Beating the odds


September 7th, 2011

Omaha, NE – New test scores from Nebraska’s public schools last week showed a big drop in math scores, as the state adjusts to new testing requirements. In the first of a series of reports on how Omaha schools are performing, KVNO News, in partnership with The Reader, stopped by South Omaha to talk to a principal who’s beating the odds.

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As Principal John Campin walks the brightly colored halls of Gomez Heritage Elementary School in South Omaha, he points out a family room, where parents are writing and working on computers, their youngest children at their feet. There’s a positive, and generally happy, atmosphere at Gomez that is hard to ignore.

Parental involvement at school is essential for student achievement, Campin said. And it’s his job to make opportunities available to parents for them to spend time at the school. In fact, he logs their hours and awards prizes for participating in family room projects, school concerts, or even for time spent taking care of the grounds.

Principal John Campin stands before the "Music Area" of Gomez Elementary's Outdoor Classroom. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

A big part of that can be seen in what Campin has built, along with parents and teachers, outside. Set against a backdrop of wooded hills is the Gomez Elementary Outdoor Classroom. There’s a mini stage, wooden bridges crossing over carefully-maintained gardens, a stone walking path and a designated “messy” area – a big pile of dirt for the littlest kids to play around in and look for bugs. “The kids can come out here and be creative.” It helps create an atmosphere where students and teachers enjoy being at school, he said. “If everyone’s happy when they come to school, it’s a lot easier to learn.”

And Campin’s approach is seeing results. Dr. ReNae Kehrberg, the Assistant Superintendent in the Curriculum and Learning Department at Omaha Public Schools, said Campin is doing a lot right. “Having that positive relationship, feeling emboldened and eager to embrace the challenges that come with serving kids from all backgrounds, I think is powerful,” she said.

85.2% of the kids at Gomez Elementary are living in poverty – that’s based on the number of kids who receive free or reduced-price lunches. And just under 64.76% are English language learners. That’s a challenge that sets many schools back in terms of test scores. But at Gomez, 75% of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, by the latest 2011 numbers – exceeding OPS’ average by 15 points. Gomez is also one of the few schools that made “Adequate Yearly Progress” last year, as required by the federal education law: No Child Left Behind.

Gomez' Outdoor Classroom includes a "Messy Area" where kids can build earth lodges, or dig for bugs. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“Targeted performance goals (are) a very positive healthy thing,” Kehrberg said. “What becomes unhealthy is when those targeted goals for adequate yearly progress are no longer reasonable within the context of what’s doable.”

Kehrberg said despite Gomez’ success, there are many OPS schools labeled failing that don’t deserve to be cast that way. In fact, the majority of schools in the OPS district are failing to meet NCLB standards, according to the latest federal assessment. The second largest district in the metro, Millard Public Schools, also failed to meet federal standards for its middle and high schools in 2009-2010. Kehrberg says a lot is being lost in the numbers, and NCLB standards are inflexible and unfair. She says they demand unattainable improvement each year, with the ultimate goal of reaching 100% proficiency by 2014.

“If I said for all U.S. Senators, we’ll have 100% of you all running the 50 yard dash at proficient. Well, there’s a possibility that some are actually proficient runners, and some may have certain disabilities … that doesn’t allow them to run at a proficient level. So it’s no longer realistic to think that we’re all the same at the same time.”

Dr. ReNae Kehrberg is the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Learning at Omaha Public Schools. (Photo credit OPS)

NCLB’s designation can land schools on the Persistently Low Achieving Schools list, where four OPS high schools ended up last year, which can jeopardize federal funding. President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are pushing Congress to revamp NCLB, which was passed by the Bush administration. But in the meantime, they offered a waiver in early August on some requirements that school districts have long-called unfair.

“When a school is unfairly labeled persistently low achieving,” Kehrberg said, some “would have labeled that a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it puts you in a mindset that doesn’t reflect the hard work you’re doing.”

But while NCLB may be setting unrealistic targets, there’s still room for improvement in Omaha’s test scores. Last year’s OPS reading scores averaged out to 68.64% for grades 3-11. Writing scores topped out at 94.43% for grade 11. But this year, schools fell sharply statewide in math, including Gomez, which fell from 97.6% to 65% proficiency for fourth graders. Kehrberg says this was the first year for the statewide math test – as Nebraska moves away from localized STARS testing – and she says she’s confident those math scores will improve.

“I do think it’s more difficult when labels don’t really reflect what’s happening in the school,” she said. “But on the same side, we want to be really honest. When we look at our data, in terms of, what is working and not working, and how we can push towards student achievement, but we want to do it in a way that’s fair and honest and very straight forward.”

Back at Gomez, Campin says he depends heavily on data to drive instruction. In fact, he has a regular “data night” where teachers share graphs and stats with parents and kids. But the key, he says, is keeping it positive.

“My philosophy is about collaboration,” he said. “I’m working for the teachers, I’m working for the students, I’m working for the community and parents. So rarely I’m telling them what to do.”

Campin said providing opportunity for involvement, and relying on data, along “with the positive attitude, teamwork, collaboration between staff, students and parents, and the community, it’s really paid off and our results have shown that.”

We’ll have more on how our Omaha schools are performing in the coming weeks, as the state prepares for its annual State of the Schools report due out in October.

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11 Responses

  1. Stephanie Carlson-Pruch says:

    Awesome article and awesome Principal we have! So proud to be a part of Gomez Heritage!
    Art Specialist

  2. Veronica Keasling says:

    I’m Mr. Campin’s aunt and have heard wonderful stories on how the teachers, staff, and parents work together at Gomez Heritage to create a successful school in a pleasant environment. Three cheers and high fives to all of you.

  3. Sue Evanich, Assist. Supt. Curriculum, Westside says:

    CONGRATULATIONS!! I was so thrilled to read this article. There are great things happening in our schools and highlighting what is working provides valuable information to our community. Keep up the great work. All students are capable of improving when the expectations are high and the right supports are in place. I agree with Renee, the NCLB targets are unrealistic and damaging. Thanks to all who care so deeply @ Gomez and provide a great model, of what can be, for all of us.

  4. Amy Hansen says:

    What a tremendous, engaging atmosphere for living and learning, together! I feel so fortunate to be a part of the Gomez Heritage community!
    ESL Instructor

  5. Ashley Yount says:

    Great article! It’s great to see our school recognized for such wonderful things. All of our staff works so hard to provide a positive and welcoming learning environment for all students and parents. I love being a teacher there and a big thanks to Mr. Campin as well, we couldn’t do it without him!

  6. Ashlee Englund says:

    I am so proud to be part of this team. Thanks to Mr. Campin for providing such a positive relationship and community through out the school. I will be proud to bring my children to Gomez Heritage when the time comes even if I have to drive across town. Gomez Rocks!

  7. Stephanie Manriquez says:

    To work here is a privilege. The Gomez Heritage family not only consists of the administration, staff, and students but the community as well. The parents that come in everyday to volunteer share a sense of ownership and pride and truly inspire not only the staff but all the students who attend here.

  8. Sandi Robinson says:

    I am privileged to work at such a fine school.

  9. Maria Paulina Gonzalez Arredondo says:

    What an amazing article! It truly reflects what we see and experience here everyday as staff at Gomez. Mr. Campin’s dedication to the students really shows how much they can achieve when there is someone who believes in them.

  10. Chris Kiewra says:

    What a great article about a great school including it’s principal! Gomez has done a beautiful job of incorporating their Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom into the school culture and curriculum. This is yet another example of the power of nature (when championed by administrative leadership) to bolster student achievement and school success! Congratulations!

  11. Toni Santee says:

    Mr. Campin! I am most impressed by you! 🙂 And it’s not just because we are related! 😉 Love you lots though! I think you are quite amazing! I think the families and staff at Gomez-Heritage are very fortunate for the servant leadership you provide.

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