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Principal Susan Toohey greets students at Nelson Mandela Elementary School on the day the school opened to students in 2015. At the time, the school only had kindergarten and first grade, but now it goes up to fourth grade and will add fifth grade in the fall.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School started four years ago in the former Blessed Sacrament Church and School at 6316 N. 30th St.

The free private school is funded by the Lozier Foundation and the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation.

As a retired Omaha Public Schools principal, I was interested to see how the school was progressing after four years. I had a special interest in the school when I discovered that one of the student teachers at my school, Genevieve Core, years later is the assistant principal at Nelson Mandela.

The criteria to attend Mandela is that students live within a 1.5-mile radius of the school and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The families of each scholar commit 20 hours of their time each school year to volunteer and take classes. Other community members also volunteer at the school.

When the school started four years ago, there was just kindergarten and first grade. Now the school goes up to the fourth grade and will add fifth grade in the fall. The school has 209 students, and in the fall, there will be 54 incoming kindergarteners.

Since the school opened, officials have added a paraeducator in every room to work with the teachers. Every student is referred to as a scholar, and all programs are geared toward the best education the scholars can receive.

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Principal Susan Toohey, left, and Assistant Principal Genevive Core of Nelson Mandela Elementary School

When I was walking down the halls of the school with Core and Principal Susan Toohey, the first thing I observed was the excitement of the children. When they saw the two administrators, their little faces lit up, and some gave hugs.

“This has been the pinnacle of my career,” Toohey said. “I receive so much from our scholars and their families, and for that, I am eternally grateful.”

Kasheena Maxwell, the librarian and technology teacher said, “I teach our students their history. Our library is also rich with African American books that tell the history of our race.”

The student body is made up mostly of African Americans, but there a small percentage of the students are Hispanic, Asian and white.

The school partners with the College of St. Mary, where nursing and public health students provide health screenings. The school also has a partnership with the Omaha Conservatory of Music, and every child learns to play the violin.

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First-grader Irie Jensen checked out her new school in 2015 as her mom, Jeona Jensen, left, talked with Susan Toohey, who said her role at Nelson Mandela “has been the pinnacle of my career.”

In the summer, the school has a mandatory fifth term. The scholars are there for three weeks in June and three weeks in July. In the mornings, they are taught mostly reading and math, with the teachers meeting their individual needs.

In the afternoons, all enrichment is taught, including gardening — through a partnership with The Big Garden — golf lessons, Spanish, art and robotics. The school has African Culture Connections to teach students about their traditional culture and history.

And even though the school started off with an abundance of programs and activities, it continues to grow and expand and make a positive difference as it marches toward a goal of every student reaching grade level proficiency or beyond.

The students continue to begin each school day with Mindfulness in the Mornings, an all-school two-minute guided morning meditation. They also recite “the Mandela mantra,” which is: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can produce to change the world.” They then recite, “I will change the world with my hope, strength, service, unity, peace and wisdom.”

Core said, “Mandela is a place where I can fulfill my personal mission to embrace connections while nurturing and inspiring the team, scholars and families to discover their full potential.”

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