The World-Herald asked candidates for the Omaha Public Schools board for their views on several issues facing the district. Below, you'll find the answers to six questions for Subdistrict 1's final two candidates.
A Subdistrict 1 candidate forum will be held Thursday, 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Benson High School, 5120 Maple St.
James M. English
Occupation: retired Omaha Public Schools administrator and teacher
Public offices held: none
Education: bachelor's degree, chemistry and mathematics, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; master's degree, secondary school administration, UNO
Family: married, one adult daughter
James English is still fond of the “Mighty Trojans” of old Omaha Technical High School.
At Tech, before the building closed in 1984 and became the Omaha Public Schools' administration building, English served as the school's first black math teacher, he said.
English, 68, was among black educators recruited to OPS from largely black colleges in Texas, Arkansas and other Southern states. Eugene Skinner sought them out, he said. Skinner was OPS's first black teacher, who went on to serve as assistant superintendent, English said.
“He brought a lot of us here. Let us stay at his house. Gave us food,” English said. “I think of him as a martyr.”
English's mother, a schoolteacher, inspired his education career, he said. His father died when English was 15, he said.
“When I arrived here in 1966, you had two schools that were in the top 10 in the United States; that was Central and North High,” he said. “I want to get back to that.”
He wants to make sure teachers are qualified. He is discouraged by OPS's low math scores.
“If they don't know their multiplication tables at the fourth grade, they need to stay,” he said.
He wants to see more graduates heading to college.
“It's pitiful,” he said. “I bet you don't have 1 percent of those graduates going on to college.”
This is English's fourth recent attempt at public office.
English has drunken driving convictions from 1999 and 2004. He also filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
English said his convictions shouldn't overshadow his 32 years with OPS before his retirement.
“It's up to the voters, and I hope I can get back to where I started,” he said.
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Yolanda R. Williams
Occupation: program coordinator, artist
Public offices held: none
Education: Associate degree in interior design, Metropolitan Community College; Bachelor of Arts in arts management, Bellevue University
Family: single, three kids
Yolanda Williams says overcoming adversity has made her strong and confident.
Her tough childhood, she said, helps her relate to troubled kids.
“Where I come from, I should have been a statistic,” said the single mother of three children.
Williams, 38, said she was in and out of foster homes, but later reunited with her mother.
“And at one point in my life, in the late '80s when gangs were really prevalent, not very heavily but enough, I got sucked into that,” she said.
She grew up in Seattle, moved to Omaha when she was 10. She later moved back to Seattle and then to Billings, Mont., where she graduated from high school.
She had her first child at 20 but eventually became determined to break the “cycle of dysfunction,” she said.
A turning point, she said, came when she took a court-ordered anger management class, a condition of probation after pleading guilty to assault in a 2000 domestic dispute with her children's father. She said he was abusing drugs at the time, and she was angry at him for breaking into her house.
She put herself through college, she said, getting associate and bachelor's degrees, and now works as a program coordinator for a nonprofit organization, Partnership 4 Kids.
Her work involves helping students set goals at six high-poverty Omaha Public Schools elementaries: Franklin, Fontenelle, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Mount View and Saratoga.
She has been thinking of running for school board since 2006, she said. No organization enlisted her to run, she said.
She talked it over with friends and got positive feedback.
“I'm a very spiritual person,” she said. “Went home, prayed about it, slept on it for the night, woke up and was, like, 'You know what, all right, Lord, I'm going to do it.' ”
CANDIDATES ON THE ISSUES
What role should the school board play in helping OPS narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and other students?
English: Improve the elementary grades in the following areas: a) mathematics; b) reading; c) writing skills.
Williams: As the role of school board is policy making, the board should be looking at policy that effectively implements changes that will supplement learning outside of testing to state and federal standards. Holding students to these standards, which are often above the level of where the student is actually at, will open the door to closing achievement gaps.
What leadership qualities would you bring to the OPS board and what experiences are they based on?
English: Being a teacher and an administrator in OPS.
Williams: The leadership qualities that I will bring to the OPS board are humility, dedication, integrity, sense of humor and creativity. All of these qualities have been the basis for my active role in community service, determination to change the circumstances from which I come, spiritual relationships and beliefs, artistic vision and the firm accountability and standards that I hold myself to.
How well is OPS preparing its graduates for the working world? Is it a high priority to improve this area? Why?
English: Satisfactory, but OPS is not dealing with the dropout rate and not enough graduates are going to college. OPS needs to minimize the number of low-achievers. It needs to offer more vocational education courses, with the business community assisting in the transition of kids into the world of work.
Williams: OPS is preparing graduates for the working world to some extent. It is of urgent need that our students are prepared to be globally competitive. Students need supplemented learning in the areas of reading, math, science and the arts, as well as promoting and providing early childhood education.
Do you think OPS needs major changes or minor tweaking as it strives to become the best district it can be? Briefly describe those changes or tweaks.
English: OPS needs more qualified board members, more qualified teachers and greater parental participation.
Williams: I don't pretend to know the extent of all the changes that need to be made within OPS. However, there are a few things that I believe need to be urgently addressed. 1) Promoting efficiency within classrooms so that instruction/learning time is increased. 2) Preparing our students to be globally competitive. 3) Creating management styles that promote bottom up implementation. 4) Allocating funds back into our district for the needs of our students and teachers.
Do you think the public has confidence in the OPS board? If yes, then how will you help maintain that confidence? If no, then what would you do to restore it?
English: The board needs new leadership, vision and experience.
Williams: The current public opinion of the OPS board is wavering and is still holding onto what has happened in the past. I feel that the public is looking for fresh, innovative ideas and faces to move the district forward without bias to previous leadership and policy. I truly believe that being involved within our communities, building trusting relationships and leading from the ground level is the way I will help to move our district into 21st century ideologies and restore public confidence.
How would you describe the proper relationship between the school board and the superintendent, and how much autonomy should Superintendent Mark Evans have?
English: They must work for the betterment of all OPS students. Some of us have the same degree, master's in secondary school administration, as Evans. We are not going to tolerate innuendos. Let's work together for all students. We are number 1!
Williams: The proper relationship between the school board and the superintendent should exhibit fair treatment, open and frequent communication built on trust, honesty and transparency. As the new Superintendent, Mark Evans should have equal autonomy until he and the new board begin to forge ahead in the task of positive change for our district.