Reinvesting in North Omaha: Transforming a Neighborhood


February 17th, 2016

Part II


The non-profit 75 North is spearheading a $100 million dollar investment in the Highlander Neighborhood. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson, KVNONews)

Click here for Part I, here for Part III

Robertson: We’re standing in the Parking lot where Salem Baptist Church meets the construction for 75 North where the sounds of construction will be pretty common for the next few months. Local nonprofit 75 North is spearheading an effort to develop the Highlander Neighborhood to the tune of $100 million dollars.

McDermott: 75 North is a local non-profit looking to create the next ‘purpose built community’ in the United States. The revamped Highlander Neighborhood marks the 15th purpose built community in the U.S. They are based on the Drew Charter School model in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a three tiered approach which includes mixed income housing, a cradle to college education pipeline and a community wellness element.

Robertson: Most of the construction going on now is building new houses, apartments and retail space… that sort of thing. But 75 North’s Executive Director Othello Meadows says that’s just part of that they are trying to accomplish.

“If we go and build nice apartments and houses in the Highlander neighborhood and don’t do our job educationally, then quite frankly we’ve failed in what we set out to do,” Meadows said. “Which is to really transform a neighborhood, we think that you do that through education.”

McDermott: Howard Kennedy is the neighborhood elementary school, and will be part of the Highlander Neighborhood redevelopment project. Students at Howard Kennedy admittedly face a lot of problems. Ninety-eight percent of students are on free or reduced price lunch. The poverty rate in the area hovers around 30 percent, and when it comes to academic achievement, out of the 805 elementary schools in Nebraska, Howard Kennedy ranks in the bottom five.

Robertson: It certainly sounds like a lot to overcome, but Howard Kennedy’s new principal Tony Gunter told us he has big plans for his school.

I see one of your goals is to be in the top five schools in 10 years? “You see the smile on my face,” Gunter said. “I have no doubts about that. The most important thing I can do is to make sure we have the right staff, and to make sure every day they give 110 percent.’

McDermott: Gunter says having the right teachers in place is a good first step. But he says we also have to change the way kids in his school are being taught.

“When kids are inquisitive, let’s encourage them to ask question, let’s encourage them to talk, especially at a young age,” Gunter said. “There is this thing that when you are in school you want kids to be quiet. No! Let’s develop that language and get them talking.”

Robertson: Part of developing the language of learning is focusing on the right subjects. Nationally, many districts are focusing on STEM classes, Science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But at Howard Kennedy, the focus is on STEAM curriculum– which is like Stem, but includes Art education—things like theater and music.

“There’s a lot of brain research behind the whole musical piece. The crossing of the midsection (of the brain) to help develop the kids’ brains and even have a vocabulary. So it’s a big stretch with connecting synopses in their brains.”

McDermott: Basically Gunter is saying things like music education can make kids smarter by helping to form links in the brain between what they learn and how they apply it. The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities says kids from impoverished areas who have arts as part of their curriculum are four times more likely to have high academic achievement, and three times more likely to have better attendance in school. And students at Howard Kennedy will be in school more 45 minutes per day and five days more every year.

Robertson: Gunter says there are also plans to add infant and toddler classrooms, to get kids learning sooner. But for me the biggest change that will help people is the fact Howard Kennedy is putting a full service Health clinic in the school. Historically, poor people didn’t have health insurance, and even with the Affordable Care Act, many people don’t have the time or money to go see a doctor.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, when kids are healthy they learn more.

Howard Kennedy’s medical clinic will be operated by staff from the Charles Drew Medical Center, and will be open to basically anyone in the community. In addition to basic medical services, there will be dental and behavioral health care as well.

“If you’re healthy you can’t learn, a healthy body is a healthy mind. If we don’t take care of ourselves, when you look at how many kids are absent from school. If you’re not in a seat learning, you’re not operating at a hundred percent.”

McDermott: Gunter and his staff are obviously excited about the changes coming to his school. But many of the benefits that these changes will bring won’t be recognized until these kids graduate. But Othello Meadows, executive director at 75 North, says fixing the schools is really the only guaranteed way of ending the cycle of poverty. He says the whims of business and economics come and go…

“…But right now we have generations of kids who aren’t prepared to compete, educationally. And I really didn’t understand that until I got much deeper into this work. You just have kids that don’t have a fighting chance because of the way they’ve been prepared.”

Robertson: Meadows and Gunter both say education is the most important part of turning things around in North Omaha, but teachers only have contact with kids while they are in school. They say the rest of the community, and the city as a whole, has to step up and do their fair share to ensure generational poverty is wiped out in north Omaha.


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