The Omaha school board plans a vote Monday that will have an impact not only on the school district’s children but on the future of the city itself.
Which of three candidates for Omaha Public Schools superintendent to choose?
>> Mark Evans, superintendent of the Andover (Kan.) Public Schools and former administrator with the Wichita school system, who emphasizes his experience in similar districts?
>> Carey Wright, chief academic officer with the District of Columbia Public Schools, who points to her demonstrated results with underperforming students?
>> Or Stephen Murley, superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District, who suggests that one problem is that children don’t see the value in education, underscoring the importance of keeping kids interested in learning.
Each of the candidates has made the best case for himself or herself, though in different ways with somewhat different emphases. The school system has reached a critical point in its history, and the right decision is vital.
OPS is like many urban school districts as it tries to address the achievement gap between the city’s low-income students and their middle- and upper-income peers.
Omahans expect many qualities in their next superintendent, foremost among them the determination to set high academic standards and to lift student achievement at all the city’s schools. Narrowing and closing that unsettling achievement gap between white and disadvantaged minority students must be a top priority for whoever may be chosen.
The new OPS superintendent must understand the needs of a diverse urban school district as well. He or she should be an advocate of transparency and accountability in school operations and possess outstanding communications skills that allow him or her to explain solutions and set out constructive answers, setting aside excuses or defensiveness.
The chosen candidate will need to be a coalition builder, reaching out not only to parents and other nearby school districts but also to state legislators, as well as Omaha’s concerned and involved business and philanthropic communities. And certainly the new hire should be in this game for the duration, until the job is done, and not on the lookout for a quick hop to a new job somewhere else.
Each candidate offered ideas for tackling the achievement gap. Murley told OPS board members that personalizing instruction to meet individual student needs is a vital factor in energizing young people. In Iowa City, he said, engaged staff members meet regularly to review each student’s progress and discuss potential changes. Sometimes the students themselves participate. “We’re not teaching to the middle anymore,” he said.
Wright said that during her years as an associate superintendent for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, she oversaw special education programs for 17,000 students, emphasizing a more inclusive approach that led to academic gains. She also helped develop a district-wide academic plan that directed teachers what to teach and when, based on core state standards.
Evans recounted his success at improving test scores and graduation rates. Student achievement went up in Wichita when he worked with four middle schools on improving reading instruction for underachieving students, he said. He used data on student achievement in both Wichita and Andover to help determine which schools need extra resources; some need more than others.
Each of the three candidates hit a high note when outlining ways to boost student achievement, seeming to grasp the importance of getting the job done in Omaha. It is probably the most significant task that awaits the nest Omaha superintendent.
OPS needs a capable, determined and forward-looking leader to guide it into the future. With an excellent superintendent at the helm of the central administration, the school district can break through to new levels of performance that educate each OPS student to his or her full potential.