They're both young, passionate and committed to kids and to the community.
But Niokia Stewart and Marque Snow, vying to represent Subdistrict 2 on the Omaha school board, would bring somewhat different perspectives to the position.
Stewart grew up in north Omaha, graduated from Bryan High School, became the first in her family to attend (and graduate from) college and returned to north Omaha, where one son attends elementary school.
She works as a transitional youth professional with Region 6 Behavioral Health, helping young people with mental health concerns connect with services, a position that puts her in contact with teachers on matters of behavior and academics.
“I was born and raised here,” Stewart said. “I'm still here. My husband is an OPS grad. We're looking forward to our kids graduating from the OPS system. I thank everyone who's on the school board for what they've done, but right now I think we need to move forward.”
Snow, the son of two retired military veterans, has lived in Omaha for about three years but visited often while attending the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
Now he's serving as teen director of after-school and summer programs at the South YMCA in Omaha, which puts him in daily contact with young people, many of whom are considered at-risk youths. Last fall, he took time off to work in the Nebraska Democratic Party's north Omaha campaign office.
And he can speak to the needs of north Omaha. If students get the best possible education, he said, they'll be able to compete for jobs or start their own businesses. Money will flow into the community, along with more businesses looking for workers.
“Our public schools are the best way we can move forward,” said Snow, who's visited most of the schools in the district.
Snow has gotten campaign advice from State Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha, who is backing him. OPS needs to improve coordination with nonprofits and others offering extracurricular activities, he said, and Snow can bring that perspective.
“He'll bring new, fresh ideas to the school board,” Harr said.
Snow also has received backing from the Omaha Education Association teachers union, the Douglas County Democratic Party and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Stewart has the support of current school board member Justin Wayne, who represents Subdistrict 4. Stewart has coached for the Midwest Trailblazers, Wayne's youth program, and her husband is a mentor in the organization.
Wayne said Stewart would bring both a community perspective and a mental health voice to the board, something that is critical given recent changes in that area.
“It's important that we take ownership back of our community by people who are from the community and in the community,” Wayne said.
Stewart said students shouldn't have to be bused out of their neighborhoods. “You should be able to go to any school and get a quality education,” she said.
Effective teachers are important. So are those who go above and beyond to make home visits or find out why a child is absent. Such efforts may merit extra pay. Parents, she said, should hear from teachers when students do well, not just when there's a problem.
She'd like greater transparency from the board and more committee meetings in the evening when parents can attend. She's been attending board meetings, she said. But without information provided at committee meetings, she had a hard time following the votes.
Stewart said she feels she got a good education in OPS. She played basketball at Bryan and later at Midland University.
Her parents split up when she was young. Her mom, who raised her and five nieces after her sister died, encouraged her in high school and in college. After her mom was seriously injured in a car accident, Stewart considered not going back. “My mom was like, 'No, you have to go back and finish,' ” she said. Now she's involved in her son's school.
Snow said his family comes from a blue-collar background. His parents chose the military. Now he and his two of his three siblings have gone to college.
“We know where we came from, and we give back,” he said.
His parents' years in the military showed him the impact of high mobility, an issue in north and South Omaha and in his program. “Those are the kids we really have to work on,” he said.
OPS, he said, needs to do more communicate its successes to the community and to coordinate with after-school programs like the one he runs. There, staff provide tutoring and job application help. If schools could communicate where students need help, he said, programs like his could help move them to the next level.
While hiring at the campaign office, he said, he saw young people who weren't prepared to apply for jobs or to work. He supports holding students in school until they master skills.
The district also needs to prepare kids for the jobs that are available, he said. Find out what kind of employees area businesses need and make sure young people can apply and compete.
“That's the hope that I'm talking about,” he said. “That's the confidence.”
Contact the writer:
Occupation: Transitional youth professional partner
Public offices held: None
Education: Bachelor of arts in sociology and minor in coaching, Midland University in Fremont, 2001
Family: Husband and three children
Occupation: After-school teen director
Public offices held: None
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science and history, University of South Dakota, 2011
Q&A with the candidates
The World-Herald is providing interviews with candidates for the Omaha Public Schools board, asking them for their views on several issues facing the district. For other coverage of this and other school board races, check omaha.com/ops.
Should OPS increase career education offerings and, if so, how? With a new technical high school, more career-education classes at each high school or other ways?
Stewart: Yes. The district may be able to work more classes into the high schools. Seniors who've finished core courses often take electives their second semester. Those who aren't college-bound could take career classes.
Snow: Career education offerings should increase at each high school. But the district also needs to increase the resources available for it.
Reputations and enrollment have suffered at some OPS high schools. How do you go about restoring those that are lacking and begin balancing enrollment at OPS high schools?
Stewart: High schools may need to promote what they're doing, go into middle schools to talk about their focuses — technology, media. At the high school level, parents should have a choice. But the district should make sure all schools at every level provide a quality education.
Snow: Perceptions of some of those schools are just wrong. Central has a foundation that brings in extra funds. How do we provide that for other schools? And we need to sell the schools by showing parents what the schools have to offer. A new stadium at North High would build excitement.
When test scores at a school are far below the district average, is it appropriate to replace the principal or other staff?
Stewart: It would be appropriate to replace or reassign a principal because it starts at the top. The principal needs to make sure teachers are effective. But they can't teach the same way to every student. Principals have to let teachers explore the best way to ensure students are learning.
Snow: No. You can't judge based on how students did on a computer test. Each school has different circumstances. Don't lower the bar, but give them the resources to succeed and find a different way to evaluate their learning — are they improving versus did they succeed or not.
Should teachers be paid extra — bonuses — when students score well on standardized tests?
Stewart: Teachers should be paid extra if they go above and beyond to ensure students are learning, such as providing tutoring, but not necessarily so they can pass tests. Consider paraprofessionals in every class to provide extra help.
Snow: No. You can have a bad teacher and still have kids who do well because they're smart and do the work. You need to look at each situation individually.
The No Child Left Behind Act has focused attention and resources on the lowest-achieving students. How would you ensure that other students aren't overlooked?
Stewart: Teachers have to make sure all students are getting attention. Your job is making sure your other students understand. But that doesn't mean you can't still provide that extra support to those who aren't achieving as much.
Snow: You make sure you don't have kids falling behind and you challenge those who are ahead. That might take teaching different groups in different ways or having traveling teachers come in to challenge kids. If they've mastered their level, push them to the next grade level.
Should the district set a minimum grade-point average for students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities?
Stewart: Absolutely. Our students shouldn't think it's OK to be satisfied with a D or an F. We need to ensure students are putting forth the effort, and if they're struggling, find out why. Would have to do some research before deciding what the minimum should be.
Snow: I favor a minimum GPA. My high school had a 2.5 minimum. I played football and wrestled. We helped tutor our teammates so they could make grades. I'd consider at least 2.3. It might hurt teams at first. You'd need to provide support and convince students and parents this is the best way.