Nebraska Focuses On Three Schools For Improvement Model

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September 6th, 2016

Druid Hill Elementary School in North Omaha is a high-poverty urban school that’s struggled in the past with academic performance. The school has begun performing better. Last year, it was the recipient of the Silver Award for Academic Improvement. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

Druid Hill Elementary School in North Omaha is a high-poverty urban school that’s struggled in the past with academic performance. The school has begun performing better. Last year, it was the recipient of the Silver Award for Academic Improvement. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

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.

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