The World-Herald is providing interviews with candidates for the Omaha Public Schools board and asking them for their views on several issues facing the district. For other coverage of this and other school board races, check omaha.com/ops.
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Yolanda Williams and James English grew up a generation apart.
She's 38 and an artist who says she can think “outside the box.” He is 68 and a retired math teacher who wants a return to the fundamentals.
Both have embarrassing episodes in their pasts, missteps they say made them better people.
They are vying to represent Omaha Public Schools Subdistrict 1, a north Omaha area where high poverty and crime complicate education efforts.
English, who unsuccessfully challenged Freddie Gray last fall, was part of a wave of black teachers hired by OPS in the 1960s. He retired after 32 years.
Bowling trophies adorn his basement, where he also keeps a couple of electric bass guitars that he plays and a classic Monte Carlo pinball machine. His call for back-to-basics education resonates with some voters.
“The three R's are what I'm talking about,” he said.
Williams, who coordinates mentoring programs for the nonprofit Partnership 4 Kids in Omaha, paints abstract art and makes screen prints, including a pensive boxer, a bold abstract, a fantasy world with butterflies taking flight.
She has an associate degree in interior design and said that when painting a room, her perfectionist streak drives her to pull out her artist brushes to avoid any sloppy edges.
Her office is in the Burlington Place building, one of the city's most historic buildings, on the Gene Leahy Mall, with high ceilings and high-dollar views.
Williams has been endorsed by the Democratic Party, the Omaha Education Association and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray and his opponent, Tariq Al-Amin, she said.
English said he has not received any major endorsements.
Williams said people want a voice in what happens in the district. She hears that from teachers, families, students and taxpayers, she said.
Critical of “top-down” management, she said the time has come to look at “bottom-up” management, identifying what OPS schools do right and spreading that across the district.
Her job with Partnership 4 Kids, coordinating mentoring services in six OPS schools, has brought her in contact with frustrated teachers, she said.
“We have great, award-winning teachers who are leaving our district,” she said. “When do we start to look at them as professionals again?”
School leaders should be given leeway to lead and inspire teachers, she said.
Closing the achievement gap — the disparity in test scores between students of different races and family incomes — is a key concern for her. The district must find ways to help high school students who are several grades behind and who have lost hope, she said.
Too many students graduate and need remedial classes at community college to get back on track, she said.
She believes that early childhood education is essential to prepare disadvantaged children academically, behaviorally and socially. To fund it, the district must appeal to state lawmakers, but also to local and city leaders, who have to be willing to come to the table, she said.
She said some funding could come from reducing the district's transportation costs.
Williams said that students need to be capable and comfortable with technology and that the district needs to keep up with the fast-changing technology landscape.
Her tough childhood, in and out of foster homes, helps her relate to troubled kids, she said.
A turning point in her life came, she said, 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.
English said he would focus on improving elementary education. He said he would visit every school to see for himself whether children are learning basic math skills and to judge schools' effectiveness.
“If they don't have those skills, how in the world will they go to junior high and be able to do algebra I and II?” he said.
Without basic skills, students are at risk of dropping out, he said.
Parents tell him their kids are not getting enough homework, and they complain about a lack of communication with school officials about their children's progress. Schools should reach out to parents when attendance falters and get tough on attendance, he said.
“That's why you see these kids roaming around on these streets, gangbanging each other and shooting and that type of thing, because they feel as if, 'Nobody really cares if I go to school or not,' ” English said.
English said he favors a citywide 10 p.m. curfew, after which youths must prove they're out for legitimate purposes.
“To me, any kid that's on the street after 10 o'clock, and the police officer sees him, they should stop him, ask him where he lives; or, during the day, ask him what school he's going to, and take him to that school,” he said.
English has drunken-driving convictions from 1999 and 2004. He also filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
English said he does not have a problem with alcohol. He said he likes to have “libations with my friends.” He said he used to meet fellow teachers for a drinks after work and drink beer on bowling outings, but he no longer bowls.
He said he has stayed out of trouble since his 2004 arrest.
“I have not had another one,” he said. “I have not gotten a speeding ticket. I made a mistake. I own up to it. I paid for it, and I have moved on. And it has made me a better man.”
Contact the writer:
James M. English
Occupation: Retired OPS 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
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
Q&A with the candidates
Should OPS increase career education offerings and, if so, how? With a new technical high school, more career-education classes at each high school, or other ways?
Williams: She advocates expanding the variety and availability of career education offerings at each high school.
English: Give ninth-graders a choice of pursuing vocational, college prep or technology programs, he says. Enlist labor unions — plumbers, electricians, mechanical workers — to help expand offerings.
Reputations and enrollment have suffered at some OPS high schools. How do you go about restoring those that are lacking and begin balancing enrollment at OPS high schools?
Williams: Parents send children where they can thrive academically and won't be distracted by social and disciplinary issues, she says. School leaders must hold students and parents accountable for a student's behavior. The district must promote the schools' strengths and build up school communities.
English: Schools like Central, with a good academic reputation, competitive environment and rigorous curriculum, he says, draw students because parents see them as the best option for kids to succeed and possibly win scholarships. He would visit every school, walk the halls and conduct his own evaluation of effectiveness and turn it over to the superintendent.
When test scores at a school are far below the district average, is it appropriate to replace the principal or other staff?
Williams: Before removing principals, she said, the district should find out why test scores are low. Then the district can decide who's the best leader for a building. Removal is the last step.
English: Remove principals of poor-performing schools, he says. That's why the district evaluates them. “ 'If I wasn't doing my job, I would be fired, right? So, if you're not cutting the mustard, you've got to go.”
Should teachers be paid extra — bonuses — when students score well on standardized tests?
Williams: She supports paying teachers based on performance, such as when students show outstanding academic growth, but not just for test scores. Some teachers do everything possible, and students still score low.
English: He opposes merit pay and bonuses. Merit pay invites cheating by teachers, he says, as occurred in some Texas schools. Too often administrators award bonuses to friends and favorite teachers instead of the best teachers.
The No Child Left Behind Act has focused attention and resources on the lowest-achieving students. How would you ensure that other students aren't overlooked?
Williams: She says OPS should group kids by ability and make use of paraprofessionals to give all students attention. Individualized learning plans should be considered for all students to avoid “cookie-cutter” education.
English: The district should make sure there's a capable teacher in every classroom and give middle- and high-achieving kids the opportunity to excel, he says. “Those kids, let them go on. Why hold kids back?”
Should the district set a minimum grade point average for students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities?
Williams: The district shouldn't dangle sports in front of kids to get them to improve grades, she says, but there should be an expectation that academics come first. Her own children must make the grades or they don't participate. “There's no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
English: Academics come first, he says. “If students can't perform in the classroom, they shouldn't participate in athletics.”