“You will find some of the most genuine, loving, caring, compassionate ... people in north Omaha.” Thelma Sims, director of the Children's Center at Salem
The University of Nebraska at Omaha sent 180 students into eastern Omaha on Friday to help them learn about the diverse cultural backgrounds of children they could someday teach.
UNO's College of Education calls the program Culture Walks. It's a required part of a class, Instructional Systems, that all prospective teachers must take.
Sixty students early in their college careers went to north Omaha, 60 to South Omaha and 60 to central Omaha for panel discussions, neighborhood tours and school visits. They were encouraged to explore more on their own. They were provided data on each area. They'll have to write papers reflecting on the experience. Several faculty and staff members also participated.
Most of the college students are white, and many grew up in rural or suburban areas without much interaction with people of other races, said professor Sarah Edwards, Culture Walks organizer.
UNO educators say their students will be better able to connect with future pupils if they become familiar with those pupils' neighborhoods.
“Their job is to teach every child, not just those from their own backgrounds,” said Nancy Edick, dean of UNO's College of Education.
In South Omaha, the focus was on Latino culture, with a walking tour that began at El Museo Latino on South 24th Street. In central Omaha, the focus was on refugee populations.
In north Omaha, students convened in a classroom at Salem Baptist Church, 30th and Lake Streets. There, three African-American education professionals answered questions and challenged commonly held misperceptions of the area.
After the students consumed box lunches from a north Omaha caterer, Edwards began the program by asking for a show of hands from the students. How many had been told they should stay away from north Omaha?
All but a few raised their hands.
How many knew of three fabulous things happening in north Omaha?
Only a few raised their hands.
One of the panelists, Thelma Sims, director of the Children's Center at Salem Baptist, said it was saddening that so many had been told not to go to north Omaha. She said she lives in north Omaha and walks for a couple of hours a day in the area for exercise, and it's safe.
“You will find some of the most genuine, loving, caring, compassionate ... people in north Omaha,” Sims said.
“But I'm white,” Edwards said, positing a query for the reticent students. “Am I welcome?”
“You're welcome,” Sims said.
Another panelist, North High School Principal Gene Haynes, urged the students to learn as much as they can about their students and their families, to familiarize themselves with the history and culture of north Omaha and to attend school events and other north Omaha activities.
Haynes encouraged the prospective teachers to have high expectations of their future students. He noted that the North High School class of 2012 earned $9.3 million in college scholarships.
The panelists said poverty presents a major challenge in north Omaha neighborhood schools. Teachers should be aware of poverty's effect in the classroom and be prepared to help connect families with agencies and institutions that can help, said panelist Shelley Henderson, state director of Communities in Schools of Nebraska.
Teachers need to be compassionate and caring, and show that to students' families, she said. But she cautioned: “I don't want you to feel sorry for the children. They're surviving. ... It's not complete doom and gloom.”
Henderson said she grew up in north Omaha in a family with few material possessions. But she didn't know what poverty was, and her childhood memories are happy ones of being loved and cared for by family.
Encouraging the students to take self-guided tours, Edwards gave them a list of places to visit, including restaurants and other businesses, cultural centers and historic sites.
“If you're scared, think to yourselves ‘Kindergarten kids are walking to school every day in this neighborhood,'” Edwards told the students.
Elementary education students Katharine Young and Anna Raneri were in a group of four students headed to the first place on the list, the Aframerican Bookstore at 32nd and Lake Streets, across the street from Salem Baptist.
They said what they heard Thursday about north Omaha was important, eye-opening and made a lot of sense.
“It made me want to go around and see it,” Young said.
Contact the writer: