By Ben Bohall
The Nebraska Department of Education is utilizing a new project to work with schools categorized as “needing improvement.” But will it work?
AcQuESTT is a strange-sounding acronym for Accountability for a Quality Education System, Today and Tomorrow. Nebraska adopted it as its academic accountability system last year. Since then, the Nebraska Department of Education has been trying to decide how best to deal with the state’s lowest performing schools. Right now schools are placed into four categories: Excellent, Great, Good, or Needs Improvement.
At a meeting last month of the State Board of Education, the board voted to start specifically working hand-in-hand with three out of the state’s 87 priority schools – Druid Hill Elementary in Omaha, Santee Middle Schooll in Niobrara, and Loup County Elementary in Taylor.
Matt Blomstedt is commissioner of the Nebraska Department of Education, or NDE
“We started to realize there’s really several different kinds of classifications, settings of schools that stuck out to us,” said Matt Blomstedt, commissioner of the Nebraska Department of Education or NDE.
Blomstedt said each school faces a different set of obstacles. For example, Druid Hill is a high-poverty urban school that’s struggled in the past with academic performance. Loup County is a rural school which has seen many of its students leave for other districts. Finally, Santee (a reservation school) has battled with high staff turnover rates and academic performance. Blomstedt said the three are representative of the range of Nebraska schools.
“We think by selecting some that are pretty representative of those areas it gives us a chance to dive in and work a little closer with the school directly and learn a lot about what it takes to turn around school environments and make a difference,” Blomstedt said
For the past several years, Druid Hill, located in North Omaha, has been one of the state’s lowest-achieving schools. It also has one of the largest concentrations of poverty.
Cherice Williams is the principal at Druid. Omaha Public School officials had already dedicated more resources to Druid as of late. So when the NDE announced the pilot project, Williams said she first had reservations.
“Initially not knowing what to expect. But from the beginning they’ve been very supportive of our progress,” Williams said. “They’ve offered additional resources, additional instructional staff to support our teachers through professional development opportunities. From the very beginning, it’s been a very collaborative effort.”
That’s included bringing in education consultants, engaging parents, and improving instruction. The idea of a state’s department of education working directly to assist struggling schools, is relatively new. It’s a stark contrast to the state’s former accountability system under federal No Child Left Behind laws.
Glenn Flint is a member of the State Board of Education- representing District 2 in Sarpy County
“They had a whole bunch of progressively more punitive measures in effect like firing the principal, firing the teachers,” Flint said. “I think we need to spend more time with them, work with them where they’re at, and try to improve the schools that way.”
The school had begun performing better before the NDE’s decision. Last year, it was the recipient of the Silver Award for Academic Improvement. That’s left Flint to have reservations about the NDE choosing Druid Hill in the first place.
“I thought we were possibly wasting our effort there. Druid Hill is one of the schools OPS is already focusing their energy on,” Flint said. “If we had picked another school, we could have improved that one as well.”
Blomstedt said the department chose Druid for precisely that reason – because it had shown improvement. He says he hopes schools like Druid Hill Elementary, Santee Middle, and Loup County Elementary can provide a template for working with “needs improvement” schools moving forward.
“These gains we celebrate with them,” Blomstedt said. “I think some of the things they were doing are exactly the kinds of things that we would imagine needing to do in priority schools, generally. We have this chance to grow together and think about how we build a system that not only helps Druid Hill but other schools that are in similar circumstances.”
Editor’s Note: By way of full disclosure, Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt serves on the NET Commission.
By Ben Bohall
A detention facility for high-risk youth has been the center of debate for one Nebraska community. Kearney looks to deal with issues at its Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center.
A few years ago, Christine Suchsland and her family moved here to the semi-rural Kearney neighborhood of Canal Heights. At first it seemed like any other quiet neighborhood. But they soon found out they would be frequented by unwelcome visitors.
“They’ll run through the fence line here, and end up back in our neighborhood here. They’ll cross the street and come right up to the back of the house,” Suchsland said.
Suchsland points past the property line of brush and trees to 30th Avenue; and on the other side of that street lies Kearney’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center or YRTC. YRTC is a high risk youth detention center for boys. Over the past several months it’s seen an uptick in escapes. Many of the boys head straight for Canal Heights because of the cover it provides. That has lead to a number of hostile encounters between escapees and the residents here.
“We’ve had too many different experiences to count,” Suchsland said. “My husband has helped to detain kids on the property before. I have my own children and I worry for their safety. We feel like we can’t leave them alone, even though they’re teenagers.”
Fred George also lives in Canal Heights. He recently had escapees show up at his door, saying their car broke down, and they needed to use his phone. He immediately called the police.
“I think something needs to be done, because it’s not working… It is scary. I hope nobody has to pay the consequences for not having done anything,” George said.
Other escapes have included more violent exchanges like assaults and carjackings.
Stan Clouse is Kearney’s mayor. Last month, he and nearly 200 city residents attended a town hall meeting organized to address those concerns.
“Some things need to change because we’ve seen some operational issues, we’ve seen a lot of the youth escape and it’s a raised a lot of concern in our community,” Clouse said. “There’s a little bit of skepticism… We’ll see how it works out.”
This meeting and the center’s recent escapes aren’t the first time the YRTC has found itself in a negative light. YTRC is run by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human services or NDHHS. For the past decade, the department has been heavily criticized for its mismanagement of publicly-run facilities like YRTC and the Beatrice State Developmental Center. It’s now trying to reverse that image.
State Senator and Speaker Galen Hadley represents Kearney’s District 37. He organized this town hall meeting. In the past, Hadley has been critical of the DHHS, but now says he’s optimistic. He points to some of the recent changes made by Governor Pete Ricketts – particularly the hiring of new CEO, Courtney Phillips.
“Courtney Phillips has just done an outstanding job. She’s getting her team together to work on this and I think this has risen to the level or real concern in DHHS,” Hadley said. “YRTC just didn’t rise to the top before. I think it will now.”
Another change came in early April when DHHS hired YRTC’s new director, Mark LaBouchardiere.
LaBouchardiere has 20 years of experience working with youth at high-risk facilities across four states; most recently as deputy director for the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice. As part of Nebraska’s juvenile justice reform in 2014, lawmakers passed a law that designated YRTC as the state’s facility for all types of offenders – ranging from low to high – when they’ve exhausted all possibilities of probation or community supervision. LaBouchardiere says the center now has an influx of high-risk offenders.
“We’re leaving no stone unturned,” LaBouchardiere said. “As that population has changed, we have to change our strategy into dealing with that high-risk population. We’re looking at the programs and treatment models specifically targeting that high-risk population.”
Residents have overwhelmingly requested the construction of a fence to surround YRTC’s currently open campus. The city of Kearney has offered to pay for it, but DHHS has so far declined. LaBouchardiere says it’s an option he and his team are looking into and are currently waiting on a cost analysis before moving forward. Since April’s town hall meeting, the center has had several more escape attempts – including last week when one teen stole a vehicle and damaged private property while fleeing from police. Both were apprehended.
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