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Amanda Ryan brings lifelong passion for education to school board

October 4, 2017 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sees a need for more minorities to empower themselves.

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

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

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

Her decision to serve was intensely personal.

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

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

She has some goals for this academic school year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan knows something about making one’s own path.

“I’m ridiculously independent,” she said.

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

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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.”

 

©omaha.com

 

 

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.”

Nancy Oberst, the Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School

September 6, 2011 3 comments

Nancy Oberst is one of those high energy, positive vibe individuals you can’t help but feel better for meeting or knowing, and that’s why it was a distinct pleasure working on two stories about her and her then work as principal at Liberty Elementary School in Omaha. This article for Medium Magazine appeared only months after the school was launched downtown in a former bus barn and still months away from moving into its then under construction dedicated school building down the street. The other piece about Nancy and Liberty appeared shortly after the new school building was complete and Nancy, her staff, and students finally took possession of a building they could call their own. The same enthusiasm and dedication I found the first time was evident when I caught up with her that second time. Nancy’s no longer at Liberty but the school she helped form and lead is still going strong. She and her husband Matt are living in the Washington D.C. area now, but their connection to this place remains strong, just as it does for their famous son, indie rock and Saddle Creek Records star Conor Oberst.

 

 

Nancy Oberst, ©photo by Marlon Wright

 

 

 

Nancy Oberst, the Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Medium Magazine

 

Inner city public schools face a litany of challenges that cry out for dynamic, caring leaders willing to defy the low expectations set for their at-risk students. While Liberty Elementary School in downtown Omaha is better off than many of its counterparts, principal Nancy Oberst finds many issues to tackle there in her ebullient, high-energy, never-say-die style.

“Always looking for an angle” to give her fledgling, first-year school’s 400 largely disadvantaged students “a leg up,” she variously charms, prods, lobbies and cajoles “to level the playing field for our kids.”

“She is an advocate for her children like no one I’ve ever seen. I mean, if she wants something she thinks is best for the kids, she will get it. She is a woman of vision. She just really knows what she wants and she goes after it,” says Linda Daly, a Liberty reading-ESL specialist who followed Oberst from nearby Jackson Academy.

The 49-year-old Oberst is intent on making Liberty and the adjacent Drake Court, an historic apartment complex newly restored and occupied, the linchpin of an emerging 20th Street corridor some are dubbing Children’s Row. Liberty, the Omaha Children’s Museum, the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People occupy a four-block strip from Leavenworth to Farnam. “We’re not only part of a new school,” Oberst says, “we’re part of a new community. That’s a big draw for us and a positive spin for the neighborhood. There’s a ripple effect going on with Liberty and Drake Court in terms of adding some stability to the area.”

For Oberst and staff, Liberty is not an assignment, but a mission. Temporarily housed in a renovated former bus barn while awaiting completion of a new three-story building down the street, Liberty serves a racially diverse, working-class student body drawn from downtown’s south side, an area once home to Italian immigrants and now a haven for Latino emigres.

An honor roll listing on a school bulletin board reveals Liberty’s ethnic flavor. Aside from Anglo names like Ruth, Sarah, Adam, Christa, Jenny and Tyler, most names, like Cesar, Wambli, Parisian, Andres, Misael, Juan, Indira, Jesus, Ebony, Shaquia, Dancingmoon, Hynalem and Hoa, reflect the large Latino presence and smaller black, Native American, African, Asian contingents. Oberst, the embodiment of Lady Liberty that stirs this melting pot, says, “There’s a beauty and a richness about a very urban group of kids.”

Alley-Poyner Architects-designed the open floor adaptation for the school’s warehouse setting, whose massive skylight and tall banks of windows bathe the place in golden light and whose cavernous spaces resonate with the sound of youthful voices. As many newly arrived students do not speak English, Liberty makes language arts and literacy its overriding emphasis, piloting the federally-funded Guided Reading program and employing ESL specialists in every classroom. Most staffers and paraprofessionals, like Legna Colon, are bilingual. Liberty also holds adult English classes. Children and families requiring extra support find in Oberst and Liberty a champion and resource center, respectively, attuned to their needs.

 

 

The old bus barn that served as Liberty’s first home

 

 

“Despite all the charges we have the one thing we are focusing on here is reading,” Oberst says, “because we believe reading is the key. If you can learn to read, math and science isn’t going to be that tough for you. We’re allowed to take the monies we get and buy supplemental books and resources that we feel as a school are going to make the difference with our kids, all the while knowing the goal is to catch up and be where everyone else is. I guess we feel a sense of urgency about what we’re doing. The needs are great.”

She knows the territory well from canvassing the neighborhood last summer, visiting many families’ homes, and from growing up in a working-class Omaha family herself. “We need to help children where the gap is wide and is getting wider. That’s why families come here (from Mexico, El Salvador) — to have a piece of the pie — and to invest in something for the future. That really is what America has been about. We want kids to feel their life is like everyone else’s and that there’s nothing that should get in the way. That’s really what public education promises.” Like the school’s namesake.

Getting past the barriers that cultural-language differences can pose is a matter of building trust. That’s why Oberst routinely has teams of educators make home visits and ensures that all school correspondence is printed in English and Spanish. She also sets a welcoming tone by insisting staff greet parents, holding informal coffees with moms and dads, inviting families to come to events at school — from community forums to special celebrations, like Cinco De Mayo — and encouraging staff to attend kids’ outside activities and even having kids over to their homes.

“It boils down to — How do you make people comfortable? Language is the key,” she says. “To engage people on their own terms and their own turf shows goodwill, respect and a real personalness. It heightens parents’ knowledge that we care and we want them to participate. We want parents to know they are valuable in this.”

Oberst, who takes predawn power walks to stay fit, is seemingly always on the move at Liberty. She hustles greeting the early-bird arrivals at first light and seeing-off the last stragglers at night. She’s outside, even in bad weather, supervising dismissal. She pops inside classrooms to casually survey things or to do formal observations. She’s a whirling-dervish presence at breakfast and lunchtime, seating kids, intervening in conflicts, confiscating contraband and picking up spills.

Displaying a warm paternal demeanor with kids, she makes a point of talking to them about their schoolwork and family. A daily ritual finds kids gathered around a mounted aerial photo of the Liberty hood, which Oberst turns into a lesson by having students identify their homes and area landmarks. Wherever she goes, whether eating with the kitchen staff or chatting-up teachers in the faculty lounge or sitting-in on meetings with the construction gang, she works her mojo as a cool schoolmarm for the new millennium who is down with today’s Generation Z hip-hopese. After all, one of her and husband Matt’s three sons is indie-rock musician Conor Oberst (known as Bright Eyes), who admires his mom’s compassion.

“She loves those kids so much. She wants to take care of them. She spent a good portion of her childhood not having very much, so she understands what it means to not have everything you need,” Conor explains. “Over the years there’s been kids she’s had special relationships with that she’s taken under her wing and had hang out with our family. She obviously has a great heart. She inspires me.”

Complicating the task of connecting with kids is the high mobility of families in the Liberty district — a mixed use ward of commercial-residential rental properties — that results in high student turnover. “Because we realize we’re not going to have them very long, we have to figure out ways to make kids feel welcome, comfortable and engaged,” she says. “We have to stay focused and be able, for however many days we have them, to make an impact.”

Oberst, who taught special ed before joining the administration ranks, makes clear just how much of a gap her students must overcome. “We don’t think many of our children have Internet access or even a computer or books in their home. For a lot of our kids we are their medical provider because families can’t afford a physician or lack health coverage. We’ve paid rent and utility bills and we’ve bought food for families in real desperate need.” Like at Jackson, Oberst has formed an emergency supplies cache to provide indigent families with everything from food and clothes to personal hygiene items. Liberty also acts as a referral center by directing families to social relief agencies.

Whatever obstacles kids face, Oberst refuses to lower student achievement goals because she feels that would send the wrong message.

“We can’t make excuses. We can’t say, Oh, this must be the reason why they can’t achieve. All that does is put people down and not encourage them to be what they can be. All of us have to believe in high expectations for kids” she says. “We need to always stay focused on what our real mission is and that is to make our kids competitive — to win as many awards as other kids. Recently, we took six children to the city-wide spelling bee and our children did very well. Two of them made it to the state competition. It’s all about where we think we can be. That we can have kids as competitive and that read as well as other kids. Our counselors tell them, ‘So what if English is not your first language? Don’t say you can’t, honey, look at what you can do — you’re speaking two languages. That’s even better…you’re even brighter.’”

 

Liberty Facade

The new Liberty

 

 

Attitude is everything with Oberst, who according to staffer Linda Daly infuses a “we-will-get-it-done” mantra at the school.

“She has such a positive outlook,” Daly says. “If you doubt you can do something she asks you to do, she’ll say, ‘Of course you can do that.’ Like anything else, there’s been growing pains, but Nancy will make it happen here, plain and simple.”

Oberst’s infectious enthusiasm, combined with her talent for networking, promoting and relationship-building, has brought in many benefactors, partners and extras for the school in terms of dollars, programs, in-kind services, supplies and opportunities. Her track record for eliciting support and for launching new schools in inner city environs, as she did at Jackson, is what led Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel to tab her for Liberty.

“Her expertise in working with children and families of diverse backgrounds and educational needs, her experience in starting up new schools and her passion and love for creating school-community partnerships is what made her an excellent candidate,” Mackiel says. Then there is the long-stated desire of Oberst, who enjoys the process of “creating a school culture” from the ground up, “to be in an urban setting. That’s where I want to be. I’m a sort of in-the-trenches person.”

Typical of her pro activeness, she turned what could have been a negative at Liberty, namely the lack of a gym and stage, into a positive by forging ties with the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People that allows students to access those facilities for recreation and drama.

With Liberty located amid a rough business district trafficked by street denizens and in what has become a major construction zone between the ongoing Drake Court renovation and work on the new school, safety issues have surfaced. She has largely quelled those concerns by working with the southeast Omaha police precinct and neighborhood associations to increase cop and adult safety patrols. As the new school begins taking shape, she intends on making the construction site an educational experience by leading groups of kids, in hard hats, to view the progress of Liberty’s future home.

Demographically-speaking, the future is now at Liberty, where diversity is not a buzz word but a simple reality. A tour is a multicultural immersion into an American microcosm — with brown, black, yellow and white faces commingling, colorful folk art hanging and Spanish and English phrases given life through singing, speaking and printing. Oberst embraces the heady brew of this ethnic stew. “I think it makes us all more worldly, more global, more able to really perceive the world as it is,” she says, “and to me that adds such richness and weaves such broader thought. We become bigger people. And I think that’s why diversity is a great experience for children to have. They learn to appreciate the differences in people.”

The next big thing for Liberty is the March 2004 opening of its new 600-plus student capacity building. In the neat symmetry of an old neighborhood reinventing itself, the warehouse Liberty occupies could see reuse as an arts-media center, the Drake Court may spur area renewal and the school should be an anchor of hope and a catalyst for change.

Oberst envisions attracting more students of middle-class parents, including those working downtown, thus bringing more economic diversity to the mix. “There’s a lot of excitement about the new building,” she says. “It will be more convenient than what we have here, but I think convenience is overrated, personally. It’s sort of fun to problem-solve.”

Always one to jones for challenges, she expects more as more students-in-need enroll. Despite “the great needs,” she says, “there’s also great joy” at Liberty. “Everyone just kind of gets pulled in.” Like the staffer who paid for a Statue of Liberty replica mounted on a pedestal outside the main offices. A fitting symbol for a school providing opportunity and for a headmistress embodying Lady Liberty herself.

 
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