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.


Dr. Joel – bring on the stethoscope!

I had a great experience the other day when the 4-year-old daughter of a colleague was introduced to me.  When she heard me referred to as “Dr.” – she immediately had a look of horror and emphatically told me that she wasn’t sick and didn’t need shots.  I tried to tell her that I had the Dr. degree in education and was a former teacher, not a physician. But she wouldn’t believe me. It was hilarious.

Meanwhile, business at Lincoln Public Schools goes on. With the Lincoln Board of Education approving the property known as the “Jensen Park site” for our new middle school (that will open in the fall of 2017), all bond projects are now officially in the planning phase.   As we strive to meet our schedules for technology, security and maintenance updates, we will see a great deal of activity around the school district. This is “Progress as Promised.”  Be sure to thank our maintenance and operations team members as they have done tremendous work and been very busy all summer.

The first part of the summer has been great for conversations and planning retreats.   The Board of Education will soon meet to discuss 2014-15 goals after celebrating the accomplishments of 2013-14.  In a few short weeks we will greet new administrators and more than 350 new teachers.   That has to be a new record.

And, although it is still summer, it is always interesting to see how education is addressed in our state and nation – especially in light of November elections looming. For instance, the National Education Association is now calling for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  At the same time, Duncan is calling for states to create plans that will place the best teachers in the most struggling schools. The result: We can be assured there will be rich dialogue.

Personally, I believe our state and our local schools are performing well.  And we intend to continue improving.

Enjoy the remainder of the summer.


Looking back, looking forward

This last school year was another success.   The graduation of more than 2,300 Lincoln Public Schools seniors, just a few weeks ago, reminds us of the importance of K-12 in the life of a student, family and community.  Each of these young people is now equipped to take the next step on their journey and we wish them the best.  Many thanks to our staff and parents for their critical roles in making these successes happen.

The school year began with the opening of a new LPS District Office building, as well as a surprising enrollment of an additional 940 students. The LPS bond issue in February – approved by an incredible 68 percent approval vote – was a ringing endorsement underling the confidence our community has in its public educational system.

We pledge to continue earning your trust and confidence by developing, educating and producing successful young people.

Looking to next year, we are already looking at our estimates for next year’s enrollment. We see great growth occurring throughout our city, and note pre-enrollments that were quite strong this spring.   We will be aggressive in rolling out the pilot phase of our technology plan this coming school year – and intend to add more schools in the near future.   There will be a renewed emphasis on identifying and addressing the needs of students with mental health challenges as early as possible so that we can help increase their chances for success and graduation.  And, believe it or not, by the end of next summer The Career Academy will open.

The first couple of weeks after school ends is a great time to collect our thoughts, complete our paperwork and aggressively plan for another school year.  Lincoln is a very special place in so many ways and I am most appreciative of the opportunity to be a part of it.


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.