Our generation of students gives me hope

In August my wife and I were checking out at Hy-Vee, and the student who was bagging our groceries looked straight at me and said he hoped this was the year Lincoln Public Schools kids would get their true allotment of snow days.  My wife asked him what he meant – and he indicated all students are aware there are four “extra” days built into the calendar. He said the school district has not been very good at meeting our obligation. I smiled, laughed and indicated I would do my very best this year.

This young man actually left an impression with me.  He was articulate, humorous and communicated his point very well. I left the store thinking that our public schools are doing a lot of things right. In fact, recent numbers and scores affirm that thinking.  The release of the Nebraska State Accountability (NeSA) student achievement scores showed LPS as above the state averages in most of the measured areas.  ACT scores, despite the fact that ALL of our LPS juniors now take it (rare across the country) were stable. (The ACT is one of the most common standardized college entrance examinations.)

Of course, we have areas for continued improvement but I have to state the obvious: Despite a rapidly growing student enrollment, 400 new teachers in each of the last two years, higher numbers of students in poverty and more than 60 cultures actively represented in our schools, the achievement needle continues to move up.  This is due, in no small part, to the support of a very generous community that prioritizes education – as well as to the incredibly talented and committed employees who work together to make dreams happen.  As a person who gets to visit all of our schools, I leave each one proud of what is taking place in those learning cultures.

Thank you to all.

Politics are an inevitable part of our daily lives, and there are people who continue to become agitated about what students or teachers should or should not do.  Many of these arguments are passionate and purposeful. And it would be easy to read the commentary and deduce that this generation of young people will destroy American values and traditions.  But I might point out: America has always grown stronger by citizens who challenge the status quo and embrace change, while ultimately continuing to take care of one another.

In fact, that is exactly what you will see if you visit our schools. We are a pluralistic school district where students are constantly learning from each other – and growing as people. I have great confidence this generation will do what the previous generations have. They will figure it out and continue moving our city, state and country forward.

Don’t believe me?   Come and visit our schools.

Reality of coming school year defines our work

As the summer has passed the halfway mark, everyone at Lincoln Public Schools has turned their attention to the beginning of a new school year.   The brief lull our school district experiences in June allows us to recharge our batteries, spend some quality time with family and get in some valuable reading.  But that lull is indeed brief, and after July Fourth we are suddenly well into the 2016-17 school year.

As I think about next year, I already can identify factoids that will continue to define our work, give us pause and make us thankful to live in such a progressive and supportive community.

  • The enrollment surge we have been experiencing in the last five years will continue with an anticipated influx of another 900-plus students this fall.  As we continue to analyze and understand this rapid growth, we have discovered there is no one cause: Companies are expanding and jobs have been added; the quality of life that Lincoln offers attracts people from all over the country and world – and they tend to stay here.  This kind of growth benefits our schools and community, but also will certainly cause our Board of Education to discuss facility capacity sooner than later.
  • After a successful inaugural year, The Career Academy is also poised to grow more than 100 students.   The word is spreading: TCA’s career pathways are supported by business and industry partners who are offering meaningful internships and jobs.   We anticipate there will be 1,000 students at TCA (currently around 425) in the next few years.
  • The new Sally G. Wysong Elementary School and the Bill Nuernberger Education Center open in a few weeks and will be met with great excitement.   The opportunity to be a part of establishing a new culture has attracted teachers and administrators to those two facilities from across the school district.   I always love the energy that the newness represents, and am appreciative of the community support for providing the funds to make this happen.  Next summer, the Marilyn Moore Middle School (with a YMCA) will open.
  • Adding more than 300 new educators to our team has become the norm each year.  These talented professionals come from colleges across the state and from school districts where they have honed their talents. Again, we are fortunate that staff desire to come to Lincoln and we are able to benefit from their commitment to remaining in the community.

The upcoming elections will certainly provide opportunities for education to be discussed in many forums.   The November election might be more interesting than most but, at the end of the day, we know our parents and community support our work and will continue to help us improve. We believe our most important imperative is ensuring the success of each and every one of our nearly 41,000 students. We will not disappoint.


The first two weeks of June

The first two weeks of June are the best for a Midwest superintendent. The frenzy represented by the end of a school year (graduations, retirement celebrations and numerous invitations to student and staff events) gives way to a few days of reflecting on the school year, planning summer meetings, and catching up on reading. We know these two weeks also involve some hiring, budget preparation, planning retreats and vacations, but the pace is a bit more relaxed.

Sadly, these two weeks go by entirely too quickly.

The 2015-16 school year was another excellent year at Lincoln Public Schools. One highlight was the opening of The Career Academy with close to 300 students in 13 pathways. A work in progress, this option for students will only get stronger as the word gets out that the graduates of TCA have college credits and internships lined up with our local community partners in business and industry. In fact, we anticipate more than 400 students will enroll next year.

Another highlight has been the work of our Success Schools for students with behavior issues. Like TCA, we know these programs are evolving to help students facing unique challenges find their path to success. These are intense programs that provide a caring environment strongly based upon building supportive relationships, offering alternatives, and searching for what each student needs to be successful, rather than placing students into pre-determined programming. Our end goal is to help them return to their home schools and become productive citizens in our community. As our overall enrollment expands, so does the number of students needing this type of support.

As we look to 2016-17, we anticipate more than 950 new students in our school district. Although we are surprised how dramatically our student growth has been (and likely to continue), we know our community will continue to grow as employment opportunities expand city-wide.

To address some of the challenges posed by crowded schools, the Lincoln Board of Education recently moved to place modest restrictions on transfers into Lincoln North Star High School that will go into effect for the 2017-18 school year.

We are also excited about the opening of Wysong Elementary School this fall. We anticipate Wysong will have more than 300 students on the first day (earlier projections were around 250). The Nuernberger Education Center will also open its doors during the 2016-17 school year.

This year, the instructional technology plan moved aggressively to provide Chromebooks for all 3-6 graders. We are so thankful for the great work of our technology and curriculum staff who have done an amazing job of bringing this transformation to scale. As many know, this is a large undertaking and truly represents second-order change that will require teachers and administrators to learn new skills. I am confident that the incredibly talented staff and leadership of this school district are up to the challenge.

As I write this, the School Board is planning for their annual retreat in which they will review past work with an eye toward moving LPS forward. Many in the community know that we have an excellent board, but many also don’t understand how much time these community servants dedicate to building an excellent support system for each and every one of our students. If you believe that our school district is a national leader in student success, thank them for their service. Their willingness to acquire and allocate resources strategically allows us to align our resources with our strategic goals. That has proven to be an excellent formula for staying focused on the most important work of our schools: the success of ALL students.

Have a great summer,
Steve Joel

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 public 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.