Underwood parents pack hearing room
February 23rd, 2011
Omaha, NE – Parents and children packed a hearing room at the Capitol Tuesday night in an attempt to save a school in Omaha. Underwood Hills Elementary is being forced to close its doors, because itâ€™s out of funds.
â€œIf you are here from Underwood Hills as parents and students, would you stand for a minute just to be recognized,â€ Willie Barney, who heads the Empowerment Network in Omaha, asked the hundreds of parents and students from Underwood Hills Elementary School, who showed up to testify before the Education Committee, to stand.
â€œWe stand with this message,â€ he said. â€œHelp us save this schoolâ€¦Help us take this message and this model and expand it across our state and potentially across our nation.â€
Underwood Hills Elementary opened in 2008 as a model of collaboration between Omaha Public Schools, Westside Community Schools and Elkhorn. Underwood announced it would have to close last month, after Elkhorn withdrew, saying it could not afford to continue. Barney asked the Committee to consider a bill that would free up state funds for focus schools like Underwood. Currently, such schools are only eligible for state support if theyâ€™re competitive, not collaborative. Barney says the Underwood model is achieving the goals set forth by the Learning Community Coordinating Council.
â€œThe gender gap has been closed at this school, the socio-economic gap has been closed at this schoolâ€¦ and the racial gap is on its way to being closed.â€
â€œThis is a model,â€ he said. â€œWe hear a lot about what we hope the Learning Community would be able to do, but right now, in our school and in this city and in this state, we have a model that has actually closed those gaps.â€
Supporters included the Assistant Superintendent for Omaha Westside School District. Andrew Rickley stressed Underwood could not be saved, even if the bill passes into law. But, he said Westside supports the concept and hopes a legal change would allow the model to be replicated. Rickley was joined by several Underwood students and parents who told their personal stories.
â€œHello, my name is Omer Bilal, I am a fifth grader at the Underwood Focus School,â€ Bilal testified in a quiet, nervous voice. â€œIâ€™m here today to save the schoolâ€¦This school is really wonderfulâ€¦ It is bully free and no place for hate.â€
â€œAnd last but not least, I am a lion and I am proud to be, and I will not give up.â€
Evelyn Acosta, the mother of a 4th grader at Underwood said that her daughter had learning setbacks due to â€œfamily issuesâ€ that arose when she was first learning to speak. She stayed silent for a long while, she said. But when she started at Underwood, â€œshe skyrocketed, I was flabbergasted.â€
Swallowing tears, Acosta said â€œSheâ€™s beginning to be that child who speaks up for herself now, and sheâ€™s not afraid to say anything anymore.â€ Without the school, she said, â€œweâ€™ll be taking three steps back.â€
One person spoke in opposition to the bill, questioning the guidelines used by Nebraska schools to determine poverty levels, and consequently, access to model school programs like Underwood. But Senator Bill Avery of Lincoln dismissed his testimony as â€œfrivolous and irrelevant.â€
The Committee must still decide whether to advance the bill to the full Legislature for debate.
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