The World-Herald asked candidates for the Omaha Public Schools board for their views on several issues facing the district. Here, you'll find the answers to six questions for the Subdistrict 2 candidates.
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Occupation: after-school teen director
Public offices held: none
Education: bachelor's degree in political science and history, University of South Dakota, 2011
Marque Snow wants to represent east-central Omaha's subdistrict 2 on the Omaha school board because of his kids.
Not his own kids, of course. The 25-year-old has no biological children. He means the 60 kids that he works with daily as the South YMCA's after-school teen and youth director. During the summer program, the number jumps to more than 100.
Many of the students in the after-school program are considered at-risk youths, he said. The staff offers tutoring and helps participants apply for jobs.
But Snow said he sees some who bring in homework they don't understand. There's no guarantee they'll get the help they need at home.
Snow himself is the child of Army parents. He graduated from Seoul American High School in South Korea and then from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion with a bachelor's degree in political science and history. His travels, he said, gave him an opportunity to see the world, including other school systems, and to grow up quickly. The South YMCA after-school program is largely grant-funded, so he writes grant applications and manages the budget.
So far, he has visited more than a half-dozen schools in the Omaha district.
“I want to be in contact and meet with the schools so I know the issues they face every day.”
He also wants to make sure high school graduates are prepared for work or college. In areas of the city with higher poverty, he said, producing educated young people who can become skilled workers and draw businesses “an change that circle and change that community.”
Niokia T. Stewart
Occupation: transitional youth professional partner
Public offices held: none
Education: Bachelor of Arts in sociology and minor in coaching, Midland University in Fremont
Family: husband and three children
Niokia Stewart would bring perspective from both of her worlds — parent and professional — to the Omaha school board.
By day, Stewart works as a transitional youth professional partner with Region 6 Behavioral Health. Simply put, she helps young adults, ages 18 to 26, with mental health concerns find and connect with the resources they need, be it a therapist, housing or support groups. Previously, she worked with children from birth to age 18, a position that put her in contact with teachers on matters of behavior and academics.
At home, Stewart is mom to a fourth-grader who attends an OPS elementary school, as well as to a 3-year-old and a 12-year-old stepdaughter.
Stewart herself is a 1997 Bryan High School graduate.
She worked at the former Uta Halee Girls Village and interned at Boys Town before joining Region 6.
Stewart, who played basketball at Bryan and Midland, also is a former basketball and academic coach for Midwest Trailblazers, a youth mentoring organization.
“I think I can bring both sides to the board,” said Stewart, 34.
One particular skill she would bring, she said, is her ability to communicate with people of varied backgrounds.
That applies both at work and at home. If her son struggled with a concept at school, she'd ask his teacher what she could do at home to help. In her profession, she works with a variety of people to find solutions.
“You have to be open-minded to different people's backgrounds and positions in life and be able to communicate with those individuals,” she said.
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THE 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?
MARQUE SNOW: OPS should play a critical role in narrowing the achievement gap between its students. When over 80 percent of your students are receiving free and reduced lunch in certain pockets of our amazing city, you have a problem. OPS needs to better prepare our kids for success after school, with job preparation, college readiness, selfless service and create an environment that involves our businesses, our government and parents working together for our kids' future. Because we are all in this together, fighting on the same team, if a student fails or is not prepared after graduation, we have failed them and ourselves.
NIOKIA T. STEWART: To narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and other students is to work to tailor the curriculum and academic practices to recognize the differences in ethnicity, language and culture. Teachers need to be skilled in teaching students unlike themselves. The role of the school board is to work at the governance level to create the structure and policies for these reforms to systematically occur. Getting teachers' input I believe is essential to making these decisions as they spend face-to-face time with the students.
What leadership qualities would you bring to the OPS board and what experiences are they based on?
MARQUE SNOW: I'm very passionate about my job and being member on the OPS board. I believe that with our city changing, we need to have people on the board that are willing to hold our students, teachers and administration more accountable. Accountable by providing them with the best resources that we can provide and this will allow our teachers to become more like coaches in our kids' lives. I currently have an after-school program with 50-plus kids. In the summer this number will grow to 100-plus. I see and deal with the challenges that these kids face every day, and I want and will play a bigger role in their lives. Action speaks louder than words and that's what I will do as OPS board member.
NIOKIA T. STEWART: I have the parental and professional skills to communicate effectively with those I interact with. I am a proud Omaha Public Schools product and Midland University alumnus. My current work has enhanced my knowledge for the planning, developing, monitoring and evaluating of behavioral health with all kinds of people from different cultural backgrounds. I was a coach and academic coach of the Midwest Trailblazers Youth Program, and currently serve as the financial secretary of the Alumni Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. I also help raised thousands of dollars to award academic scholarships to outstanding high school graduates and undergraduate college students. As an OPS graduate, I want to assist with providing the best education to all students.
How well is OPS preparing its graduates for the working world? Is it a high priority to improve this area? Why?
MARQUE SNOW: OPS isn't doing everything it can to prepare its graduates for the working world. It is a high priority to improve in this area because these kids are our future. They will be running this city someday and if they aren't prepared to work for the businesses that this city offers or could offer, then we have failed. When building a community, you need strong schools to educate our youth to not just empower themselves, but our economy.
NIOKIA T. STEWART: In my profession I see a lot of children struggle with the transition from elementary school to junior high, junior high to high school, high school to adulthood. I would like to see more preparation within the high school level to better prepare our young adults for whatever path they pursue — whether that's post-secondary education, vocational training or employment. Overall, I would like to see better preparation for basic living skills such as doing laundry, going to the grocery store — simple things they will need to be on their own.
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.
MARQUE SNOW: Minor changes will help OPS become the best district it can be, and it's with resources. OPS needs to provide its principals and teachers with more support and also reach out to the community to become more involved in the schools.
NIOKIA T. STEWART: Without knowing all the ins and outs of the OPS school system, I believe with any system there is always room for improvement at any level. I believe we must work to ensure that all of our teachers are aware of community resources and services that are available to help out students if they are struggling emotionally or behaviorally. Reassess what programs are enriching the development of our students and revamp the lower-performing ones.
I also believe there needs to be a mentoring type of program where seasoned teachers assist new teachers or struggling teachers if they need it. At my current place of employment, I helped develop a training program for incoming hires to be trained by a seasoned worker and the new hires to shadow the seasoned worker for a month or so before letting them venture on their own with cases. Also the seasoned worker will shadow the new hires with their first couple of cases until they feel comfortable enough to be on their own.
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?
MARQUE SNOW: I don't think the public has confidence in the OPS board. I've visited over eight schools in District 2 and I was able to witness how invested these teachers and administrators are with their students and how much they care about them succeeding. When you see this, you see the disconnect between the OPS board and its teachers.
NIOKIA T. STEWART: My current impression of OPS is that there is a lot of miscommunication. With all the recent changes that have been happening, it is a very crucial time for everyone to be on the same page in order to continue to make OPS a successful school district. I believe that this election will give the opportunity to have improved communication among school board members while developing and implementing policies that will help with the success of our teachers and students.
How would you describe the proper relationship between the school board and the superintendent, and how much autonomy should new Superintendent Mark Evans have?
MARQUE SNOW: There should be a fair amount of communication between the school board and the superintendent. However, the school board should set policy/guidelines, and the superintendent executes that policy. They should always be in communication as well with our teachers.
NIOKIA T. STEWART: I do not know about the relationship between the school board and the superintendent as I am not on the school board.