• Read the consultants' report.
The Omaha Public Schools must seize the momentum created by the arrival of a new superintendent and school board to craft a bold strategic plan, according to consultants assisting the district's efforts.
A 119-page report presented at Monday's school board meeting recommends better support of struggling students, placing the best teachers and principals in the neediest schools and weighing universal pre-K and restructured high schools. The report also lays out the need of a path for improved relationships with parents, community members and the local business community.
Using district data, classroom observations, interviews with staff members and community forums that drew 750 participants, the needs analysis studied the district's strengths and weaknesses in seven key areas, including teaching and learning, technology, finance and school choice.
The findings will shape the district's strategic plan for the next five years and set goals and strategies to improve student outcomes such as test scores and graduation rates.
Cross & Joftus and UPD Consulting are developing the needs assessment and strategic plan.
The needs analysis highlighted success stories as well as areas for improvement.
A detailed action plan — which includes the framework that shows teachers which strategies to use to improve learning — was called “the best we've seen in the country” by consultant Scott Joftus.
Teachers, administrators and other staff members are bright and committed, and the arrival of a new school board and superintendent has ushered in a new era of optimism after several years of strife, he said.
“We sensed this from everyone we talked to. With the new board, new superintendent, new leadership, there's a general sense that it's a new day at OPS, and we think that's something that's hugely significant and can really be built on.”
But significant challenges remain. Classroom observers saw little evidence that the stellar action plan was being implemented correctly.
The quality of teaching was inconsistent, with low levels of student engagement observed. Some teachers used best-practice strategies — such as matching their lessons to different learning abilities — sparingly.
“Observers found a lack of instructional rigor and low student engagement in almost all settings, including both relatively low-poverty and high-poverty schools,” the report states.
Joftus said that didn't mean the district had bad teachers but that teachers might need more systemic support or training to improve.
“It's not blaming teachers; it's a partial explanation for why student achievement and student outcomes are not yet where we want them to be,” he said.
In surveys, teachers expressed doubt in their ability to fully reach English Language Learner and special education students. Observers also found a lack of cultural sensitivity and a pattern of low expectations and excuses.
Board President Justin Wayne said those findings should concern everyone.
“There was almost an excusing of student outcomes due to poverty,” Joftus said. “Lots of statements were made about 'a lot of our students are poor, therefore we can't really expect high levels of student outcomes.' ”
The analysis found that teacher and principal evaluations could be overhauled, conducted more frequently and aligned better with the district action plan. It called for better support, supervision and mentoring of principals to strengthen their roles as school leaders and to prevent burnout and turnover.
“We need to do as much as we can to take nonessential other responsibilities off their plates so they can focus on instruction, teaching and learning,” Joftus said.
The district needs to recruit and place teachers and principals more strategically in schools with more at-risk students, the report said. Teachers requested better and more frequent professional development programs, something that could be hampered by the current teacher contract and the district's short school day and year.
The analysis found that OPS lagged neighboring districts in instructional hours.
The report also recommended that OPS consider a universal pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds. It noted that early childhood education can increase graduation rates or lower occurrences of child abuse.
Universal pre-K would prove costly, though. Over a suggested six-year phase-in period, OPS would need to add 481 classrooms and hire hundreds of teachers, aides and social workers at a cost of $70 million.
Changes were recommended for the district's seven high schools, which offer a wide range of programs, including magnet schools to dual enrollment programs with local colleges.
Some programs, however, suffer from a lack of clarity, focus and marketing, resulting in low enrollment, the report noted. High schools and their various programs need to be judged on how well they're preparing students for college or the workforce, and whether the programs match the needs of Omaha's employers.
Enrollment and school choice also merit examination, especially the lopsided enrollments at the district's high schools, the report said. Magnet schools such as Benson and Northwest are not meeting their stated goal of drawing students and are at only about 62 percent capacity, while schools like Central and Bryan are bursting at the seams.
“As the strategic plan moves forward, we really need to figure out how to utilize programs at their highest capacity and really have students take advantage of the choice they're offered in the district,” consultant Nick Goding said.
Interviews with parents and community members found them eager to support the district with time and money, but they felt shut out.
No family engagement strategy exists and OPS has missed out on key partnerships with social services and the business community, the consultants said. Parents of all races and socioeconomic classes said they felt district staff ignored and talked down to them.
Board members said they'll spend the next several months gathering working groups that will try to nail down needs, recommendations and strategies for the final strategic plan, which should be completed by March.
Superintendent Mark Evans said little in the report surprised him. The district is equal to the task of plotting a new course to boost student achievement, he said.
“When you start to look at what's described tonight, it's challenging to look at all the difficulties we have to overcome,” he said. “We all knew we had some challenges, but we also know we have the capacity and the leadership at the classroom, building and community level to tackle every single one of the things we discussed tonight.”