Former Omaha Central AD Darin Williams returns to Nathan Hale to rebuild the fallen school

Darin Williams, who is returning to Nathan Hale Middle School this year as principal, looks over the shoulder of music teacher Victoria Palmisano during staff training.

For the past eight years, Darin Williams has led one of the most successful high school athletic programs in the region, at Omaha Central.

This school year he will lead Nathan Hale Middle School.

The school has struggled with low test scores and a smaller enrollment, although both sets of numbers have recently increased. The school also has struggled with its image after a former teacher had an illicit relationship with a middle school student.

Williams is returning to Nathan Hale, though, because of the school's challenges and his past experiences there. He worked at the school for four years before becoming Central's athletic director.

Even while he led Central athletics, Williams stuck around Hale and its families.

Every Sunday, he kept going to Prince of Peace Church, a Baptist church about a mile from Hale. And every time he drove past the school, near 60th Street and Sorensen Parkway, he thought about returning to work with middle school students, who can be as enthusiastic as they are honest.

“This is like my dream job,” Williams said in an interview. “If this school would not have come open, I would still be at Central.”

Williams plans to rebuild Nathan Hale by using what worked at Central.

He wants to restore school pride. Every wall painted and T-shirt ordered will be in the school's colors: red, white and blue. In the daily announcements, he will remind students of their three priorities: academics, behavior and community.

He wants to boost state test scores by focusing on reading in every class and every scenario. Even a student waiting to see the principal because of misbehavior should have his head in a book, Williams said.

School staff also will do what they say they will do. If a teacher says he will call the parent when the student is tardy a second time, the teacher needs to find time to call.

“What's been broken in this community is trust,” Williams said.

He has spent only a few seconds talking with staff about what tore that trust: the Shad Knutson case.

Three female students made allegations against Knutson of sexual assault, in 2008, 2009 and 2010. But Omaha police began investigating only after a girl's parents contacted state officials in October 2010.

Hale's former principal, Susan Colvin, said she followed the district policy at the time, which called for human resources officials to investigate such complaints. The policy has since been changed, requiring OPS officials to report such allegations to authorities within 24 hours.

In June, Knutson was sentenced to nine to 14 years in prison for one of the four inappropriate relationships he was accused of having with female students. And in July, Colvin, who was appointed to Hale in fall 2008, started working in an administrator position in district operational services at the Teacher Administrative Center.

“We've gone through some difficult times but, overall, we came through it pretty good,” said Wesley Dacus, dean of students at Hale since 1999.

Despite the distractions, Nathan Hale has improved.

Enrollment is up almost 32 percent since 2008 when 276 seventh- and eighth-graders attended the school. The school picked up several students in 2010-11 when it became a magnet school with a theme of “leadership and social justice.”

The school's test scores, while still near the bottom among OPS middle schools, also have slightly improved.

Last year, 38 percent of Hale's students scored proficient or better on the state reading test — up from about 26 percent the year before.

In math, the proficiency number rose from 10 percent to 15 percent in a year.

To improve those scores, a district reading expert will visit the school almost weekly to work with teachers and observe them teaching in the classroom.

Williams also plans to revamp how the school uses its extra time.

Because of extra dollars from the Sherwood Foundation, Hale has two more days a year than other OPS middle schools. (Classes started Monday.) Hale also has about 35 minutes more every school day.

Previously, any Hale student could take any extra class he or she wanted, such as golf or cooking. Students take four extra classes a year.

This year, Williams will require every student not proficient in reading to take an extra reading class. Next year, students will have to take an extra class in the subjects they haven't scored proficient on in state tests.

“We've got to do our job to make sure students are prepared and scores go up,” he said.

Williams also returned to Hale to work more closely with students. As Central's athletic director, his work was mostly administrative, and he said the program would continue to run smoothly with or without him.

At Hale, he especially looks forward to working with those struggling youths.

“Here, you can build relationships,” Williams said. “This community is just a good fit for me.”

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