Last night was the first in a series of forums that allow voters to meet the OPS board of education candidates and ask them questions. The first round of the events, sponsored by The World-Herald and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, covered Subdistricts 1-3.
SATURDAY, 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
Subdistrict 4: Northwest High School, 8204 Crown Point Ave.
Subdistrict 5: Buffett Middle School, 14101 Larimore Ave.
Subdistrict 6: Burke High School, 12200 Burke St.
TUESDAY, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Subdistrict 7: Norris Middle School, 2235 S. 46th St.
Subdistrict 8: Bryan High School, 4700 Giles Road
Subdistrict 9: South High School, 4519 S. 24th St.
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Subdistrict 1: Improving class instruction
Residents at a north Omaha election forum quizzed five Omaha school board candidates on how they would improve classroom instruction, keep costs down and work with a new superintendent.
Their answers evoked a mixture of chuckles and expressions of approval.
Yolanda Williams, program coordinator for Partnership 4 Kids, said OPS's racially diverse enrollment requires a diverse teaching staff.
The district should look at performance-based raises for teachers, Williams said. While some longtime teachers remain passionate, others are biding time to retirement, she said.
Aja Anderson, a community health educator with Douglas County, said she favors getting student and parents input on evaluating teacher performance.
Anderson said teachers have to be willing to try different teaching styles to fit students' learning styles.
James English, a former OPS administrator and teacher, referred to the district's students as “my babies.” English said he used to know which teachers were struggling by the number of students they referred to the principal for discipline.
The ones that referred a lot concerned him, he said.
LeDonna White York, principal of Beals Elementary School, said parent and teacher voices should be a part of evaluations. New teachers may lack experience, but they can bring new skills and ideas into schools, she said.
Larry Taylor, Christian pastor and chef of a Salvation Army senior center, said one size does not fit all, and the district needs to make sure its alternative schools offer updated, relevant programs.
Teachers must have a strong will to help kids, he said. He cautioned that parent and student comments, while useful, should be “taken with a grain of salt.”
A questioner from the audience asked how the success of certain schools, such as Miller Park Elementary, could be replicated at others.
Anderson said she would sit down with the principal and find out her “blueprint” for success.
Williams said Miller Park has great leadership in Principal Lisa Utterback. “She has passion,” she said.
York said success starts simply.
“It starts, in any school, with a belief, a simple belief, that every single child in front of you can and will learn,” she said.
Teachers must empathize with disadvantaged students, and understand their home situation, but “woe is me does not work,” she said.
English said he wants the “A-plus” on the district's logo to mean what it says.
He noted Central High School's state champion basketball team.
“If Central's team can do what they do athletically, how come we can't do it academically?” he asked.
Asked what single district expense could be trimmed, Yolanda, English and Aja said they would examine transportation costs.
York would look at administrative costs, while Taylor at legal fees.
About 30 people attended the forum at Benson High School. It was sponsored by The Omaha World-Herald and the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. — Joe Dejka
Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Subdistrict 2: Narrowing the achievement gap
Narrowing the achievement gap and graduating students prepared for work or college were topics of a spirited discussion Thursday among three candidates for the Omaha school board's Subdistrict 2 that focused on the future of the district and its children.
Al three candidates — Morghan Price, Marque Snow and Niokia Stewart — said that it would take “communication” and “transparency” among the board, parents, teachers, administrators and the community to get there.
The three spoke at a forum at North High School sponsored by The World-Herald and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. About a dozen people attended.
Snow, after-school teen and youth director for the South YMCA, said OPS talks about its improving graduation rate. But while working at a campaign office in north Omaha last fall, he hired more than 100 young people. Many lacked job skills. Schools, he said, need to make sure students graduate prepared for a trade or for college.
Stewart, a transitional youth professional partner with Region 6 Behavioral Health, said parental involvement needs to improve. Teachers, particularly those who are struggling, should be mentored by seasoned professionals. Stewart said she helped start a program that paired new workers with experienced ones in her workplace.
Price, a full-time student in pre-law at Metropolitan Community College, said OPS needs to bridge the gap between the school board and organizations that support young people outside school, including tutoring and other programs that “connect their everyday lives with their education.”
What's the role of the school board? All three agreed that the board sets district policies. But they also see a broader role.
Price said board members represent the district as a whole, not just people in their subdistricts. Snow said the board should go out into the community to “sell” its policies, as the link between schools and the community. He and Stewart said board members should go into the schools. Price said she's detected a “disconnect” between the school board and teachers.
She said teacher input is important when it comes to student performance and budget impacts.
Snow and Stewart suggested meetings between board members, administrators and teachers.
Said Price, volunteer executive director for the anti-violence group Enough Is Enough, “The community is ready for new things to be tried.”
She and Snow emphasized that the board needs to let the community know the good things that are happening within the district.
All three were asked what they see for OPS's future if elected.
“I would like to see our kids more prepared to transition to adulthood,” Stewart said, noting that her experience has prepared her to help.
Price said she sees schools producing not just workers but also entrepreneurs and innovators, especially among low-income students.
And Snow said he sees graduates staying in north Omaha, starting businesses and drawing others to the area. “That's when you start getting that (new growth) in the area, and you start closing that achievement gap,” he said. — Julie Anderson
Contact the writer: 402-444-1223, email@example.com
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Subdistrict 3: Measuring student progress
Omaha school board candidates differed Thursday on how well the Omaha district prepares students for life after high school and on the best way to measure student progress.
Two of the three candidates at a Subdistrict 3 forum said more vocational technology courses would help some OPS students get ready for the workforce, while the third candidate said some OPS graduates can't pass basic reading and math classes.
The three candidates, however, agreed that the current Nebraska State Accountability system could use some changes — the state tests themselves and how schools approach them.
Woody Bradford, Marian Fey and Michael Warner answered questions from a moderator and audience members at a forum at Lewis and Clark Middle School. About 45 people attended the forum, sponsored by The World-Herald and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Candidates Bambi Bartek and Bill Hoff declined invitations. The five are vying for the chance to represent subdistrict 3. The primary is April 2, followed by the May 14 election.
Warner said OPS needs to do a better job preparing students for the workforce.
The district could think about adding career-education courses, such as more classes that prepare students to become auto mechanics, said Warner, who graduated from Omaha Northwest in 2005.
Fey, the current OPS board president, said the district has a strong career education center with some 700 students attending classes there. But it was a mistake to take vocational courses out of the high schools, she said.
Bradford took a stronger stance than either candidate: OPS does not do a good job of preparing some of its students to get a job out of high school. His reasoning? Because kids have reading and math skills that resemble an elementary student's.
“That's a fact, and that's gotta change,” he said.
Later, Fey challenged Bradford on how well OPS students are prepared when they graduate. Two of her four children have graduated from OPS high schools, she said, and her youngest two will as well. They all have gotten or will have received strong educations, she said.
The candidates found shared ground on the topic of state testing.
Warner said he believes tests are important but shouldn't be the only thing schools focus on. “We don't need to just teach to the test,” he said.
Students in grades three through eight and 11 at public schools will take state tests in math and reading this spring. Students in grades five, eight and 11 also will take the state science exam.
Fey said such standardized tests tell you two things: students' socioeconomic status, which is reflected in their scores, and how prepared a student is for the test.
OPS students are doing better on such tests because OPS has been doing a better job preparing students for the tests, she said.
Bradford said the system of state tests hasn't done a good job. The real test, he said, is “whether or not a graduate of high school in this community can get a job,” he said.
— Jonathon Braden
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