Nebraska school districts were understandably wary several years ago when the state said it would start intervening locally to try to boost academic performance at low-performing schools. The experience was new, and government intervention can be heavy-handed. But Nebraska’s approach has turned out to be carefully crafted, with the emphasis on collaboration in working to help “priority schools” turn things around.
The results in most cases so far have been positive. This experience is important for districts, such as the Santee Community Schools, to appreciate as the state continues to work with districts needing help.
Omaha Public School’s Druid Hill Elementary took significant steps for improvement even before being designated a priority school, for example, and the relationship with the state during the intervention period was cooperative, said Principal Cherice Williams.
“There was no disruption to what was already going on,” she said. The state has removed Druid Hill from its priority school list.
The situation was similar with the Loup County Public Schools, which was recently removed from the state list. The academic improvements, as reported by The World-Herald’s Joe Dejka, are striking. The district has reached 80% proficiency on state English language arts assessments, putting it No. 1 among schools of similar size, poverty and demographics statewide. The district ranks No. 2 among similar schools on the math assessment, at 70% proficiency.
The best part of the experience, said Superintendent Rusty Ruppert, “was seeing the community, the school board and the staff get behind something that when it was first announced didn’t come across as very positive.”
Nebraska established an academic intervention process in 2014, in the wake of financial pressure the federal government was applying on all state governments to take such a step. The author of the state’s academic intervention law, then-State Sen. Greg Adams, said during the Legislature’s debate on the proposal that the effort would aim to be supportive, not penalizing. “What we’re saying,” said Adams, a former high school teacher, “is here’s the statutory authority to go in and help, not punish, schools.”
This doesn’t mean turnarounds are necessarily easy or quick. Poverty is a major challenge for Nebraska’s Native American communities, as school officials for the Santee school district note.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt is recommending that the Santee elementary school and high school be added as priority schools, to bolster the state’s support effort. Steve Moose, the Santee school board president, said that is a positive approach.
Schuyler Community Schools, another district on the state list, also faces considerable challenges. More than a third of the district’s students are English language learners, with at least 16 different languages and dialects spoken by students. The district, as explained in World-Herald reporting, had begun taking significant steps to address academic concerns before the state began its intervention process last year.
Strong academic performance is crucial to help students prepare for the modern economy. A positive way forward, as Nebraska is demonstrating, is through cooperative action.