all seven OPS high schools attended the conference at the downtown Sheraton. Adult chaperones accompanied the students, who represented South (31),  Bryan  (21) Burke (15), Central (7). Benson (1), North (1) and Northwest (1).

At the conference students met peer graduates from other states and heard motivational speakers share personal stories about overcoming obstacles.

Sagrario “Charo” Rangle, an OPS Educational Accountability Office administrator and co-facilitator of the program with Toni Hernandez, says Omaha had, as usual, one of the larger contingents at the annual event.

The USHLI program got its start in Omaha in 1986 under local entrepreneur Robert Campos, who ran it for two decades before turning it over to OPS four years ago. Rangel says OPS does not sponsor the program. Instead, its support comes from Futuro Latino Fund grants and various corporate and civic donations.

Several local Latino leaders are graduates, including Cristina Castro-Matukewicz (Wells Fargo), Maria Vazquez (Metropolitan Community College) and Paco Fuentes (South Omaha Boys & Girls Club). Rangel is herself a graduate. Some of the earliest graduates are parents of today’s students.

 

Omaha Grassroots Leadership Development Program students on the way to the USHLI conference in Chicago

 

 

 

Rangel says some 320 students have graduated the program since 2009. Participants are shown the inner workings of city, county and school government in  the hope they will pursue higher education and community service. Participants attend nine three-hour fall sessions that introduce them to elected and appointed officials, such as Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and OPS Superintendent John Mackiel. Students ask leaders about their roles. Leaders hear youth concerns.

Rangel says, “The Grassroots Leadership Development Program is specifically for seniors that want to learn more about civic engagement and city-county-school government.” She says students come away empowered they have “a voice” in the system. She says some students use the program as a networking resource and arrange to shadow local leaders or invite officials to speak to their class or community group. Others make presentations at elementary and middle schools to encourage children to excel in the classroom. Many volunteer at local agencies.

The goal, she says, is to let students know they can be leaders in their school, neighborhood, community or workplace.

Students who demonstrate leadership potential are nominated for the program. To participate, students must be in good academic standing but they don’t necessarily need a high GPA. In fact, Rangel says,”it’s those students on the margins I think we’re most surprised by because they are leaders in their own right. It’s just that maybe one time along the way they may have gotten off the path, and so this is great way to get them back on track. We’ve had several students like that who said, ‘This is the shot in the arm I needed.'”

The program is also a resource for students and families in preparing for college.

Rangel says, “We visit with students about the importance of going on to college, we work with parents on financial aid, we give the students all kinds of information about scholarship opportunities and we have workshops to help them complete the forms. We also monitor students’ grades, attendance, behavior. We want to make sure these are students that recognize the importance of this wonderful opportunity.

“We do whatever we can to give them a leg up.”

A January recognition dinner is followed by the February conference, which Rangel says energizes students.

“They come back extremely inspired and motivated to do more in their education and to help others. The conference itself is all about servant leadership, and so they get to know it’s not just about them – it’s about service to others.”

Rafael Guiterrez, a 2012 legacy graduate whose older brother Gabriel preceded him in the program, says the experience “inspired me to take my education to the next level.” The South High senior plans studying criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He doesn’t want to stop at a bachelor’s degree but is eying a masters and a doctorate. A volunteer at the Intercultural Senior Center and a mentor at South, he says he’s learned that when it comes to doing things in his community he can “take the lead” rather than waiting for someone else to.

Alejandra Aguilar, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, graduated in 2010 but remains active as a Grassroots volunteer. “That’s just a way of us giving back to our community,” says Aguilar. “We’re the future and as Latinos we need to have our voice be heard, and to do that we need to go to college and be successful.” The dual political science-Latin American Studies major and Next Generation Leadership scholarship awardee has her sights set on a career in law. “One of the major things I learned is to never give up. Sometimes we don’t want to but we settle for less. I learned there’s nothing you can’t do if you want to do it.”

For Rangel, the satisfaction comes in seeing graduates like these paying it forward.

“We have a good following of students who come back year to year to help us. Not only are they learning these skills but they are putting them into place when they go onto college. They become mentors, they get involved in student organizations. That’s pretty cool to see. That makes it all worth it.”

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