Underwood parents pack hearing room


February 23rd, 2011

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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 it’s out of funds.

Underwood Hills Focus School is slated to close its doors, after it ran out of funding

“If you are here from Underwood Hills as parents and students, would you stand for a minute just to be recognized,” 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.

“We stand with this message,” he said. “Help us save this school…Help us take this message and this model and expand it across our state and potentially across our nation.”

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 they’re competitive, not collaborative. Barney says the Underwood model is achieving the goals set forth by the Learning Community Coordinating Council.

“The gender gap has been closed at this school, the socio-economic gap has been closed at this school… and the racial gap is on its way to being closed.”

“This is a model,” he said. “We 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.”

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.

“Hello, my name is Omer Bilal, I am a fifth grader at the Underwood Focus School,” Bilal testified in a quiet, nervous voice. “I’m here today to save the school…This school is really wonderful… It is bully free and no place for hate.”

“And last but not least, I am a lion and I am proud to be, and I will not give up.”

Evelyn Acosta, the mother of a 4th grader at Underwood said that her daughter had learning setbacks due to “family issues” that arose when she was first learning to speak. She stayed silent for a long while, she said. But when she started at Underwood, “she skyrocketed, I was flabbergasted.”

Swallowing tears, Acosta said “She’s beginning to be that child who speaks up for herself now, and she’s not afraid to say anything anymore.” Without the school, she said, “we’ll be taking three steps back.”
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 “frivolous and irrelevant.”

The Committee must still decide whether to advance the bill to the full Legislature for debate.


A related story from our Student Lab, Ian Edgington reports for The Omaha News on the impact of the Underwood School closing.

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