The Omaha school board seized the chance to reinvent one of the city’s highest-poverty schools Monday night, voting 8-0 to approve a plan that will connect Howard Kennedy Elementary with a north Omaha neighborhood revitalization effort.
The school’s involvement with the 75 North project is expected to usher in sweeping changes, including a new principal, new curriculum and a longer school day and school year, in time for the 2016-17 school year.
The partnership with the Omaha Public Schools is the latest piece to fall in place for the 75 North project, which aims to redevelop the Highlander neighborhood, the former home of the Pleasantview Homes public housing project.
75 North is part of a national network called Purpose Built Communities, backed by Warren Buffett and several other wealthy philanthropists and developers.
The Purpose Built model zeroes in on a lone, struggling neighborhood and creates a wrap-around redevelopment strategy based on building quality, mixed-income housing; emphasizing early childhood education and a strong neighborhood school; and providing community services to residents, such as health care and job training.
Purpose Built Communities exist in eight cities, including Atlanta, Indianapolis and Charlotte, North Carolina.
The first housing phase — 109 mixed-income rentals slated to be built on both sides of 30th Street, between Parker and Patrick Streets — should break ground this fall in Omaha. But a revival of the Highlander neighborhood won’t be complete without a high-performing school at its center, supporters said Monday night.
“As a young professional focused around the Highlander area, I’d really like to live there if the schools in the area showed they were on the right track,” one parent said.
Kennedy was selected due to its close proximity to the 75 North site, but the school is also ripe for improvement, Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. Executive Director Othello Meadows said.
The school has made positive gains with its state test scores in recent years, earning the school an OPS gold medal award for student achievement. But less than half of the school’s students scored proficient on math, reading and science tests last year, and the school has been labeled one of the lowest-performing in Nebraska.
Nearly 98 percent of Kennedy students qualify for free or reduced lunch and nearly one-quarter are refugees.
Changes to the school would be modeled after other schools in Purpose Built communities, specifically Drew Charter School in Atlanta, which OPS officials and board members toured over the last year.
The school is a top performer in Georgia and boasts a lengthy waiting list for enrollment. Last year, 98 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient on state reading tests and 97 percent in math.
75 North officials asked the board to support several key proposals for Kennedy: a dynamic new principal; early childhood education; a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) and project-based learning; and a longer school day and year.
Students would attend school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — one hour longer than most elementary students — and five extra days would be tacked on to the school calendar.
More staff would be added to the school, including a social worker, an assistant principal, and a math and reading specialist, plus part-time art, band and strings teachers would become full-time.
All of that would add millions more to Kennedy’s budget each year. OPS would kick in some of the additional funds, while 75 North would fund up to $1.7 million in additional costs in 2016 and federal grants would cover the rest. Over the next decade, the district would increase its contribution, until by 2026, the district would cover all of the additional costs associated with improving Kennedy.
OPS could also apply for a federal school improvement grant that could defray costs by $50,000 to $200,000.
The funding piece spurred plenty of conversation among board members, who debated whether or not the district should apply for another school improvement grant. OPS is already applying for a grant for Wakonda Elementary.
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An earlier version of this story misstated the vote tally on the partnership with 75 North.