The World-Herald asked candidates for the Omaha Public Schools board for their views on several issues facing the district.
OPS BOARD ELECTION: Voters in the Omaha Public Schools district will decide the makeup of a new nine-member school board, starting with the April 2 primary election. Each subdistrict has at least three candidates in the nonpartisan races; only two in each subdistrict will advance to the May 14 general election.
Occupation: South Omaha child and community advocate
Public offices held: None
Education: Iowa Western Community College
Family: Married, four children
All her life, Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan has tried to help her community in South Omaha.
She has taken on bigger projects, such as establishing the Burlington Road Neighborhood Association with her husband, the area's first neighborhood association in some 70 years.
And she has done smaller deeds, like reading to elementary schoolchildren.
She has also served the greater community as a member of the Douglas County Local Emergency Planning Committee.
Now she wants a new project: serving on the Omaha Public Schools board.
Barrientos-Patlan wants to be the voice of the parents. For years, the OPS board has consisted largely of retired educators.
“We need more parents on the school board ... people from the community, not just administrators and teachers,” said Barrientos-Patlan, who has 17 grandchildren, ages 2 to 17.
She also supports initiatives that involve parents. One example is the Learning Community Council's recent decision to turn the old South Omaha Library into a center for helping disadvantaged youths.
At the library, staff will teach parents how to help their children overcome obstacles to academic achievement, such as learning how school works and how to get involved in their children's education.
“That's an awesome thing,” Barrientos-Patlan said.
She also wants OPS to continue strongly teaching phonics when helping students learn how to read.
In 2008, she unsuccessfully ran against Heath Mello for a seat in the Legislature.
Barrientos-Patlan is married to Virgil Patlan, who is running for the District 4 seat on the Omaha City Council.
Party affiliation: Republican
Occupation: Administrative assistant
Offices held: Current OPS board member
Education: Bachelor's degree, biology, with minor in Native American studies, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 2008
Family: Married, one child
A couple of years ago, Sarah Brumfield, an Omaha Public Schools board member and candidate, was in a similar spot as she is today: enjoying a gig that could end before she planned.
In 2011, she was the public relations director for the Omaha Nighthawks for only six months before financial problems shortened the season for the United Football League team.
Now Brumfield hopes her school board experience doesn't end abruptly, as well.
She was elected in November to her first four-year term on the board. But last month, the Nebraska Legislature moved to shrink the board from 12 members to nine and called for spring elections.
Now she and two other board members are running for a board seat for the second time in six months.
“It's been tough,” she said. “But I think once we get beyond this, there's so much we can do.”
Brumfield wants the board to communicate more often and in different ways with the public.
Not enough people know about the district's innovative ideas, she said, such as the Wilson Focus School and the district's vocational education programs.
OPS could be using its Facebook and Twitter accounts more frequently to inform parents about what's going on, she said.
Brumfield also wants to help the board complete a district strategic plan, which OPS does not have.
But as much as she wants change, she also wants some incumbents to stay on the board so it has some continuity when the district's new superintendent starts in July. “Having an entirely new board with a brand-new superintendent,” she said, “it would not be in the best interest for the district.”
What role should the school board play in helping OPS narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and other students?
BARRIENTOS-PATLAN: The OPS aim for all students states: High student achievement will be met by maintaining high academic standards and expectations for all students and providing assistance which is appropriate for each student. This statement doesn't say low-income students. It says ALL students and should be maintained by giving the same teaching, tools and funds to meet those needs. Children are children; they all have the same need for education. Challenges outside the school should not reflect the equality for higher education and opportunity for success within the school. In many South Omaha schools, we are hearing that there is a disparity in working computers, teaching tools and an overflow of student capacity within buildings. We need to work on these issues.
BRUMFIELD: There are already some great programs in place within the district at certain schools (i.e. Completely Kids). I would like to see an expansion of such programs to reach out to the entire district. More information on programs should be made available to parents.
What leadership qualities would you bring to the OPS board, and what experiences are they based on?
BARRIENTOS-PATLAN: Life experience has been my top quality. I have learned by being poor, a south Omaha OPS student at Marrs for 10 years and a South High graduate, a minority, a woman, a teacher, a college student, a business owner, wife, mother, grandmother, security officer at Castelar, founder of Burlington Road Neighborhood Association, a volunteer, a child and community advocate. There is no match for a woman who has a heart for the children in her community. I have always strived to help teach children what they should know and give them the tools that they need to help themselves. I may not be an educator or hold a certificate for education but I don't need that to know that Education is always the greatest tool for children's success in the game of life. I am a self-starter, problem solver, mover and shaker. It is my greatest feat to find solutions as to why students are scoring low in standard testing and why high school students are dropping out at an alarming rate. How to reach them, bounce back and become that success story is my mission.
BRUMFIELD: Throughout high school and college, I served in many different leadership roles for various organizations. I am very outgoing in my opinions but also take the time to listen to what others have to say and take their feedback into consideration. I feel that being the mother of a current OPS student gives me an advantage over others as I have a current and vested interest in the success of the district and its students.
How well is OPS preparing its graduates for the working world? Is it a high priority to improve this area? Why?
BARRIENTOS-PATLAN: Finding the student's basic need and motivating him or her to meet it will help them meet the coming world. Finding the students' gift and aiming their learning towards it will help them forever. It is the responsibility of the school board to properly get those tools to each student, to achieve their highest potential in education, so they can be better prepared in their life after graduation. It is the responsibility of the school board to funnel funds to meet those needs that help them achieve.
BRUMFIELD: The graduation rates in OPS are on the rise; however, that does not automatically translate into having students that are prepared for the working world. Not every student will go on to get a college degree. OPS has Academy classes that focus on a particular skill set or trade; I would like to see more information made available to the public on these classes, what they have to offer, and the success rates. I also think that is time for OPS to once again have a technical high school.
Do you think OPS needs major changes or minor tweaking as it strives to become the best district it can be? Briefly describe those changes or tweaks.
BARRIENTOS-PATLAN: I believe OPS could do better in early education. I believe if we bring back curriculum that implements phonics, it will increase learning at a greater rate. Whole language is a study of memorization instead of skill; phonics improves reading skill at a greater rate. Give them those skills and they will meet the challenge and move their own mountains that are in their way.
BRUMFIELD: Some change has already happened with four new board members elected in November, a new board president and a new superintendent set to start in the summer. This change has helped pave the way for some much needed improvement. Communication has increased, and we will be restructuring not only the committees and committee meetings, but how the main board meeting is run. (Once we create) a strategic plan, OPS will well be on its way to being the best district it can be.
Do you think the public has confidence in the OPS board? If yes, then how will you help maintain that confidence? If no, then what would you do to restore it?
BARRIENTOS-PATLAN: The school board needs to improve listening skills along with transparency. Their public wants them to have a listening ear and an acting arm when needed. Many times there has been a deaf ear and a boot out, when it comes to the parents' and public's concerns. Parents and the public are the eyes and heart to any school system and must be included to maintain the public's confidence.
BRUMFIELD: I think that the board still has a ways to go to regain the public's confidence, but it is getting there. The best thing I could do to restore it is to retain my current position on the board and continue to work toward accomplishing the goals I set when I was elected in November. Communication is key to this; my contact information is readily available on the district's website, and I welcome any and all questions and concerns from the members of my district.
How would you describe the proper relationship between the school board and the superintendent, and how much autonomy should (new) Superintendent Mark Evans have?
BARRIENTOS-PATLAN: He needs to show the community that the school board made the right decision in choosing him. But he needs to have time to show his leadership. I am excited to see how his leadership and will affect our children's education. If test scores and graduation rates increase, we will have greater hopes for our children in Omaha. They will have a greater chance in their future. I do not want higher scores and graduation increases by changing numerals but by actual child improvement learning scores. I would hope that oversight by the Omaha School Board will not be a negative thing to him, but for accountability reason. The community has been calling for transparency and accountability for a long time, and a new board and new superintendent may be the fix. Superintendent Evans will be given the chance to prove himself by his flexibility and independence. He needs this for decision making as he governs the school room and teachers for the best student achievement. An regular open door policy between the two will improve OPS all around.
BRUMFIELD: The duty of the board of education is to make decisions, and the duty of the superintendent is to enforce those decisions. If too much autonomy is given, that negates the purpose of the elected members of the board.