These are tough times for the Bunnies.
Omaha's Benson High is struggling with shrinking enrollment and an inability to attract enough new freshmen — problems that threaten to turn it into the have-not of the Omaha Public Schools' seven high schools.
Benson's troubles also illustrate a looming districtwide challenge for OPS board members elected this month and for incoming Superintendent Mark Evans: Managing school choice and transportation policies to ensure that all seven schools are thriving but not overcrowded.
These days, three OPS high schools are bursting at the seams, while three others have room for hundreds more students.
Current OPS policies allow and may even encourage that imbalance. Students can choose the high school they want to attend — and, if it's not their neighborhood school, they usually get a free bus ride to go there.
The system has worked against Benson more than most of the other high schools.
Just 34 percent of Benson-area students stay home, and the school has not drawn enough students from other areas to replace the ones who leave. Only 5 percent of next year's freshmen who requested a school outside their home attendance areas picked Benson as their top choice.
Benson's student body fills only half of the school's capacity. Declining enrollment could cost the school its Class A status for sports and other activities. If Benson becomes OPS's only Class B school, it could undermine future recruitment efforts.
Already, Benson's low scores on achievement tests and its lack of a popular magnet program may be hurting recruitment — although school officials are about to launch several unique, career-focused programs that could have more appeal.
Its test scores often are among the lowest of the seven OPS high schools. And its magnet program focused on “decision science” hasn't caught on.
Benson Principal Anita Baldwin acknowledges that changes are necessary.
“Now more than ever, Benson High School needs your help,” she wrote recently in a letter to school boosters that discussed the need for “re-energizing Benson.”
In short, Benson needs to become more attractive to students and their parents, and the district could make it easier for youths to go there.
Doing the latter could ease overcrowding problems at other high schools.
South High recently became the third OPS high school to cap its incoming freshman class during this year's sign-up for the 2013-14 school year. Of the 615 eighth-graders who named South as their No. 1 choice for this fall, 133 were denied.
Central and Burke already limit their freshman enrollment, while Benson, Northwest and North have room for more. Bryan's enrollment is close to its capacity.
Even with the cap, South could have 2,300 students this fall, an increase of 40 percent since 2008.
South Principal Cara Riggs said her school's booming enrollment has left halls too crowded and could lead to students getting less individual attention.
The uneven high school enrollment is related to OPS's $40 million transportation program, which buses about 18,000 students, including about 5,800 high school students. (OPS's pre-K-12 enrollment is about 50,000.)
The program is the successor to the former plan of mandatory busing for integration, which ended in 1999.
Under the current voluntary plan, OPS encourages socioeconomic integration through magnet programs and transportation offerings that are determined by family income and neighborhood demographics.
Low-income students receive transportation to move to any other school. Better-off students get transportation to move to schools in higher-poverty areas.
That means that a low-income student from the Benson area who wants a free bus ride needs to go somewhere else.
“You have to walk three miles to your high school or six blocks or eight blocks to your bus stop,” said OPS's interim superintendent. Virginia Moon. “Some of it is just a pragmatic decision.”
The OPS board held a recent workshop to consider transportation matters. Moon said any changes to the complex system will require more discussion about district priorities, which include school choice and diversity. Those talks would continue once the new school board takes office in June and Evans starts in July.
Evans said he would advocate what's probably already taking place at Benson: looking at what is and isn't drawing students. “Let's look at what programmatic changes we can make,” he said.
A number of school board candidates said OPS needs to make some schools better, as well as do a better job in marketing their strengths to parents and students.
In addition, some candidates said they would like to see changes in busing policy as a way to balance enrollments.
For example, OPS could offer bus rides to Benson-area students who want to attend their home school, rather than driving them all over the city. Or OPS could add bus rides for students who must walk through dangerous or high-traffic areas.
“When you have your home attendance area kids choosing to go to other schools because of transportation issues, that hurts you,” said Baldwin, the Benson principal.
Benson's situation is a far cry from what some school alumni might remember. In 1969, Benson was the largest high school in OPS, with 2,404 students. (There were seven high schools at the time, including the former Technical High School.)
Now, Benson has 1,132 students, and the school is barely above the cutoff to be in Class A sports. Benson is safe for the 2013-14 school year but could drop into Class B if enrollment keeps slipping.
Declining enrollment also can mean less district funding, smaller staff and an increasingly weak reputation. That's why Benson boosters to want to turn things around quickly. “We have a very healthy sense of urgency,” Baldwin said.
Part of the school's problem is demographics. Benson's home attendance area is losing high school-age youths — down about 23 percent since 2004. It's a trend that has also affected Central and North.
But unlike those other schools, Benson has had little success attracting students from outside its home area.
The top reason families choose a school other than the neighborhood one is to go to a school they perceive as better, according to a recent OPS parent survey, although the survey looked at elementary students, not high schoolers. Transportation ranked third.
Benson hasn't been making a strong academic case. Its juniors scored the lowest in OPS on the state math, reading and writing tests last spring. Only South's juniors scored worse on the state science test.
On the ACT, last year's seniors had an average score of 17 on the 1-to-36 scale — lowest in the Omaha metro area. That's down from Benson's 19.9 average for 2001, although it's also true that far more Benson students take the test these days.
Benson has made gains in its graduation rate in recent years, partly through increased focus on attendance and support programs for students who are at risk of not graduating. For the Class of 2012, 73 percent earned diplomas within four years — up from the previous year, although still below the district average.
Aside from its academic reputation, Benson has a hard time selling the school's magnet theme, “Decision Science and Career Pathway.”
Decision science is a six-step decision-making process, a way of thinking through problems. In other words, not as straightforward or popular as math, science or the performing arts.
“Some themes are harder to market than others,” said Riggs, principal at South High, which has performing arts and information technology magnet programs.
For the 2013-14 school year, Baldwin said, Benson's staff plans changes in two of the three “academies” organized within the school's magnet.
Together with community partners, for example, Benson will launch a program in which students can get a head start on becoming an electrician.
Another new program will let Benson students develop a business plan and help run a storefront in the Benson business district.
“Our hope is that this becomes attractive not only to our current students but to other students who will want to come to Benson to have these experiences,” Baldwin said.
Benson needs a stronger identity if it wants to draw more students, said Julie Bohn, who lives in northwest Omaha and will have two children at Central this fall.
She likes the Benson area but passed up its high school because of Central's strong reputation, alumni support and school pride.
Benson may have a lot to offer, such as strong leaders and good teachers, but it's not as apparent to outsiders.
“You have to take what you have and really make it marketable,” Bohn said.
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OPS election: Candidates respond
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?
Yolanda Williams: Parents send children where they can thrive academically and won't be distracted by social and disciplinary issues. 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.
James English: Schools like Central, with a good academic reputation, competitive environment and rigorous curriculum 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.
Niokia Stewart: High schools may need to promote what they're doing, go into middle schools to talk about their focuses — technology, media. At the high school level, parents should have a choice. But the district should make sure all schools at every level provide a quality education.
Marque Snow: Perceptions of some of those schools are just wrong. Central has a foundation that brings in extra funds. How do we provide that for other schools? And we need to sell the schools by showing parents what the schools have to offer. A new stadium at North High would build excitement.
Woody Bradford: To even out enrollment, schools need to be able to identify and market themselves to families and students. For example, part of Benson High's magnet theme meant to help the school draw students is “decision science.” How do you sell that to a student?
Marian Fey: The board could help make all the high schools appealing to all students. Any efforts to even out the high schools' enrollments should not depress any school's enrollment; they should raise the levels of all OPS high schools and help spread out enrollment. To succeed, buildings need strong leaders, good ideas and support from the district.
Jill Brown: The magnet school label is meaningless to many parents. The way to improve the public perception of certain schools is to make them better. The district should set simple, clear goals for improvement. The district could also ask students how to improve them.
Justin Wayne: The district must make sure resources are distributed equally, ask the community what it wants from those schools and provide programs and services that will attract kids. The district should examine whether changes to the bus service would attract more children to their neighborhood schools.
Lou Ann Goding: The board and administration need to communicate with those high schools and figure out what the district needs to provide students, how it can support academics and behavior. The district also needs to build community support among the student population and support among parents.
Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum: Look at North High before and after it became a magnet center. See what's worked and what hasn't. The district has to promote its programs, starting at the elementary level.
Matt Scanlan: Show parents and students OPS high schools (when children are) as young as elementary school. Waiting until middle school to sell the high schools can be too late. Let the teachers and principals sell the school to the students and families, and let families see that the negative reputations are unwarranted.
Nancy Kratky: OPS needs to somehow prop up some of its smaller schools without limiting or hurting its more popular schools. Transportation changes could be considered to help even out the unbalanced enrollments.
Katie Underwood: People should be able to live anywhere in OPS and know their neighborhood school is good. The district should equalize the offerings at each school and evaluate the effectiveness of its magnet programs. OPS can do a better job of telling its story and highlighting successes. Benson High School, for instance, has great JROTC and art programs.
Andy Allen: Certain schools have a public perception problem, though it's not always deserved. OPS must sell the community on the great things going on at those schools and that kids attending them are safe. The district, meantime, has to look into what's causing the low test scores that cause parents to avoid certain schools.
William Forsee: Consider a program to attract students, such as the International Baccalaureate at Central or the dual-language program at South. Look at discipline, and make sure students are academically proficient and aren't frustrated.
Lacey Merica: A lot of it is educating the public about what's actually going on in the schools. It could be bringing people in to showcase what they offer. If education performance is suffering, figure out why. Is it a high concentration of poverty or English-language learners? Then find a way to address that population's needs.
Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan: Work with other board members to see how we can even out enrollments. For instance, what can be done to help South High become less crowded? The board could look at helping schools rely less on classroom trailers.
Sarah Brumfield: Some OPS high schools are more well-known than others. The district could help change that. OPS should highlight the unique programs in all its high schools and make everyone more aware of the programs. Every high school has something that sets it apart.