Omaha Public Schools teachers, staff and administrators are helping local high school students learn more and graduate more often.
That statistical fact can get lost in headlines about improved statewide graduation rates that place OPS in Nebraska’s bottom three.
Nobody is satisfied with OPS graduation rates at less than 80 percent, not when the statewide rate approaches 90 percent. But the district is graduating more students than in recent years, and it is doing so without sacrificing academic quality.
Many school districts under political pressure to perform succumb to social promotion schemes, under which teachers relax academic standards and allow more unqualified students to graduate. That leaves many students poorly prepared for life after school and leads to complaints about graduates’ inability to perform basic jobs.
Over the years, local employers have complained about some ill-prepared OPS graduates, but OPS leaders listened. The district appears focused on the right things, helping students improve academically and letting that focused improvement boost graduation rates.
This is evident in the steadily improving measure of Omaha students’ mastery of reading, math and science under statewide subject area accountability tests. Reading test scores in 2012-13 were up to 49 percent proficiency two years after the number was 43 percent. Math scores were up to 31 percent from 24 percent, and science scores climbed 10 percentage points in a year, to 51 percent.
By no means are those numbers acceptable, but they are improving. That they are improving despite an explosion of non-native English speakers and nearly three-quarters of OPS students in poverty speaks to the good work going on.
That work is helping OPS close the academic achievement gap, with graduation rates for black students up 10 percentage points since 2011, to 75 percent. The graduation rate of Latino students was up nearly 5 points, to nearly 74 percent.
And those numbers were improving before new OPS superintendent Mark Evans arrived, as he is quick to point out. It speaks to a commendable commitment to academic rigor and success, the cornerstones of any great school district.
Without pause, challenges remain, chief among them the influx of refugee students and other immigrants for whom English is not their first language. The district said it had 992 refugee students in 2009 and 1,566 last year. Since 2002, its number of English Language Learners has nearly tripled. Those students take more time, effort and money to prepare for learning.
Then there’s the push for greater proficiency in all subject matters. There’s the increasing need for early childhood education to help even the bar for children who otherwise might come to school academically unprepared. There’s the continued push to catch up to Gov. Dave Heineman’s statewide goal of 90 percent graduation rates.
In the past, much was made of the idea that OPS was doing the best it could with the difficult urban student population it served. That’s why it is refreshing to see the fruit of expectations raised.
OPS students, teachers and administrators are working hard with parents and students to verifiably improve educational outcomes.
Keep up the good work.