• Learn more about the three OPS superintendent finalists: Carey Wright, Mark Evans and Stephen Murley.
• See the questions posed to the superintendent finalists.
• More information on the remaining superintendent meet-and-greet events.
The biggest challenge facing urban schools isn't poverty or children who don't know English but the ability to keep kids interested in learning, said Steve Murley, one of three finalists for the Omaha Public Schools superintendent position.
“Our kids don't see the value in education,” said Murley, superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District.
Children who have grown up in a world of video games think school is boring, he said, a place where they “power down” to read books and see lessons on overhead projectors.
Kids will sit in front of a television screen for hours playing games, he said, failing repeatedly before completing a level. But at school, their first failure makes them want to quit.
“We have got to figure out how to engage our kids,” Murley said. “If we can't show them what they're learning is relevant, they won't come.”
Murley, 46, made his comments during a 90-minute question-and-answer session Tuesday afternoon with community members at the OPS central offices, 3215 Cuming St. About 150 people attended, including Susie Buffett, Omaha City Council members and nonprofit leaders.
The OPS school board is trying to find a successor to John Mackiel, who retired in August after 15 years as OPS superintendent.
Former Ralston Superintendent Virginia Moon is leading OPS for the remainder of the school year.
The other two OPS finalists, Carey Wright, chief academic officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools, and Mark Evans, superintendent of Andover (Kan.) Public Schools, will interview today and Thursday, respectively.
Earlier Tuesday, Murley had meetings with business and community leaders and interviewed privately and in public with the OPS board. He also toured the district, including a stop at Omaha North High School.
For each public board question, he referred to a binder of notes, flipping through pages as each question was asked. The board's questions to the three finalists were sent in advance.
But during the public forum, he responded off the cuff with passion and detail to community members' questions.
While he answered a range of questions about his views on education, he declined to say specifically what he would change in Omaha if he were superintendent. He said it would be presumptuous to do so before listening to local people.
But Murley described some of the initiatives he supported in Iowa City or in Wausau, Wis., where he was superintendent for five years before taking the Iowa City job in 2010.
Both of those districts are much smaller than Omaha, have less poverty and have a smaller percentage of minority students. Yet Murley said they face the same issues, just not at the same scale.
In his board interview, he said personalizing instruction to meet individual student needs is key to engaging students.
In Iowa City, he said, his district uses measurable goals and achievement data to determine whether students are making progress. At each school, staff members have what he called a “war room,” in which teachers and instructional coaches review each student's progress every three weeks and discuss what changes might be necessary.
The goal is to develop individualized instruction for all students.
“We're not teaching to the middle anymore,” he said.
In some cases, students join teachers in those “war room” meetings to discuss improving the students' grades.
In Wausau, Murley oversaw a change in strategy aimed at providing individual instruction for students learning English.
A large influx of Hmong refugees were being pulled out of the classroom for parts of the day, but educators found that they were falling further behind. The district instead kept the students in their regular classroom, and their teachers learned how to cater instruction to them.
In Iowa City, Murley changed one of the district's federal programs for disadvantaged youths. The program, called Title I, requires 20 percent of its money to be spent on tutoring or transportation, and Iowa City had been spending more on busing students.
Now, he said, the district has begun to favor tutoring students in their neighborhood because busing students was crowding schools, but not leading to other gains.
Murley also has involved the community in trying to improve the schools.
For example, in Iowa City, he has asked businesses for help in evaluating the district's budget and its nonteaching services.
Some businesses loaned the school district their chief financial officers to give advice. “We can learn a lot from the business community,” Murley said. He said he believes that Omaha's philanthropic and business community is committed to public education and he's excited about the chance to help shape the district's future.
Already, he said, the Omaha area has shown that it is looking ahead and willing to take risks to improve. He cited OPS's focus school programs, magnet schools and the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
“Those are things you don't find in most urban districts,” he said. “We have an incredible opportunity to re-engage the public on the work you're doing here in the Omaha Public Schools.”
Meet the finalists
The Omaha Public Schools board is hosting a public meet-and-greet with each superintendent finalist this week. The gatherings are from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the school board's meeting room at the Teacher Administrative Center, 3215 Cuming St. The board will interview each candidate earlier on the day of the meet-and-greet.
Yet to come:
» Today: Carey Wright, chief academic officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools
» Thursday: Mark Evans, superintendent of the Andover (Kan.) Public Schools
OPS superintendent finalist questions
All finalists for the OPS superintendent position were given these questions in advance. The board and the public also are asking other questions of them:
1. Please take a few minutes and give us a thumbnail sketch of your professional experiences; your pivotal beliefs on public education; and why you are interested in being our superintendent.
2. Please describe for us your perception of the role of the superintendent, the board of education as a whole, and individual board members.
3. What is your educational philosophy or theory of action, and how is it tied to research and best practices?
4. What are the essential academic elements of a district that will ensure that students are college or career ready?
5. How can you best develop a district environment that works to continually improve the professional capacity of its employees, in the name of increased student performance?
6. What systems, operational and/or academic, are needed for a district to sustain consistent growth over time?
7. How would you describe your experience in creating, implementing, and assessing system-wide budgets?
8. Explain the critical role that your operations departments play in successfully educating children.
9. Review any experience you may have had in providing equitable opportunities to all students.
10. In today's budget reality, most districts are being asked to do more with less. Please discuss your approach to resource allocation.
11. Please explain your role with labor, collective bargaining units, and/or with negotiations.
12. What systems, operational or academic, are needed for a district to sustain consistent growth over time?
13. Do you have a closing comment you wish to make or to provide us any information that may not have emanated from this interview that would be valuable to us as we proceed with our selection process?
Contact the writer: 402-444-1074, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/jonathonbraden