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Nebraska students' scores dipped in math, reading on Nation's Report Card

Nebraska’s math and reading scores slipped this year on a national test that gauges the country’s academic progress over the long haul.

Fourth grade math fell for the first time since 2000 on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Also dipping were eighth grade math and fourth grade and eighth grade reading.

The declines since 2017 ranged from two to five points on a 500-point test. So they didn’t plunge. And Nebraska’s scores were higher than the nation’s in each subject and grade.

But the slide follows a period when scores had been generally rising or holding steady. Having two academic subjects in both tested grade levels move down is a situation worth keeping an eye on.

The nation, by comparison, saw a slight rise in fourth grade math, while eighth grade math and reading in both grades were lower.

“Yeah, our scores are dipping,” said John Witzel, president of the Nebraska State Board of Education, “but then again the whole trend in the United States is dipping. We just happen to be at the top of the dip.”

He said the overall trend during the past decade has been positive. The state has programs in the works, including the recently adopted Nebraska Reading Improvement Act and an added emphasis on equity in education, aimed at trying to close the achievement gap, he said.

“We are cognizant of the fact that there are outside issues that we all have to work with,” such as student mental health and family poverty, he said.

The poverty rate of students in Nebraska’s public schools, reflecting eligibility for subsidized school lunches, was 44.65% in 2016-17 and 45.21% in 2018-19.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a battery of tests administered periodically to representative groups of students in each state.

Also known as the Nation’s Report Card, the tests measure what U.S. students know and can do in various academic subjects.

State results are based on samples of public schools only. National results are based on the combined samples of both public and private schools.

More than 4,900 Nebraska students were sampled for the exams. Students took the tests in January through March.

The tests have tracked student performance since 1969. They are administered by the National Center for Education Statistics within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt said that although the scores reflect “only a one iteration downturn,” the state will continue to monitor other assessments of Nebraska students and compare results.

Blomstedt said high-scoring states like Massachusetts and Minnesota have made long-term commitments to improvement similar to Nebraska’s recent improvements in assessment and accountability.

On the NAEP, Massachusetts led the country in fourth grade and eighth grade reading proficiency, and in eighth grade math. Minnesota was tops in fourth grade math and second in eighth grade math.

“Also states such as Mississippi that showed gains this time also made decadelong commitments to improved instructional materials and literacy strategies,” Blomstedt said. “Nebraska is following a similar path.”

Mississippi saw gains in math for both grades and reading in fourth grade. Eighth grade reading was unchanged.

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores

Change is afoot at Kiewit Plaza, where new owner will need to fill 12 floors of office space

After nearly 60 years in the same hands, Omaha’s Kiewit Plaza has a new owner that plans to reposition the 15-story building as a place for fresh and techie businesses seeking a fit in the hip Blackstone District.

Of course, certain things at 3555 Farnam St. are golden and won’t be messed with, said John Lund, managing partner of the Blackstone Plaza group, which bought the property.

For one, billionaire Warren Buffett not only will keep his Berkshire Hathaway corporate headquarters in the high-rise, but will expand onto a second floor.

New owners hope that Stan Docekal’s old-school barbershop will stick around. He’s the merchant who has kept Buffett’s lid looking dapper for decades.

Two other small-business tenants also are welcome to stay, Lund says. And he views as star amenities the 6,500-square-foot fitness center and in-house gas and mechanics station in the 250-stall employee garage.

“You don’t see a building like this — it’s a classic,” said Lund, who also is founder and chief executive of the Lund Co., which will serve as manager and leasing agent.

Currently home base for two of the city’s four Fortune 500 companies, Kiewit Plaza’s most sweeping changes aren’t scheduled to happen until 2021. That’s when original owner and primary occupant Kiewit Corp. is to relocate to its new corporate headquarters in north downtown.

At that time, 12 floors containing a whopping 132,000 square feet will open up for new tenants.

The new owners, who paid $16 million and plan to invest another $10 million in renovations, already are seeking the next lineup.

Currently about 600 people work at the plaza. A Kiewit spokesman said about 500 of them are Kiewit professionals who will be moving from the structure that, including the garage, spans more than 300,000 square feet.

Truth be told, Lund said, he didn’t jump at the chance to buy a property that will have so much space to fill all at once. Initially, Lund’s firm agreed to help market and try to sell Kiewit Plaza.

But son Jay Lund, a partner in GreenSlate Development — which has led revitalization of the Blackstone business district — coaxed him to explore the possibilities. John Lund said he was swayed after touring the “expertly maintained” property that opened in 1962. He was further persuaded by amenities including the Cloud Room’s panoramic rooftop views and the attached garage.

Another 2.5 acres of adjacent surface parking, with another 250 spaces, came with the October sale. Lund said he probably will add stations for electric cars.

“At night, this is nothing short of spectacular,” he said while standing on a balcony outside the Cloud Room, where Kiewit has held private gatherings and Buffett has hosted student groups. In the future, Lund said, that rooftop event space might become a private club for tenants.

Photos: Inside midtown Omaha's Kiewit Plaza

Another major selling point, Lund said, was location. Kiewit Plaza is in the Blackstone District, a revitalized housing- and retail-centric corridor whose popularity has grown along with neighbors to the west and east.

To the west of the nearly 2-acre plaza site is the expanding University of Nebraska Medical Center. Just east is Mutual of Omaha and its Midtown Crossing retail, housing and entertainment campus.

While the buyer group had considered turning vacant plaza floors into luxury condominiums, it decided in favor of office space, said Lund, whose company has bought and revamped properties including the 100,000-square-foot 450 Regency Parkway building.

He has not yet secured new tenants but is optimistic, knowing the unmet demand for sizable Class A office spaces in Omaha.

Young people already are attracted to the Blackstone District’s new and renovated apartments, restaurants, bars and nightlife, Lund said. New projects continue to pop up, including a remodel and expansion of the historic Blackstone Hotel.

The buyer group believes that type of bustle can be a recruiting tool for business tenants.

“That’s why we think this is a home run,” Lund said. “We think young talent, tech companies, millennials will want to be in this district.”

The World-Herald got a tour of the building that over the decades has remained somewhat of an enigma, despite the international profiles of its main residents.

Currently among Omaha’s top 20 tallest buildings, the Kiewit headquarters has a grand lobby with a public diner and stairs that lead to Stan’s barbershop: “Walk-ins are honored.” Nearby are the office suites for the Omaha Community Foundation and PricewaterhouseCoopers.


Stan Docekal’s barbershop, where Warren Buffett gets his hair cut.

Most of the floors are filled with Kiewit employees. With the right security clearance and elevator key, one can also ride to Berkshire’s upper-level corporate offices.

(Note to those counting: This building has no 13th floor, at least not labeled as such. It goes from 12th to 14th, as do a few other high-rises in this city and many more in larger cities.)

Buffett, chairman and CEO, earlier announced that he would add 20 years to Berkshire’s stay, which began when the structure opened in 1962. Plus, he’s taking another floor that in earlier eras served as a personal residence for Peter Kiewit and successor Walter Scott. Most recently, that floor had hotel rooms for Kiewit business guests.

Having the Oracle of Omaha in the house (and his staff of about 26) should enhance the allure and hopefully bring tenants including financial and technology companies, Lund said.

“What can I say, one of the richest men in the world is in our building,” he said. “He’s a legend in his own time.”

Bob Kula, spokesman for Kiewit, said his construction company enjoyed “an outstanding run” in the building it made from scratch. Kiewit will continue to manage the property until the move.

“Similar to the Builder’s District in north downtown, where we expect to open our new headquarters in 2021, there’s great opportunity for this building as these neighborhoods evolve and grow,” Kula said.

Jay Lund said he is looking forward to the new wave of office tenants taking the neighborhood mix to yet another level.

“Making this kind of office space available to more businesses significantly strengthens our vision of living, working and playing within a vibrant, walkable Omaha neighborhood,” he said.

Many decisions have yet to be made about the building — including its future name. John Lund said it might be called Blackstone Plaza, unless a tenant buys naming rights.

He said individual floors will see the bulk of renovation. Granite staircases and wood-paneled hallways would remain as part of the character, Lund said.

Buyers are entertaining the possibility of retail shops and a modern food hall or restaurant in the lobby area to help create an atmosphere where workers want to spend time.

“We want to be part of the action down here,” Lund said. “We see the potential.”

Photos: 30 images of Warren Buffett through the years

Hospitals, fearful of falls, do harm by keeping older patients in bed

Dorothy Twigg was living on her own, cooking and walking without help until a dizzy spell landed her in the emergency room. She spent three days confined to a hospital bed, allowed to get up only to use a bedside commode. Twigg, who was in her 80s, was livid about being stuck in a bed with side rails and a motion sensor alarm, according to her cousin and caretaker, Melissa Rowley.

"They're not letting me get up out of bed," Twigg protested in phone calls, Rowley recalled.

In just a few days at the Ohio hospital, where she had no occupational or physical therapy, Twigg grew so weak that it took three months of rehab to regain the ability to walk and take care of herself, Rowley said. Twigg repeated the same pattern — three days in bed in a hospital, three months of rehab — at least five times in two years.

Falls remain the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for older Americans. Hospitals face financial penalties when they occur. Nurses and aides get blamed or reprimanded if a patient under their supervision hits the ground.

But hospitals have become so overzealous in fall prevention that they are producing an "epidemic of immobility," experts say. To ensure that patients will never fall, hospitalized patients who could benefit from activity are told not to get up on their own — their bedbound state reinforced by bed alarms and a lack of staff to help them move.

That's especially dangerous for older patients, often weak to begin with. After just a few days of bed rest, their muscles can deteriorate enough to result in severe long-term consequences.

"Older patients face staggering rates of disability after hospitalizations," said Dr. Kenneth Covinsky, a geriatrician and researcher at the University of San Francisco-California. His research found that one-third of patients age 70 and older leave the hospital more disabled than when they arrived.

The first penalties took effect in 2008, when the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services declared that falls in hospitals should never happen. Those penalties are not severe: If a patient gets hurt in a hospital fall, CMS still pays for the patient's care but no longer bumps up payment to a higher tier to cover treatment of fall-related conditions.

Still, Covinsky said that policy has created "a climate of fear of falling," where nurses "feel that if somebody falls on their watch, they'll be blamed for it." The result, he said, is "patients are told not to move," and they don't get the help they need. To make matters worse, he added, when patients grow weaker, they are more likely to get hurt if they fall.

Congress introduced stiffer penalties with the Affordable Care Act, and CMS began to reduce federal payments by 1% for the quartile of hospitals with the highest rates of falls and other hospital-acquired conditions. That's substantial because nearly a third of U.S. hospitals have negative operating margins, according to the American Hospital Association.

Nancy Foster, the hospital association's vice president of quality and patient safety policy, said the policy changes sent "a strong signal to the hospital field about things CMS expected us to be paying attention to." Limiting patient mobility "certainly is a potential unintended consequence," she said. "It might have happened, but it's not what I'm hearing on the front line. They're getting people up and moving."

While hospitals are required to report falls, they don't typically track how often patients get up or move. A 2006-07 study conducted in patients 65 and older who did not have dementia or delirium and were able to walk in the two weeks before admission found that they spent, on average, 83% of their hospital stay in bed.

While lying there, older patients often find themselves tracked by alarms that bleep or shriek when they try to get up or move. These alarms are designed to alert nurses so they can supervise the patient to safely walk — but research has shown that the alarms don't prevent falls. Often stretched thin, nurses are deluged by many types of alarms and can't always dash to the bedside before a patient hits the ground.

Dr. Cynthia J. Brown, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has identified common reasons older patients stay in bed: They feel too much pain, fatigue or weakness. They have IV lines or catheters that make it more difficult to walk. There's not enough staff to help them, or they feel they're burdening nurses if they ask for help. Walking down the hallway in flimsy gowns with messy hair can be embarrassing, she added.

Yet walking even a little can pay off. Older patients who walk just 275 steps a day in the hospital show lower rates of readmission after 30 days, research has found.

Across the country, efforts are afoot to encourage hospital patients to get up and move, often inside special wings called Acute Care for Elders that aim to maintain the independence of seniors and prevent hospital-acquired disabilities.

Another initiative, called the Hospital Elder Life Program, which is designed to reduce hospital-acquired delirium, also promotes mobility and has shown an added benefit of curtailing falls. In a study of sites using the program, there were no reported falls while staff or volunteers were helping patients move or walk.

U.S. has acquired just 16% of land needed for Trump's border wall

The Trump administration has acquired just 16% of the private land in Texas it needs to build the president's border barrier, casting doubt on his campaign promise to complete nearly 500 miles of new fencing by the end of next year, according to the latest construction data obtained by the Washington Post.

And of the 166 miles of border barrier the U.S. government is planning to build in Texas, new construction has been completed along just 2% of that stretch a year before the target completion date, according to the construction data. Just four miles of the planned border wall in Texas is on federal land — the 162 remaining miles lie on private property.

Faced with intense pressure to meet Trump's 500-mile campaign pledge, administration officials have instead prioritized the lowest-hanging fruit of the barrier project, accelerating construction along hundreds of miles of flat desert terrain under federal control in Western states where the giant steel structure can be erected with relative ease.

That has deferred the tougher work of adding miles of fencing along the zigzagging course of the lower Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas, the nation's busiest corridor for illegal crossings. There, along the winding river's edge, the land is almost all privately held, and the government would need to obtain it — either via purchases or eminent domain land grabs — before any construction begins.

The government has just started to contact dozens of landowners for permission to visit their farms and ranches for survey work along major stretches of the border.

David Acevedo, a rancher and businessman with a 180-acre property south of Laredo, said he does not want to lose land his grandfather purchased more than a century ago. He has granted Border Patrol agents access to his property, but he does not want a giant steel structure on it.

"I want border security. Put up more cameras, sensors, send more agents and give them drones," he said. "But we don't need a wall."

The administration has not had to rely on eminent domain authority to take any private land in southern Texas thus far, according to a Department of Homeland Security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to publicly discuss the project.

"South Texas brings unique challenges when it comes to land acquisition and construction," the official said. "And we have a river to contend with."

The official acknowledged that litigation challenging the use of military funds for the barrier has also hampered the government's ability to acquire private land in Texas, but crews are still seeking access to properties for survey work.

"We're continuing to move forward with everything we can legally do to get as close to the construction start dates as possible," the official said.

As of mid-October, the Trump administration has completed 75 miles of new barrier, but that has gone to replace smaller, older fencing in Western states on land the government already controls.

The president, who ran on a promise to make Mexico pay for the barrier, has obtained nearly $10 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds for the project since 2017, according to the latest project data, including $3.6 billion in diverted military construction funds and $2.5 billion in reprogrammed counternarcotics money. A federal court in El Paso ruled in October that the diversion of the funds to the barrier project was unlawful, a ruling that could put a crimp in the administration's land acquisition plans.

In an Oct. 27 statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said 158 miles of barrier is under construction, while an additional 276 miles is in a "preconstruction phase." Senior CBP officials say they remain on pace to complete 450 miles of barrier by the end of 2020. At rallies, the president has told supporters it will be more. CBP officials declined to comment.

A senior U.S. official with knowledge of the construction plans said there are at least 100 landowners in Texas who will need to give up property for the project, and a small fraction so far have been sent offer letters. Many have yet to receive "right of entry" requests for the government to begin surveying. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the risk of being fired.

The Rio Grande creates a natural barrier along nearly two-thirds of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, and its looping bends and circuitous course make it nearly impossible to build a lineal barrier along the international boundary.

Instead, much fencing will be set atop the earthen levees, many built decades ago, that were installed to control seasonal flooding. Because the distance between the levees and the banks of the Rio Grande can be a half-mile or more in some areas, landowners have expressed concern that a barrier would create large swaths of "no man's land" where privately held land will be walled off between the barrier and the river. Such land is likely to be devalued and in other cases could become useless to owners.

In New Mexico, Arizona and California, border authorities are able to use a 60-foot-wide ribbon of land known as the "Roosevelt Reservation," federal property that affords the government access to the international boundary and facilitates barrier construction. But no such easement exists in Texas, where river access is highly valuable.

Landowners who refuse to sell or attempt to hold out for a better price face the risk that the government will seize their property, with national security needs being the rationale.