Omaha Builds Consensus To Tackle Inner-City Barriers to Learning
The Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) experience of Omaha Public Schools (OPS) shows that strong leadership can allow a challenged urban school district to expand services to students and their families. Growing trust and strong accountability measures have cemented relationships with a wide range of partners.
Located in Nebraska's largest urban area, OPS confronts the academic and social issues common in large city schools. Population shifts and immigration patterns have made racial and ethnic minority groups and students of high need a growing share of OPS's student body. In addition to competition from suburban school districts, another district lies inside OPS's service area. Students can opt in and out of these districts at will.
Resources present a high hurdle for OPS. The district's financial woes are aggravated by Nebraska's nearly bottom rank among States in per-student spending. The district has even taken the State to court claiming its school-funding system is unfair.
John Mackiel, OPS superintendent, saw the district's challenges as barriers to learning that the schools alone could not surmount. The answer lay in applying a wide range of assets. Yet, after years of dialog about supporting children and families, Omaha's health and social services remained fragmented.
Awarded in 2002, the SS/HS grant sparked a new drive for collaboration in Omaha. Project Director Mary Dean Harvey-former Nebraska Health and Human Services chief and long-time Omaha educator-says the school system's continued efforts to meet the needs of its students and their families now would receive additional assistance.
Seeing her mission as "energizing" and "galvanizing," Ms. Harvey set her sights high. "The grant addresses six observable elements, but systemic change is the real work," she says. To blend family and community resources with those of schools, tasks had to be defined and participants were given the training, time, support, and authority to perform them effectively.
Pulling It Together
Sensing that time was short even at the outset, the initiative avoided textbook formulas for collaboration. The SS/HS funds brought needed partners to the table, but Ms. Harvey "created a firestorm" by challenging the "perception of encroachment" among service providers in the Omaha community. To counter resistance, the Omaha SS/HS collaborative adopted a value-added theme-stressing enhanced service delivery over assaults on longstanding roles.
To keep things moving, the initiative "declared a partnership" with community, social, and mental health agencies. The glue that held it together was a vision statement regarding the need to remove barriers to learning. Acknowledging altruism for helping to keep partners in the fold, Ms. Harvey also credits pragmatism-organizations realizing that not being on the team would set them apart.
By year 2, the partnership began to gel as qualms gave way to a sense of oneness. By year 3, partners took increased ownership of the initiative. Reducing her guiding role, Ms. Harvey "essentially backed out and became staff to the group," as the partners in their SS/HS initiative took on more of a lead role.
Also, with an eye toward sustainability, OPS renamed its SS/HS initiative Links to Success. This was done to help foster local "ownership" of programs and services by capturing connections among schools, community, families, and businesses while establishing a brand identity that looks beyond the 3 to 4 years of funding available from the Federal SS/HS Initiative.
Making It Real
Signs of the sweeping change envisioned at the grant's inception are everywhere. Many Links to Success
activities, ranging from a host of after-school programs to health services, have been brought into schools. Principal Nancy Oberst points to the health center at her elementary school. "We have services [at night] where there is a physician or a nurse practitioner right at the school."
Some Links to Success
changes are intangible, reflecting increased confidence and respect among team members. Ms. Oberst observes that this trust is empowering: "We share that with our parents. You can't do that genuinely unless you have experience with that agency or group of people."
For the Omaha SS/HS initiative, parents are more than a target audience; they are full partners in Links to Success
. They are involved in safety committees at each school and take part in parent-teacher communication forums. Parent-focused services include a family strengthening program; child development and parenting classes; the ParentsLink
Web site, which offers a parents' calendar; school- and community-based resources; and the Link
Outreach to the district's immigrant families includes a Parent School Partnership
program, Common Sense Parenting
sessions in Spanish, and ParentsLink
information in Spanish.
Changes in services and working relationships made accountability vital. Evaluator Candice Miller notes, "Anybody who provides services is expected to know how what they are doing is changing students' lives and how the Federal investment is making a difference." She adds, "Partners must adhere to a high standard of data collection and documentation."
Indeed, reporting requirements have evolved. Ms. Harvey characterized the original evaluation plan as, "Widget counting, but to what end?" However, year 2 saw a shift to a more impact-oriented approach to guide implementation better while bolstering the case for sustainability.
In 2004, Links to Success held the Education by Design conference. More than 500 participants included nationally known speakers and a gamut of stakeholders, including teachers, service providers, parents, and business leaders. Although the conference kicked off the program's sustainability drive, it was more than a promotional event. Workshops covered a wide range of topics such as education reform, juvenile justice, and behavior-altering medications. Another Education by Design event is planned in 2005.
Surveying progress, the SS/HS grant has been a catalyst for bringing together child and family service providers in Omaha. Links to Success
brought unity among the grant partners by defining the school system as a service provider while identifying schools as a central element. Ms. Harvey points to superintendent Mackiel's vision and blanket support as the initiative's crucial facilitating factor.
Looking to the Future
Working toward sustainability for Links to Success programs, OPS will define essential functions and redeploy resources internally. The initiative will work with the State to ensure wraparound services through Medicaid, with the Omaha medical community to identify a niche for each entity, and with the Governor and legislature to identify potential grants. With visibility growing and relationships with the business community on the rise, prospects for private-sector support are promising.
Noting that trust has led to ownership and-more important-to results, Ms. Harvey believes the initiative will be sustained. She concludes, "Links to Success became a catalyst for an improved quality of life for some Omaha families and our story is still developing."