Metro Omaha area schools are underway with the second year of full implementation of the Superintendents' Early Childhood Plan. The plan, funded through the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, aims to reduce or eliminate achievement gaps in the metro area.
The 12 full-implementation schools helped set their plans for the new year in the recently completed summer institutes held with Buffett Institute staff.
“This is your opportunity to leave your footprint on where we go this year,” Mari Sandoz Elementary Principal Dawn Marten said to fellow educators at the Millard Public Schools summer institute in July. “We need to give ourselves permission to put those things away that are made for us and to do what’s best for kids.”
The institutes, which drew more than 300 teachers, administrators, and other school staff, also were an opportunity to reflect just how far they've come in the past year. The final institute was held Aug. 12 for the four full-implementation elementaries in Omaha Public Schools: Gomez Heritage, Liberty, Mount View, and Pinewood.
Kristi Reinsch, Pinewood Elementary principal, said in videotaped remarks at the OPS gathering that she and fellow principals realized the import of the Superintendents’ Plan from talking with colleagues at national conferences.
"Truly nobody else in the country is doing anything with this entire birth-to-third grade age group and with the scope of families that we are trying to address with this initiative," she said.
At full-implementation sites in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, schools serve as hubs for a comprehensive birth through third grade approach, including home visits, high-quality preschool, and an aligned Kindergarten through third grade curriculum. The Superintendents' Plan was developed by the superintendents and district representatives in conjunction with the Buffett Institute, which continues to facilitate implementation of the plan.
The other full-implementation elementary schools taking part in the summer institutes were Belleaire (Bellevue Public Schools); Douglas County West (DC West Community Schools); Westbrook (Westside Community Schools); William Cody (Millard); and Karen Western, Meadows, and Mockingbird (Ralston Public Schools).
Chris Maxwell, director of program development at the Buffett Institute, said there were two goals for the summer institutes. "First, we're looking at what it means to have schools really feel a collective sense of responsibility for children starting at birth. And, second, it's not about schools doing it alone. Family partnerships are at the foundation of all of this."
Maxwell said she hopes the institutes spark ideas for the schools in the Superintendents’ Plan. “We suggest a pathway, and then they really think within their own school and their own practices and make sense out of the next steps for them around the big ideas of school as hub,” she said. “Taking the best of what we know about child development and research on early learning and development, and wedding it with high expectations for every child and then using that to really differentiate instruction so each child is able to reach their very fullest potential.”
Matt Williams, principal at Mount View Elementary, said: “It’s really neat to see where we’ve gone. We have more direction now, we have an idea of what we’re trying to do and how to build family and community partnerships with school as a hub across everything we do.”
John Campin, principal at Gomez Heritage Elementary, said: “It’s such a big thing that we’re doing together but I don’t feel like we’ve ever been pressured. Instead, it’s been let’s work together and try to figure things out.”
Maxwell said: “What we’re trying to figure out together is something called school as hub for birth through Grade 3. That’s the journey we’re on together. ... So much about children’s futures is determined in the first 3,000 days of their young lives.”
She said that Omaha-area schools began working last year with three ideas:
“The Superintendents’ Plan goal was and is to increase opportunities to learn and end race-based and income-based achievement gaps by the end of third grade. …. We all know we have collectively been working toward that goal for many, many years and still are not there.
“A commitment to act. The schools that came to the table, even though we didn’t fully know where we were going together, all had a commitment to really being open to thinking through new actions. Recognizing that it’s not our kids and our families who create the achievement gap, it’s gaps in the access and the learning opportunities that children and families have starting at birth and leading toward school. The question really was what kinds of actions can schools take to end gaps in opportunities to learn and prevent the growing achievement gaps as children progress through the grade levels.
“An approach. Not a model, coming in saying here you have to do this model, but really an approach that starts with home visiting for children ages 0 through 3 or prenatally, and that builds into preschool which then leads into aligned, rigorous, high-quality PreK through Grade 3 and beyond. And all built on a foundation of family partnership and engagement. With the idea of school as the hub. Not necessarily a place that does everything. But at least as a place that families come to feel a sense of belonging and that helps gain them access to other opportunities and resources that would be of interest to them.
"We were basically a bunch of strangers coming together and just trusting that we would go someplace really important," Maxwell said.
Reinsch, the Pinewood principal, said: “Staff and our communities had questions about what exactly this would look like. And the answers remain that while we have great models to work from, we are the only ones doing this work. It does look different in each of our communities and schools, as this is an initiative that needs to grow in the schools and communities, not be something that is done TO the staff and TO the families.
“… We’re taking parts of great programs, looking at the best knowledge that we have about child development and professional learning and forging our own model that includes transitions from home to preschool to Kindergarten and through the primary years.
“This is the power of this plan. But it does mean that in some areas, we are blazing the trail and making the map,” she said. “This is exciting but hard work.”
Campin said the home visiting program at Gomez Heritage “really took off from the beginning” and has helped parents with young children.
“Those kids that eventually will be coming to PreK and Kindergarten, just think of the base they have now going into their future years at school. … The benefits of the home visiting program are unbelievable. … We all know it’s working,” he said, “and hopefully we can keep broadening those horizons with other schools so all the other kids in the metro area can have that support.”
Ilka Oberst, principal at Liberty Elementary, said one focus at her school has been on childhood trauma.
“It seems to me more students than ever are struggling with self-regulation, with so much trauma at such a young age. We have 3-year-olds at Liberty and they were already very, very challenged.”
Liberty staff, working with the Buffett Institute, examined the school’s behavior plan, which had identified students’ problems, “and we decided that maybe that was not the best way to serve our students who have suffered this kind of trauma. So this year we’re starting to move away from that and really emphasizing the positive with our students.”
Williams, the Mount View principal, said “community partnerships are really growing exponentially.” He said his staff did a community mapping project this summer that took in a 20- to 30-block radius around the school and listed the businesses, churches and other organizations there and found hundreds of potential partners.
“Being a part of the community is the only way I believe in the next 20 years our schools are really going to be viable,” he said. “We can’t just be in the community—we have to be a part of it.”