LPS already starting bond projects

Although the recent $153 million Lincoln Public Schools bond issue was approved less than two months ago, the work has begun in earnest.   Dirt is being moved as we speak at Southeast Community College for the new high school Career Academy, while bids have been published to begin the major technology infrastructure projects in many of our schools.

We were beyond excited last week when the bonds sold at an average rate of 3.58 percent, which was significantly less than our estimate.   This translates into more bang for the buck on our bond issue projects – saving money for our taxpayers and our students.

Meanwhile, we regret the technology frustrations experienced by our staff and students over the last couple of weeks related to some of the state assessment testing.  I do need to stress:  This is not an LPS issue.  The Nebraska Department of Education has been working with the company that administers the tests to address the problem, so we hope the issues have been solved and that our students can move ahead to accurately demonstrate their knowledge and achievement.

As we move ahead into our fourth quarter at LPS, I would like to commend our Lincoln Board of Education members who recently attended the conference of the National School Boards Association. We appreciate their willingness to learn about national educational trends and to engage in conversations with school districts that share some of the same challenges and initiatives we are tackling here at LPS.  Much of the conference content centered on technology as a tool for learning and many new ideas were shared.   Another recurring theme was “standing up for public education,” which resonated with all of the 10,000 participants who work so hard to ensure all our students succeed. Despite the many political and financial challenges, there is great evidence that public education works and that we are getting better.

Board members and I left the conference encouraged about the future for our 38,000 LPS students.   We appreciate the trust the community has in us.   We pledge to work hard to maintain that.


Spring break: Catching up on superintendent tasks

This has sure been a different and difficult winter.   The extreme temperatures have undoubtedly led to more illness among students and staff.   The lack of snow (and subsequent student reference to “only” two snow days) may be a prelude to a dry spring and summer.   And with an economy so reliant on water, a drought will be very difficult to endure.

Nonetheless, I am enjoying this March week as it is the official spring break for Lincoln Public Schools. Like the first week in June, this week is a time for me to catch up on all those tasks that I put on the shelf to be worked on later.   Not a natural procrastinator, I still struggle with finding all the time necessary to be effective.  Timely breaks in the action do the trick and I pause to consider the most essential chores for the rest of the school year.

As we look ahead to the next few months, our district’s priority work will center on planning for the new High School Career Center.   Our first joint board meeting – between officials from Lincoln Public Schools and Southeast Community College – is March 20, and there is much that will need to be addressed.  Priority topics include:  Construction bids, naming of the facility and authorizing a search for a dynamic leader.  I will serve on this joint Career Center Board to represent LPS, along with Lincoln Board of Education member Richard Meginnis, and we look forward to ensuring we deliver on our promise that this facility will stand as a national model.

Another priority for the remaining school year is to welcome Wendy Van to our LPS District Office leadership team.   As the new president of the Foundation for LPS, Wendy brings incredible energy and passion to the position – and our school district will work with the Foundation to take the next progressive steps forward.  LPS needs a strong Foundation to support the kind of work that positively impacts student success yet cannot be funded with tax dollars.

The first day of this week’s break – Monday – was a great spring day.  Today, not so much.  I hope our students and staff have a restful week and come back ready to charge up the home stretch.


Gathering stories from the bond issue

The last month seemed and felt like three. I think we made every effort to ensure that our patrons had accurate information in giving over 110 informational bond presentations to interested groups throughout the community.  The response to the presentations was great and the more than 50K returned ballots demonstrated great participation.  THANK YOU LINCOLN for the great support and trust.  We won’t disappoint.

Having done a few of these school bond issues in my career, I am always listening for the best stories.   This week I was talking with a young lady who moved to Lincoln recently with her husband.  When he asked her (after the ballots arrived) which way to vote, she summed it up by asking how badly he wanted children.  He apparently got the message.

My other favorite was meeting an elderly man who initially appeared to be a “no” vote as he stared angrily at me and occasionally shook his head when I shared a few facts about the bond issue. At the completion of the presentation, he came up to talk with me and I braced for the worst.  Then, without so much as a smile, he related a story from 50 years ago when an elderly person had explained the reason why you vote for a school bond issue: because the community that has come before us has taken care of the children, and now we have that same responsibility. We shook hands, he grabbed a pack of flyers and said he was going to tell his neighbors the same story – and why the bond issue was a good plan.

Of course, there are many other stories that have inspired my work as superintendent.   I truly feel blessed to be a part of a great community and school district

Now, off to work and making sure these projects are under budget and on schedule.


‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’

This winter song captures the feeling all of us had last week when I called the first cold-weather day of my career.  In fact, the call was an easy decision as the near 30-degree-below wind-chills were a scary proposition for our children to navigate. I have used the recent speaking circuit to personally apologize to parents for keeping their children home an additional day. And I am sure the longer than expected winter break had more than one parent more ready than ever to have school start up again.

As far as that speaking circuit, I have really enjoyed meeting with many of our stakeholder groups to present information concerning the Feb. 11 school bond issue. Our school district has set up more than 100 informational opportunities to present facts and answer questions about the bond issue, and as I attend these sessions I am reminded how much value is placed on education in our city.  The special election to vote on a $153 million LPS bond issue will be a mail-in election – ballots will be mailed to all registered voters in the school district – so there are many unknowns.  That makes it even more important for us to provide information to our community about this issue.  You can find a list of the remaining informational community presentations at http://www.lps.org/2014bond/ –  I  encourage anyone with questions/concerns to attend.

Meanwhile, I also love the part of my job that allows me to visit schools and interact with staff and students.  Today, I began my morning at Lincoln East High School to videotape a program about the upcoming Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations, student march and rally.  When you view this video you will be captivated by two young ladies who exhibit tremendous passion for organizing an event that honors a man who has helped change the course of history.   I could have stayed and talked with them all day.

We are all looking forward to a great second semester that will have us continuing our work – including an emphasis on technology and addressing the growing needs of our students who struggle with mental health and behavioral issues.  But I sure hope 2014 doesn’t include any more cold weather days.


A new year of gratitude and action

Well, it is now official.  On February 11, the community will have an opportunity to express an opinion on the Lincoln Public Schools bond issue through a mail-in election.  While we believe the Lincoln Board of Education has crafted a great plan that truly touches each child and each school in each zip code, we also know that there are differing opinions. We welcome the discussion.

Just as the 2013 year was action-packed, 2014 will be the same. The bond issue will precede final planning for the high school Career Center.  Following several visits to 21st century school districts in Washington and Idaho, we are ready to take the next steps that continue our transformation of learning at LPS to the digital age.  And, finally, you will be hearing more about plans to address the burgeoning numbers of kids who struggle with behavioral and mental health issues.

The end of the year is a wonderful time to reflect and re-set.  I am incredibly thankful to work in a city that places such high value on children and exudes a willingness to help when needed. With more and more of our students and families facing challenging times, I find it comforting to know we can depend on community partners and citizens for help in access to supplies, coats and whatever is needed to ensure our children get a good education. Thank you, Lincoln.

I close with gratitude for all of our employees, parents, families and patrons who have contributed so much for our success.  May your holidays be filled with joy.


What a great time of year this is

The beauty of fall – outside and inside our schools

What a great time of year this is.   The cooler temperatures mean that leaves are beginning to descend and t-shirts make way for sweatshirts.   I enjoy the changing seasons but, as I get older, I don’t enjoy the winter near as much.

The fall season is also a time when we receive achievement, assessment and growth data related to our school district that gives us a picture of the past, present and future.  Our enrollment at Lincoln Public Schools this year grew 943 students and has caused us to wonder where all the growth has come from.  Yesterday afternoon, several of us took a driving tour around the city to see where construction is occurring and what community growth issues we should consider when planning for the future.  Having not been raised in Lincoln, I was struck with how far and wide Lincoln has moved its borders.   The North 84th corridor is exploding with new homes, as has the southeast part of town where you can clearly see growth from Yankee Hill Road heading east from 70th.  We were also impressed at the growth in the Fallbrook area in north Lincoln, and have seen that impact in enrollments at Kooser Elementary School and Schoo Middle School.

Our challenge going forward is to craft a plan that addresses this booming growth but also continues to take care of what we already have. Lincoln takes great pride in school facilities and we need to maintain that expectation.

In addition, the Superintendent’s Facilities Advisory Committee (a group of 90 community members who met over the past six months) has also reminded us of several other important school district needs:  to make sure all our buildings are safe and secure, and to make sure that we have a technology infrastructure in place to support our bold plan to convert to digital learning.

The Lincoln Board of Education has been working overtime to take these issues and challenges – and convert them into a workable plan.   Before we are able to ask for voter support to implement facility and infrastructure projects, we must first have a clearly defined direction.  I anticipate that 2014 will bring opportunities for us to engage and discuss these plans with our incredibly supportive community.

I’ll close by saying that we continue to feel very positive about our academic directions and the accomplishments of our students.  In a few weeks, 2012-13 graduation data will be released by the state.  As we have set bold goals to achieve an 87 percent on-time graduation rate by 2018, we are hopeful of moving forward each year.   Our continued academic improvement is due to the amazing work that is taking place in classrooms all over the city each and every day.



Beauty of Fall

The school year is off to a wonderful start. I am always amazed at how eager teachers, students AND parents are for school to begin. I am not sure that is true everywhere.

We are settled in at LPSDO and recently held an open house that had more than 800 guests. WOW!!!. Thanks for all that incredible support. We are indeed fortunate.

I am excited at the work we have upon us this next year. For one, the board will be responding to community recommendations for facility and infrastructure planning. As of today, we have many more needs than available funds brought on by student growth, aging facilities and the need to address security and plan for the looming digital transformation. I don’t envy the work facing our board as they will have to prioritize and narrow the list to an amount that is affordable and equitable. Stay tuned.

The Career Center is moving aggressively forward. We now have a formal agreement with SCC and will soon have the details as to which career pathways/clusters will be the cornerstones of this exciting new delivery concept. The opening of a similar concept in Grand Island has generated statewide enthusiasm for what the future will bring for kids that will be able to engage in purposeful learning that leads to a career.

Finally, we are able to put resources to a technology plan that has been in the works for the last several years. Phase 1 will be laptops for each teacher to begin the training process in digital delivery and management. The existing computers will be re-purposed for student use. Phase 2 will be to ensure that each building has the infrastructure to support what we need and Phase 3 will be curriculum and student access.

As we have settled into new digs, passed an excellent budget that helps us regain our momentum and prepare for yet another stellar student growth number, I am reminded of all the great things that are happening in our schools. Thank you to all for making success for kids happen.

Steve Joel

First week of school: priceless

I absolutely love the first week of school. For me, the opportunity to be part of greeting our students and staff, and capture some of the moments that make school special, is hard to beat. It is priceless to observe the annual ritual of a young mom dropping off her firstborn for kindergarten and heading to the “boo-hoo” room for nourishment and other parental support for help through the trauma. And, seeing sixth graders negotiate their way around a much larger middle school brings back terrifying, personal memories from years ago.
Despite this being a fast summer, the energy this week exhibited by kids and staff was impressive. We truly are off to a great start – thanks to the many returning and incoming staff. Welcome back to what will be another great year.

This is also going to be an intense planning year as our Lincoln Board of Education has raised the graduation goal from 84 to 87 percent by the year  2018.  We have had great success with increasing achievement, but graduating the next 3 percent will require deeper and difficult work. The keys going forward will be addressing our growing number of children with mental health and behavioral issues, and continuing to seek ways to intervene as early as possible when warnings appear. While I know we have the great people to do this, I also know that substantive change is always difficult.

The Career High School is on track for 2015. We have to complete the inter-local agreement with Southeast Community College to proceed, but I think this is imminent. Sharing cost for a building that is not on school property can be a daunting concept for some, but we are excited about the future prospects for our students.

I also am eagerly awaiting the report from the community group that has been studying our facilities. We have many building and infrastructure needs brought on by our growth, and establishing priorities to seek public support will be a difficult challenge for our Board of Education.

Finally, I want to express my tremendous appreciation to all of our staff, students and parents who have partnered with us to increase achievement across the grades. We are above state averages in most categories and with our rapidly changing demographics – that is an awesome accomplishment. We intend for this trend to continue.



Boxes, coding, moving plans – we’re coming home to 5905 O

It is Monday of the last week in our temporary digs for Lincoln Public Schools District Offices.   Boxes adorn the hallways of the building and the corners of all our offices as we make plans for the final packing.  Those of us residing on the third floor of the new building will move into 5905 O St. next Monday – and the first and second floors on subsequent Mondays.  The move-in plan has been well calculated right down to the coding of our paper files – and photographs of desks so that our hardware can be easily reassembled. Many thanks to the amazing team of technicians and maintenance workers who are making this happen.

Unlike our move into our temporary locations two years ago, this time we will walk into our new offices with plenty of work “stuff.” I believe this fact  characterizes the incredible human spirit of the last two years.  We have come from nothing – to a valuable accumulation of educational materials.  And we did it without ever looking back.  This accomplishment, as the saying goes, took a whole village.  Our rise from the ashes can be attributed to the commitment of our employees – and support from the greatest community in America – in making sure that 37.000 students didn’t miss a beat I have great appreciation and respect for everyone who calls Lincoln home and will never be able to say “thank you” appropriately.  One small way of expressing our gratitude is to ask that you consider attending our community Open House from 1-4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15.  You are all officially invited.

Meanwhile, we will be all moved into the new building in three weeks, and plunge immediately into the 2013-14 school year. In addition to preparing for an estimated 1,000 more students than last year, we also will be working on: final plans for the High School Career Academy, a revised ten-year Facility and Infrastructure Plan to accommodate our amazing growth, a technology plan to improve our 21st century teaching and learning classroom,  and continued improvement in state and federal assessments.   We feel very good about where we are academically, but know there is always much room for improvement.

It is hard to believe the summer break is half over.   In a little more than a month the high school bands will start practice, the fall athletic teams will arrive for the fall season, and teachers and administrators will be immersed in preparation for new students.

Right now a successful move and subsequent celebrations are the first order of business, however, and I am feeling gratitude for the opportunity to be part of such a vibrant and accountable educational culture.


Whew—Made it through another year!

Whew—Made it through another year. I always say that the last couple of weeks are very challenging and this year was no exception. Kudos go to our staff and leadership for keeping students on track right up to the final day of school. Many thanks to all of our employees for another great academic effort that will be be positively highlighted when the achievement data is released. We continue to be on the right track.

The next couple of months will be fast-moving. In light of our strategic plan, we are rolling out recommendations for technology (digital transformation) and a career high school that we hope to have the board approve. In addition, we begin the move back to a new LPSDO beginning the first week in July. I am so looking forward to having all of our excellent team members under the same roof again.

Looking to next year, we are bracing for an increase in students of between 700 and 900. With the last remnants of the 2006 bond completed, we have to turn our attention to the next ten years. I have appointed an outstanding community advisory committee that will study our numbers, view our needs and provide a recommendation to the board in October.

Withe the local elections now over and our board having reorganized (congratulations to Don Mayhew for being elected and to Ed Zimmer for his great leadership last year), I am looking forward to having our new leadership team working collaboratively with the board to tweak the strategic plan and create goal priorities for 2013-14. With these in place, I believe we will have another exciting year to look forward to.

Until next time,