Omaha Public Schools parents, students and school board members still have plenty of questions about the changes coming to the district’s high schools.
Some have expressed excitement and optimism about the academies and pathways coming to the high schools starting next year. Others are asking the district to pump the brakes and give the community more time to digest and understand the plans.
During a school board workshop last week, OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan said that even before the pandemic, data showed change was necessary.
“Amid two school years disrupted by the pandemic, it is all the more important that we prepare all students for success in high school beginning with the freshman academy and elevate their following three years before graduation,” Logan said.
This fall OPS will begin rolling out the academy programs or career pathways at the district’s high schools. The programs will also be implemented at the district’s two new schools, opening in the 2022-23 school year.
Starting next school year, freshman academies will be implemented at the high schools. In those academies, students will explore careers and skills.
District officials said a freshman seminar, part of the freshman academies, will be a consistent course for all ninth graders. Students will learn about academy and pathway options while also learning skills like time management, organization and study skills.
Following the student’s freshman year, students will select an academy or a pathway at their school. Students may change their academy or pathway one time.
Delayne Havlovic, coordinator K-12 career education and programming for OPS, said the switch would normally happen between the student’s sophomore and junior years.
Some parents have asked how a model that pigeonholes students into certain careers at a young age is beneficial.
Havlovic said all academy and pathways teach skills that “will translate into success for college, career and beyond.”
Havolvic gave the example of the aviation program at Burke High School. He said a student interested in aviation engineering could transfer that skill into architecture.
At a previous school board meeting, several parents said the plans to implement the academies and pathways have been rushed and formed without enough community feedback. Some parents have expressed frustration the school board never voted on the changes, which are already being implemented.
A district spokeswoman said the district’s evolution of programming reflects priorities outlined in the strategic plan approved by the board in February 2020. The plans for the academies and pathways are not explicitly listed in the strategic plan.
When asked how much the academies and pathways will cost, a district spokeswoman said the current budget for the 2020-21 school year is $2 million for curriculum, supplies and equipment.
“The 2021-22 budget will include funding to continue courses within the academies and pathways which are currently in development,” the district said in a statement. “As planning continues, district leaders will continue to work with each school to identify specific needs for special equipment or materials.”
District officials have said a survey went out to parents, teachers and community partners on the changes. The district said it also formed a “branding team.”
Havlovic said the survey was designed to collect input on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the high schools.
District officials said that survey went out to more than 34,000 parents, students and staff members. About 2,100 responses to the survey were received.
Board member Spencer Head said he expected the survey to ask respondents specific questions about the academies and pathways but instead found it asked general questions about the district.
“It’s a night and day difference between what I thought the engagement was and what it actually was,” Head said.
Head asked what OPS has done to ask the community specific questions about the programming changes and outreach to parents.
Susan Christopherson, director of secondary education for OPS, said the surveys told district officials what skills parents want their students to attain during their time with OPS.
Christopherson said the district is focused on connecting students with high-skill, high-wage and in-demand jobs.
Board member Marque Snow asked if students will be able to catch up academically to be ready for the academies and pathways given the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Logan said the district is looking at where students are and will administer more assessments, including for remote students, at the end of the school year.
Logan said high school freshmen are always at risk because of their age, and it’s a significant transition to go from a sheltered elementary and middle school experience into high school, where they have more freedom. And now all OPS students have had some interrupted learning because of the pandemic. There is even more urgency around making sure freshmen have structures around them to connect them to the high school experience, Logan said.
Several board members asked if and how the district will be monitoring the programs to make sure they’re producing the results the district wants.
Logan said the district will monitor student engagement, attendance, behavior and credit attainment. She said the district can do a comparison of students in different academies.
Graduation rates will also be important, Logan said, but it’s a lagging indicator that district officials can’t see until students are gone.
The OPS graduation rate for the 2019-2020 school year was 73%. As stated in the district’s strategic plan, the district’s goal by June 2025 is for each school to increase the percentage of ninth- through twelfth-grade students identified as on-track for graduation by 5%.
The school board will meet on Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Teacher Administrative Center, 3215 Cuming St. The academies and pathways are not on the agenda.