Our schools, community, state held high as a place where public education is valued for all children

Recently I had the pleasure of working with a group of emerging national school superintendents who are training to become leaders of urban (city) districts.  These are the districts that are chronically underfunded and rife with political turmoil – districts where leaders are often pushed to accelerate change rapidly in order to improve educational outcomes for the most at-risk children.

Listening to their stories, I heard urban leaders dismayed that too many policy makers do not believe school districts are capable of instituting change on their own.  In many cities, charters and vouchers have been introduced as a solution.  Other cities have declared war on teacher tenure in the mistaken belief that it is the root cause of student failure.  In other urban areas, control has been handed over to mayors and commissioners. Yet, at a time when our country and citizenry need to wrap our arms around the children and families that struggle the most, many of these so-called solutions only exacerbate the problem. Nonetheless, I left this national gathering with a positive sense of developing the next wave of powerful educational leaders who have, at their core, a tremendous commitment to the mission of public education. Their task will be the most difficult in our nation.

I also thought about how fortunate we are in Lincoln Public Schools, in Lincoln and in Nebraska to be able to work where education for ALL children is not only a value but an expectation.   We are a nationally leading state in many of the comparable metrics specifically because of these values and willingness from our patrons to roll up their sleeves and help.  We are the envy of many in the nation, whether we are highlighting our 1,400 Teammate Mentors, 25 Community Learning Centers, a United Way that has adopted our graduation goal as their own, or Prosper Lincoln committing to find ways to make pre-school available for ALL children. These kinds of partnerships simply don’t exist in many other places as urban schools often struggle with high class sizes, decrepit infrastructure (think lead in Flint, Michigan), professional burnout and community apathy.  As students in these situations fail at a higher rate, the wrong strategies are deployed that accelerate the cycle of failure.

Admittedly, high quality education doesn’t come cheap – yet in our state we continue to invest in kids and the people who have the precious responsibility of working with our kids.   We strive for equitable distribution of resources but recognize that students who need more will get more.  Our schools are welcoming and safe and we have an incredibly talented group of professionals who have chosen to make Lincoln their permanent professional home. We also have challenges that make the work difficult.  The more than 1 percent annual growth in the city yields 800 more LPS students enrolled each year.  With 43 percent of our students classified as “Free and Reduced” lunch eligible, we are mindful of the challenges that poverty presents and proud of the results we are seeing with graduation rates.   A growing proportion of the students who are coming to us arrive from countries where they have experienced incredible atrocities and poor education.

To maintain our momentum and seek the next level of success, we must continue to consider creative ways to connect more kids with high quality learning.  Whether that means seeking smaller learning centers, expanding choice opportunities and before- and after-school engagements, or developing differentiated calendars – it will be incumbent upon us to think imaginatively.  When I think of the people we have in our employ who view this work as a mission, I am confident we will meet the challenges of ALL kids being successful.  We must triumph. There is simply too much at stake to fall short.


As we head into the final stretch of the school year at Lincoln Public Schools – a time that includes many state assessments – I wanted to take a moment to thank all of our staff and families for your contributions to the high quality of education for our students.   While we don’t define ourselves solely by a test score, we also know that assessments offer a measure of accountability that demonstrates growth and progress. As I have visited schools and classrooms, I see the appropriate balance of academic emphasis and social/emotional development.   Our students enjoy school and our staff members make the days engaging and enjoyable.  It is fun to see.


New Year promises continued school district growth, debate, but hopefully no snow days

My New Year’s resolution is to have no snow days this school year.   There is often one golden year each decade in a superintendent’s life when all the major storms fall on weekends and holidays.   I think this might be the year.

Too bad that I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions.

I do believe in thoughtful, diligent planning ahead – and we need to be prepared. In the coming months we are going to see a great deal of political discussion centered on the cost of education in Nebraska and what, if anything, can be done to lower or shift those costs so that property tax relief can be obtained. The reality is that in Nebraska – with property tax the primary means for funding schools – our taxes increase as costs and assessed values go up. What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that public education in our state (and, specifically Lincoln) is performing near the top of most national ratings, reflecting the successes we are having with students despite major life challenges such as poverty, family disruption, mental health issues, etc.   To meet growing student needs and numbers, and continue to produce graduates who are career and college ready, will require more resources, not fewer.

And our needs will continue to grow. Based on data compiled by city planners, Lincoln’s population grows approximately 1.2 percent each year. This growth appears to be primarily (not exclusively) in the Stevens Creek area east of Lincoln and the Southeast corridor.   The number of housing units under construction and being planned for construction is startling.   With LPS student growth this year of 990 and a similar number possible for next year, the LPS Board of Education has some serious planning awaiting them.

Meanwhile, LPS students continue to impress.   This holiday weekend, the Lincoln Public Schools student planning committee for the Martin Luther King, Jr. rally put on an incredible show that was quite moving.   We can no longer accept inequity for any person under any circumstances.

In closing and in full disclosure, I don’t think I have ever had a school year without a snow day – in my past 32 years in public education. Oh, well.



Power of LPS public education echoes across globe

Recently I had moments of special gratitude for the miracles public education can create for our students and families – moments that went above and beyond my everyday experiences.

Last week I ventured to Lincoln North Star High School to visit with several English Language Learner (ELL) students who were recently featured in the local news.   They both had amazing stories to tell.

One student was 21 – bright and very personable – and had arrived here at 17 without knowing a word of English,. His parents took him out of Iraq when it was clear they were going to be killed by the government. In his home country, his father owned a factory and the family was considered well off.   Since coming here they have struggled financially with the student trying to help support his family by working 40 hours a week at Sam’s Club. The young man told me he loved his time in school and was sad that he is aging out and must soon leave Lincoln Public Schools. He hopes to enlist in the military.

The other student – a junior in high school – had parents who were professionals in their homeland of Iran. They left their country voluntarily and not as refugees – when the young woman was in middle school – because there were no educational opportunities for their daughter after high school. Although this student knew no English upon arriving here, she is now on track to graduate on time and hopes to become a doctor.

I was fascinated with both stories, impressed with how much these two students had accomplished and learned in such a short period of time. I was also grateful that neither had ever felt bullied or ridiculed since arriving at North Star. They were thankful for their teachers and for their education.

I had another similar experience recently while speaking to a college class at Doane College. A graduate student who was from Sudan told me he was one of the “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” a group of children who had once been hunted by the thousands in their home country until the United States was able to rescue some and bring them here. This young man told me incredible stories of what he and his family had experienced and what being in America had meant to him. Many of his family members did not survive, but this young man was rescued, came to Nebraska and is now a supervisor at Lincoln Industries working on a Master’s Degree. He has three children in Lincoln Public Schools who are doing very well.

Too often we get hung up on a number or a percentage of children who come from other countries or speak other languages.   Behind every single number is a young person trying to find their way. With great teachers and sufficient resources, they will find it.

Happy Holidays, everyone.



Local, national voices join conversation on public education

This past week has certainly been interesting and enlightening with local, state and national voices.

Listening to the discussion regarding state aid and property tax relief – taking place with the State Legislature’s joint Revenue and Education Committees earlier this week– gave insight to the difficulties associated with the many opinions about changing the state aid formula.  I was able to offer testimony underlining that our school district believes the current distribution formula promotes equity and ensures a high quality educational experience for all students.  Of course, there was some disagreement with my comments.  I do understand that there is great pressure on making changes to the system, however, I hope any possible changes do not result in a loss of revenue for our 40,000 Lincoln Public Schools students whose needs continue to grow.

This week I also was invited to participate in a discussion with Diane Ravitch – a national historian of education, educational policy analyst, author and college professor – who was brought to Omaha by community leaders interested in hearing a discussion of her latest book “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”  While Ravitch acknowledged Nebraska is a little known national success, she also indicated public education in many states has undergone significant change brought on by movements to privatize under the guise of creating more opportunities for kids with less restrictions at much less cost. Ravitch believes such privatization does not work, and that there is no data to suggest otherwise.

She pointed out that poverty continues to be a real challenge to learning for many students and, in fact, privatization in some states has led to greater economic segregation – which ultimately leads to lower success rates for schools that have consequently lost funds. We recognize this will continue to be a spirited discussion, and we must be vigilant in making sure that our policymakers have all the facts.

Our role as good citizens is to continue speaking out for pubic education and reminding our community that education for all students is the greatest enterprise available to create an even better future for our country.



Launch of new year with career academy, construction, honors, partners

The beginning of the school year is always a highlight for me.   From visiting schools to attending extracurricular events, I get tremendous joy from seeing our students and staff in action.  This year was especially meaningful at Lincoln Public Schools as we opened The Career Academy on the first day of classes.  This program is set to explode thanks to 350 students working in 13 Pathways with highly talented staff.   Already, students have taken a number of field trips to business partners who give them advice on career opportunities.  Keep an eye on this concept as it is definitely an educational showpiece that will provide significant help for a very tight labor market.

The work emanating from the bond issue has also been in full swing.   Both the Sally Wysong Elementary and Marilyn Moore Middle schools are well underway, and we look forward to opening them in 2016 and 2017, respectively.  Interestingly, the neighborhood growth in those two areas has been significant and we anticipate both schools having great interest.   Throw in the remodeling and renovation work at schools across the district and our Operations staff members have been incredibly busy.   Thank you, Lincoln, for all your support in helping us build and maintain quality buildings.

The work of the school district has not gone unnoticed by the nation.   Recently, we received a national award from the District Administration Journal for excellence in obtaining a high graduation rate.  A similar acknowledgement was just announced this week by the National School Board Association, recognizing our Board for their leadership in student success.  This award exemplifies the importance of the Board and school district leadership working collaboratively to educate children.  There are few school boards that put in as much time as in Lincoln.  With at least two meetings each month, plus special meeting for planning and informational discussions, and serving on at least three committees that meet monthly, their personal commitment is a primary reason for our success.

As we look to the future, our goal of 90 percent on-time graduation will be the most difficult work we have ever undertaken.  The key for achieving this rests in our ability as a school community to help our students overcome obstacles such as poverty and mental health issues. We can’t do this alone as Jamie Vollmer points out in his work.   Fortunately, there are many in Lincoln that have stepped up to help through partnerships like the Foundation for LPS, Teammates, United Way and our Community Learning Centers.   While we appreciate the help, we could use more.  We now have 400 homeless children and a list of 300 young people waiting for Teammates.  Having been a Teammate (and currently working with two middle schoolers), I can unequivocally tell you this program makes a difference with an investment of one hour per week.

Steve Joel

LPS: We make miracles happen every day, one child at a time

This was also posted in the Lincoln Journal Star as a guest column.

When Andrey Naidenoff came to Lincoln Public Schools in ninth grade, his father was in prison and his mother struggled with addiction. This spring he became an award-winning 2015 graduate of Southwest High School after transforming his life with inspiration from LPS: Athletics participation, a special teacher who helped with English skills and strong academic support. He was successful in his ACT – a college and career-readiness test he took for free through LPS – and heads for college with a scholarship and hopes for a career in criminal justice.

Tianna Lewis faced mental health issues in ninth grade when the Lincoln High School student reached out to school counselors. Throughout the next four years she found her voice through slam poetry and the International Baccalaureate program while she grew as a person and a scholar. She heads for Swarthmore College, sharing these words last spring: “When I walk across the graduation stage, I will feel a wave of tranquility and accomplishment.”

These are two of more than 2,700 LPS high school graduates from the class of 2015, triumphant stories behind a school district making miracles daily by focusing on the needs of all students – one child at a time.

I am thinking of Andrey and Tianna as we start the 2015-16 school year, anticipating 800-plus more students and total enrollment nearing 40,000. Those numbers will include many children like Andrey and Tianna, who will find hope in the power of public education.

This year I will talk more about that power, because I believe we need to stand up and speak out. If we don’t, who will?

I have a precious granddaughter starting kindergarten who recently celebrated her birthday – a little girl who receives an abundance of love and support. Yet I wonder about all the children who don’t have as much, growing numbers who are poor and disenfranchised. What about their birthday parties? Do they have celebrations, food, somewhere to sleep?

I am proud of LPS for acknowledging this reality – recognizing if these children don’t make it, society fails. We aspire to raise our graduation rate from 87 to 90 percent by 2019, which means we need to reach kids who historically have not succeeded. I guarantee this is the hardest work our schools and community will ever do.

Undeniably, we have hard work ahead this year.

The Career Academy, a fresh approach in education, launches with 13 career pathways. We commence our three-year Instructional Technology plan, putting Chromebooks in the hands of sixth graders and creating exciting ways to reach and teach kids. Our kindergartners anticipate their first year of school – our seniors, their last.  Each day of learning will be precious.

This summer we asked speaker Manny Scott to address our LPS staff and share the story of Erin Gruwell, Manny’s now-famous teacher who changed her students’ lives– and later wrote “The Freedom Writers Diary.”

Manny stirred us with his words: “I stopped by today to remind you of your power to change someone’s life…to change the entire trajectory of someone’s life…to remind you that your work is not in vain. I stopped by to say thank you – from those kids who never stopped to say thank you… I stopped by to beg you on behalf of the thousands of kids in Lincoln…they are in need of leaders like you. I beg you to renew your commitment to teach, to serve, to lead, to love…because even on your worst day, you can be someone’s best hope – someone’s last chance.”

Indeed, educators have the most important job in Lincoln and America. Yet these are interesting times in our community and country. Organized groups are circulating simplistic information about public education. We need to continue setting the record straight. We urge you to contact LPS and make sure you have accurate information about our schools, budget, students. We have faith you will.

What fires me up about this community is that when you talk about public education: All means all. Families give us the best kids they have. We embrace them all, whether they are rich or poor, however they express their gender, wherever they sleep at night. We teach every child.

This year is our time. This is our legacy. We pledge: We will make this year purposeful.

Anticipation Building

One again, the summer is flying by.  When you have the privilege of working for an organization like Lincoln Public Schools, the days and weeks are busy – and enjoyable.  Much good work is taking place over these summer months to make certain we lay the foundation to improve the educational experience for our children.  To move forward, we can’t stand still, and much of our strategic thinking is about how we can move from an 87 to 90 percent graduation rate.  It will be our toughest challenge ever but we have the people and resources to get there.

At the top of the excitement list is the opening of The Career Academy this August.  With 400 high school students from across the community committed to work with an impressive array of teachers, the Academy will change the lives of young people who have interests and aptitudes in one of the 13 career pathways offered.  I want to thank our business partners who have provided more than a million dollars for equipment and scholarships. We are adding more partners each day.

The first phase of the LPS instructional technology plan will have Chrome Books in the hands of all sixth graders when the 2015-16 school year begins. Teachers have been hard at work developing the necessary skills to be able to maximize the digital learning experience.  Please remember, though, that technology will not replace great teaching.

We are fortunate to live in a growing and progressive community that values strong education.  The investment that our parents and patrons make to support our students and staff is humbling.  As we head into 2015-16, we pledge to continue to provide the highest quality opportunities for each and every one of our 40,000 students.


Spring break provides rare time for reflection

Spring break this week at Lincoln Public Schools is an ideal time to reflect on what lies ahead for our students and staff.  While snow and cold were still lingering at the beginning of the month, the warm weather managed to get here in time for outdoor activities and travel to be enjoyed.   I trust that all will return next week refreshed and energized for a strong finish to our school year.

In addition to preparing ourselves for the assessment season, we are also working diligently to develop plans to implement our technology initiative. We will launch the technology plan for the 2015-16 school year, beginning with curriculum content and devices for all sixth graders, then other grades phased in over a three-year cycle. The tech plan has been in development for several years and represents both the best practices that we have studied across the country as well as important lessons learned from our own pilot programs. We are excited to see the increased engagement our students will have with their learning as technology will augment the great teaching already occurring in our classrooms.

Meanwhile, boundary discussions necessary with construction of two new LPS schools – an elementary opening in 2016 and a middle school opening in 2017 – have been robust.   It is challenging but worthwhile work effectively managing the dramatic growth in student population while seeking equity in where our students attend school. Our Lincoln Board of Education has appreciated the concerns expressed by patrons, has listened closely and will continue to seek a fair resolution.

Finally, with the Legislature in session, school funding is of high concern.  As a rapidly growing school district with increased needs (ie, poverty, English Language Learners, mental health), we continue to make the case that funding must follow the kids. For instance, with more than 400 homeless children and 60 incarcerated, we have to seek ways to alter their trajectory – and that requires necessary funding.  The Board of Education’s goal of reaching a 90 percent on-time graduation rate in the next 5 years will require us to think about time and delivery differently for these special populations of children that historically struggle to succeed.

We look forward to the challenge.


LPS: A place where children want to be

As anticipated, we had a great start to the school year.   Staff and students returned with energy and enthusiasm, and that showed each time I visited a school.  Many thanks to all of our staff for their great work in making Lincoln Public Schools a place where children and parents want to be.

The technology pilots at Culler Middle School and Riley Elementary School are off and running.  Seeing the smiles on the faces of the Culler students has been heart warming.  For a large number of these kids, this was the first time they had daily access to a personal computing device.  Our goal, of course, is to use the pilot schools to determine strategy to move forward with technology implementation across our school district.  This goal will be a challenge due to our large and increasing student enrollment numbers.

The school bond construction projects are also moving aggressively forward.  The Career Academy is beginning to take shape on the campus of Southeast Community College, while our technology and security modifications are occurring in schools throughout the district.  Plans for the new elementary (slated to open in 2016) and middle school (2017) are also pushing forward.  We are excited about partnering with the YMCA on the middle school site.

Each day in LPS is a reminder of how fortunate we are to be entrusted with the most valuable commodity a community has: our children.  We look forward to a great academic year and appreciate our tremendous partnerships that ensure we have community help in nurturing and educating our students.


Awaiting return of magic

The nice thing about summer is it eventually gives way to the first day of school, my favorite time of year.  On Tuesday we will observe an anticipated 39,000 students interacting with about 8,000 Lincoln Public Schools employees – and the magic will start to happen once again.  I’m confident the 2014-15 school year will be another successful one for LPS and our community.

Student enrollment totals are only a guess right now until the fourth Friday of September when they become official on the day we report them to the State Department of Education. However, we do anticipate about 1,000 new students this year coming from all over our state and country.  Lincoln continues to attract families for jobs and quality of life.  


This summer I met several families from the east coast who were delighted to be here – families who had planned on enrolling their children in private schools, but who changed their minds when they discovered we have an outstanding public educational system that is focused on ALL students succeeding.


The Lincoln Board of Education held their annual retreat earlier this week and the emerging theme was “refine and align.”  With so many great programs designed to raise graduation rates and overall achievement, Board members felt that we needed to complete what we have already started.   They did agree that a 90 percent graduation goal within five years was a great target.  I know we can do it.


I want to close by thanking everyone with LPS for their commitment to learning.  We have a wonderful school district because of the people who work here.


Let’s have a great school year.