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OPS board will vote this week on academies and pathways at high schools

OPS board will vote this week on academies and pathways at high schools

More than 1,000 people have signed an online petition asking the Omaha Public Schools board to halt a plan for academies and career pathways at the district’s high schools.

The petition, which had 1,087 signatures Sunday evening, asks the school board to let each high school determine the scheduling format that best suits the needs of its students, teachers and programs.

“Keep choice in our district; we are not the same,” the petition said.

The OPS board will vote on the plan on Tuesday evening.

It had not been clear that the board would vote on the changes. District officials had said the evolution of programming reflects priorities outlined in the strategic plan approved by the board in February 2020.

One of the district’s high schools had already started advertising its academies on its website Friday.

Next school year, OPS officials have said they will begin rolling out specific academy programs or pathways for every high school. The programs will also be implemented at the district’s two new high schools, which will open in the 2022-23 school year.

According to definitions provided by OPS, academies are small learning communities with a career focus. Pathways are a series of four or more classes focused on a group of related careers.

Starting next year, freshmen will take a seminar course to explore their interests and the courses they may want to take. The academies and pathways would be phased in each year and fully implemented by the beginning of the 2025-26 school year.

In addition to those changes, Central and South High Schools would move to a block schedule next school year to align with the district’s other high schools.

OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan said that even before the pandemic, data showed that change was necessary at the high school level.

The changes will connect students with high-skill, high-wage and in-demand jobs and teach them skills that will translate into college and career success, district officials have said.

Parents have said the changes are being made without enough community feedback and are being pushed through when many families are distracted and exhausted by the pandemic. They have shown up at recent school board meetings to share their concerns.

Some students have also said they are opposed to the changes.

“I should not have to begin planning my career in my first year of high school,” one student who signed the petition wrote. “I do not know what I want to do with my life yet, and that is okay. High school is supposed to help me decide, not force me to pick and hope I choose correctly.”

The proposed changes coming to OPS high schools are similar to changes made at another large high school in Nebraska.

Steele Dynamics, the consultant hired by OPS, also worked with the Grand Island Public Schools to bring academies and pathways to that district’s high school.

Like OPS, the changes to Grand Island’s high school came out of discussions about the district’s strategic plan. The school board voted to hire Steele Dynamics in 2017.

In August 2018, freshmen at Grand Island Senior High started in the Academy of Freshman Exploration, and the school moved to block scheduling. The district has added more academies and pathways in the following years.

In addition to the Freshman Academy, Grand Island has the Academy of Education, Law and Public Safety; the Academy of Engineering and Technology; the Academy of Business and Communication; the Academy of Technical Sciences; and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Within the academies, there are 21 different pathway options for students. Each academy has its own principal and one or two counselors.

OPS and Grand Island officials have both said they used the criteria of high-skill, high-wage and high-demand jobs to determine the academy and pathway offerings.

Dan Phillips, director of innovation for college and career readiness for Grand Island schools, said the district kicked off the academies with the help of 144 business partners who served on advisory committees, gave guidance on curriculum and provided guest speakers. He said the number of business partners has increased in recent years.

For Grand Island students, the Freshman Academy includes a visit to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Phillips said the district wants freshmen to picture themselves on a college campus and understand what it will take to get there.

About 70% of the high school’s students are on free and reduced-price lunch. The school has many students who would be the first in their family to attend college, Phillips said.

Since the district implemented the academies, the number of dual enrollment classes at the high school has increased from 43 to more than 70.

Phillips said Grand Island experienced pushback when plans for the academies were announced. He said the district focused on being transparent, answering tough questions and getting accurate information out to families.

The OPS board meets Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the district’s headquarters at 3215 Cuming St.

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Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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