The Omaha school district has benefited in recent years from encouraging demonstrations of strong public support. Omahans voted overwhelmingly to pass bond issues for the district in 2014 and 2018. Those votes provided OPS with a total of $831 million for much-needed construction projects. The district’s superintendent, Cheryl Logan, has earned respect for her professionalism and dedication. Nebraska’s largest school district is, in many ways, a forward-looking, dynamic institution.
So far this year, unfortunately, OPS is undermining that public support through the way it’s rolled out its plans for academic pathways. It’s imperative that the district do a far better job of explaining, clearly and thoroughly, to students, parents and guardians precisely what is involved. If this sweeping new academic approach by OPS is to succeed, parental buy-in will be crucial.
OPS leaders also must make a special effort to see that with this instructional change, the district offers reasonable flexibility to students so that their individual needs are met. If a large portion of OPS parents and guardians conclude that the academic pathways approach is too rigid and closes off needed opportunity for their children, the district is headed for ongoing controversy. Such frustration and angst would be harmful all around — to students, to parents and to the district itself.
As described 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.
The rollout of the academic pathways initiative has been odd in that it’s left not only parents but also elected OPS school board members themselves with questions about the specifics of the initiative.
This situation contrasts greatly with how OPS rolled out standards-based grading in 2010. Back then, the district held public information sessions at schools to explain how the change would work. The briefing sessions didn’t erase all confusion or controversy, but they did show that the district understood the need to reach out to parents and guardians beforehand, to help the district transition to a major new grading approach.
That kind of direct, focused outreach is needed now, amid the complaint over the academic pathways initiative.
Academy programs will likely benefit some students significantly. Given the demands of the 21st-century economy, academic pathways make sense in preparing some students well for specific careers. OPS will fumble its opportunity to properly explain those positives, however, if it doesn’t step up now and connect better with parents and guardians.
Better communication and greater flexibility for individual student needs are essential if this OPS initiative is going to succeed.