Education: Education Is The Great Equalizer

North Omaha has long been the home of great educators. A quick review of history will generate the names of trailblazers: Eugene Skinner, Edmae Swain, Katherine Fletcher, James Freeman, Thomas Harvey and others. These principals and educators produced some of the sharpest minds in the nation. Students from North Omaha have climbed the ladder and achieved great levels of success in every career field. Former students can be found in significant leadership positions across the country.

There is no denying that education in North Omaha has its challenges. As thousands of upwardly mobile residents left the area and job opportunities declined during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, concentrated poverty, disinvestment and underperforming schools created an extremely difficult environment. While negative statistics currently grab most of the headlines, thousands of teachers, administrators, parents and students are slowly and quietly making a comeback in the community. Over the past ten years, graduation rates have increased, reading and math scores are slowly climbing, and the number of students taking the ACT and going on to college has also increased.

Against sometimes difficult odds, North Omaha is producing some amazing students who are going on to accomplish great things. In addition, there are some breakthrough schools, promising developments and encouraging signs on the horizon. Students and families from North Omaha and throughout the city have access to some of the best public school experiences in the nation.

Gene Haynes, Lisa Utterback, Decau Jean-Baptiste and others have been leading the field with high expectations and strong leadership. There is much work ahead as students attending schools in North Omaha still score significantly below the state average. The Omaha Public Schools students in North Omaha have experienced incremental gains each year, the question is how to accelerate the progress and finally close long-standing gaps.

North High School with its award winning engineering program, sits in the heart of North Omaha. Under Haynes’ leadership, the school is thriving in the classroom and on the field and has become a true community center of activity. Central High School, where hundreds of North Omaha students attend, continues a strong tradition of academic and athletic success. In the spring of 2015, the Omaha Public Schools board approved Benson High School as a Business, Entrepreneurship, Health and Construction Design Magnet. It is one of the most exciting developments at the high school level in recent years. As a career academy, high school students will be prepared for college and careers with hands on training, internships and dual enrollment college courses.

South High School, which has become the largest school in the district, also attracts hundreds of North Omaha students and is well known for its Arts, Culture and Performing Arts classes. They have also become a powerhouse in several sports. Northwest High School is growing once again with a strong emphasis on Government and Criminal Justice.

Progress can also be found at the elementary level. Miller Park, a school which just five years ago was one of the lowest scoring in the district has been recognized for significant progress. Under the leadership of Utterback, the school moved from the bottom to top of the North Omaha elementary schools. Miller Park is a great example of what is possible with there’s strong leadership, high quality teachers, committed parents, a supportive community and engaged students. Other schools have also maintained measurable gains for the past few years, including: Central Park; Franklin; Saratoga; Walnut Hill; Mt. View; Kellom; and, King Science. OPS is also investing in early childhood programs, schoolbased health centers, after school programs, enhanced reading, math and science curriculum and providing more support for principals and teachers.

Three innovative schools are preparing to make an impact in North Omaha. The Nelson Mandela School opened its doors in August of 2015. The groundbreaking private school, launched by the Lozier Foundation and other supporters, provides free education and an extended day and year calendar. The school features high quality instruction and a challenging curriculum including Spaulding Reading, Singapore Math and Violin Sprouts. Each student’s day includes extensive enrichment opportunities.

Another exciting development is the Highlander Project by 75 North Revitalization Corporation. Under the leadership of Othello Meadows, the mixed-income neighborhood will also include a partnership with Howard Kennedy. The school will follow the highly successful Purpose-built Communities Model originally launched in Atlanta. Kennedy will feature many of the same components: extended day and extended year calendar; high quality early childhood education; outstanding enrichment opportunities; access to health care and other wrap around services; and most importantly, great leadership and excellent teachers.

These schools join the Wilson Focus School as the only extended day and extended year elementary schools within the Omaha Public Schools district. Wilson, now entering its seventh year, has experienced solid success and continues to expand its offerings. Similar to Nelson Mandela and Kennedy, Wilson has featured strong leadership, high performing teachers, extensive enrichment opportunities, an intense focus on technology and leadership, including laptops for every student and a student run television studio. Most encouragingly, the students have achieved great results in reading, math and science.

These schools and the “Turnaround” model being implemented at Wakonda will allow the district to learn at an accelerated rate what works best to improve education in North Omaha. OPS looks to continue improving learning at all schools, but these innovative schools will be on the forefront.

There are also private schools in North Omaha that are producing positive results and high performing students. Sacred Heart, Holy Name and Jesuit Middle School routinely score well when it comes to student learning and achievement. While challenges remain and the pace of change must be accelerated, these are very promising signs of things to come in North Omaha. When principals, teachers, parents, students and community members work together, there’s no limit to what is possible in North Omaha. The sense of urgency must be maintained to create great schools in every neighborhood.