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.