Tag Archives: feature

Giving Kids 
a ‘Tech-Up’

September 22, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

It’s almost impossible these days to gain employment without some level of technical aptitude and proficiency.

Being able to apply that technical knowledge on-the-job will continue to be required of future high school graduates and subsequent workers to better compete in the 21st century.

And as the most “plugged-in” generation ever, students now and future are eager to learn and apply what they’ve learned in simulated and real-life situations every day.

“Whether they go to college or into a highly-skilled certificate program like manufacturing, transportation, or health care after high school, we want to make them as ready as possible to be successful,” says Ken Spellman, career education coordinator with Omaha Public Schools. “Technology is everywhere and involved with every job in some capacity. We want them prepared to step into any role with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful.”

Through the OPS Career Education program, Spellman, along with certified nursing assistant instructor Tiffanie Wright, engage students to think beyond the classroom into future opportunities no matter if a four-year college education is in their future.

Because skilled labor positions require as much, if not more, specialized technological expertise, training and experience do not end with high school graduation.

If anything, they are just beginning, and OPS wants to make sure its students are on the right track when they do don their caps and gowns and pick up their diplomas.

“Technology is constantly changing, and while CNA job training still tends to be heavily on the physical side (lifting, cleaning, etc.), as a prelude to a career in nursing or health care, being able to use the machines and software needed for patient care is equally, if not more, important,” Wright says.

“Six of the local colleges we work with require CNA certification as a stepping stone to get into nursing. CNAs and nurses are in incredibly high demand, so we want to make sure when our students graduate, they are prepared not only for their current roles but future opportunities.”

Similarly, the Westside School District empowers its students at all levels through its Center for Advanced Professional Studies, with its four strands funded by a Youth Career Connect Grant.

Using science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as a basis, the four strands include architecture, health science, emerging technology, and business solutions. 

Dawn Nizzi, director of Westside’s CAPS, says the program not only prepares students for future technology in the workplace, but also encourages them to think and connect beyond the actual software and devices that they have had in their lives since they were little.

“We want them to realize that technology isn’t a guy in a basement surrounded by computers and monitors; we want them to realize that technology connects people from all professions and walks of life,” she says. “We don’t silo our students. It’s important that they know how to work and communicate together.

“We want them to leave with vision, and the ability to think critically and collaboratively. Part of being a CAPS is to instill an entrepreneurial mindset—to think innovatively. It’s bigger than just the application.”

Last year, a group of Westside students went to St. Louis to experience and observe a Hackathon, where teams from various schools come together to solve technology problems.

Not only did it put their technological skills to the test, but it also stretched their leadership and critical thinking capabilities. Students decided they would like to host something similar among Omaha’s school districts in the future.

In the Millard Public Schools, students are taught technological competencies at very young ages —starting in the elementary school years—with each step building toward making them more accomplished and ready once they reach high school.

Using One-to-One deployment (in which every student gets a computer for their personal and school use) the Millard Educational Program helps students meet the college and career readiness skills of citizenship, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity to better compete in the 21st century. By using technology, teachers will transform the way students learn by augmenting, modifying, and redefining instruction.

Whatever these future students’ career paths may take as they mature and learn, they will be prepared to not only use technology as it evolves but also work together, whether locally or internationally, to advance that technology even further.

“It’s not so much about the tools as much as it is about seeing students learn through enhanced teaching so they are prepared for the future,” says Ken Kingston Ed.D., Millard School District executive director of technology “We set out on a plan more than four years ago as part of our strategic planning process to enhance teaching and learning. Part of that process is providing choices for teachers and students and making sure they think and act creatively and critically, and can work with one another.”

Bottom line for all school districts in Metro Omaha is that students are more prepared than ever for their future pursuits—no matter what career path they take.

“We’re not only preparing our students, but we’re also preparing our teachers so they can give students the best guidance and instruction,” says Curtis Case Ed.D. Millard Public Schools director of digital learning “Not all teaching is about technology. We leave it up to our teachers to use as much as they want in their instruction. But we make sure that they understand how to use technology to best prepare students to use it as well.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

(from left) Curtis Case, Ed.D, & Kent Kingston, Ed.D

Visual Narrator

September 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kristin Zahra says she knew from a young age that she wanted to work in film. “Maybe, 12 to 13ish? I remember really loving Pixar animation film shorts,” she says. “So I had a desire to do more of the 3D animation work.”

Despite her dad’s urging to go into engineering, Zahra attended College of Saint Mary and earned her bachelor’s degree in computer graphics.

“He was a civil engineer and also tried to get all my sisters to pursue that path,” she says. “He was one in four for that battle.”

After graduation, Zahra went on to Vancouver Film School, which she says was a great option for her.

Kristin Zahra

“Their program is unique in that it’s essentially a condensed version of traditional four-year film schools. It made a lot of sense to me, being able to invest one year solely to focusing on film, and I viewed it as an opportunity to really do something challenging and completely out of my comfort zone.”

While at film school, she studied 3D animation and visual effects, and kind of fell in love with the city and Canada.

“Vancouver’s film scene was really apparent when I was there, which heightened the experience in a lot of ways,” she says. “My two roommates were extras and had boyfriends that were stuntmen, one was a screenwriter—I’m guessing a lot like L.A. in that way.”

After film school, Zahra moved around the country—Chicago, Houston, New York City, Norfolk (yes, Nebraska)—but she ended up back in Omaha in 2011. She says she knew she would be “calling this home again for quite a while.”

Like most creatives, Zahra struggled when she first started working in the industry. Since she didn’t live in Los Angeles or a place more conducive to filmmaking, she was using her animation degree more in advertising and motion graphics than anything else.

“I realized there was something missing for me,” she says. “What drew me into film was just how alive I felt when I was able to tell stories.”

Over the last few years, she’s been trying to get back into that. She started reaching out to, and trying to work with, local filmmakers.

Which is how she ended up working with Shelly Hollis on his project, The Black O, a film about black crime in Omaha.

Strangely enough, the two happened to run into each other on the street. Zahra says they met one night at a falafel truck downtown. They started talking while waiting for their food and he told her he was in town visiting his family and filming a documentary.

“It piqued my interest and we got to talking more about the work I did and wanting to be involved in film here in Omaha,” she says. “I had been searching for people to collaborate with, especially on film projects that come from a sincere and honest place.”

Hollis’ background is rooted more in the documentary format, which Zahra says brought her back to some of that storytelling she was missing.

For his documentary, Hollis says they spoke with people in the black community—victims of gang violence, ex-gang members, and city council members—and asked them what they thought the issues were.

“We wanted to give the people their voice, to identify their own problems,” he says.

His passion for the project interested Zahra from the start.

“Shelly is that person, void of ego, and his intentions for the film had inspired me from our first conversation,” she says. She adds that working with Hollis, whom she describes as an “exceptional filmmaker,” has been an honor and he has reminded her not to underestimate her skills.

The admiration is mutual. Hollis says Zahra helped him out a lot with the film. “She’s awesome,” he says. “Just incredible.”

“So yeah,” Zahra says, “it seems we were meant to meet, being that we shared an interest in both film and a good falafel pita.”

While The Black O is in its editing process, Zahra still has to make her money. “I keep moving with my projects, that’s for sure.”

She says she continues to do a lot of animation designs that are strictly for income, but adds that she is currently working on a new passion project with a production/animation studio, Edison Creative.

“For me, the passion I have for filmmaking includes that feeling I get when I’m on a set collaborating with a crew or in a studio working on animation or post-production.”

She says this current project is more of a cartoon piece. “It’s got a lot of potential. I’m really excited for it.”

Visit kristinzahra.com for more information.

This article published in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter magazine.

Have Marcey

September 14, 2017 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

When North Omaha native Marcey Yates talks about music, his face lights up and it’s as if everything makes sense in his world. From conversations swirling around hip-hop to his wild tales of past encounters with various artists, the 31-year-old lives and breathes his passion for music—and it all started at church.

Yates grew up on 49th and Fort streets, just north of Ames Avenue, where religion played an integral role in his community. The young Yates would often spend time with grandparents, who lived on 19th and Sprague streets, not too far from the home he shared with his mother and father. His grandfather was a pastor at the Church of God and Christ, and would routinely take him to service, where Yates started singing.

“I would say religion was big in my family and the black community,” Yates says. “It was definitely passed on through generations. Church got me into music on both sides of family, and it kept me in church until I was in high school. I sang in the choir.”

After graduating from Benson High School in 2003, he went on to take a few classes at the University of Nebraska-Omaha before leaving for Arizona, where he enrolled at the Conservatory School of Recording Arts and Sciences. By this time, his older brother Jeff had already introduced him to underground hip-hop and artists like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, Slum Village, Jay-Z, and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. He felt it was time to learn how to make his own signature style of music and establish himself as a credible MC/producer.

“I wanted to focus more on the tech side of music and the other side of the industry,” he explains. “I learned how to make this a business and not just be a rapper. I was able to get a lot practice working on my skill and style doing shows. I got turned down in Arizona, but I had some great experiences. I met Canibus [rapper], who told me about his beef with LL Cool J, and once I was with Method Man passing around a joint in the VIP section.”

Shortly after, the self-proclaimed hip-hop head relocated back to Omaha in 2012. Since then has put much of his energy into the hip-hop collective Raleigh Science Project, which he founded in 2009.

“I established the Raleigh Science Project after my last son [Raleigh] was born,” he explains. “It started as my imprint for my music, but I expanded into a collective after bringing artists on board who shared my vision on hard work and good music. [We had] a focus on building up the hip-hop scene in a positive light, so I wanted to strip the negative vibe associated with hip-hop in my community. That means consistency, quality, showmanship, and being professional.”

The father of three is currently working on the annual New Generation Music Festival—now in its second year—an all-inclusive concert that promotes community awareness, drives traffic and support to other local nonprofits, and provides a platform to retain local talent.

“Our mission is to provide a world-class music festival that promotes inclusion and provides economic opportunities for local businesses, organizations and artists,” he says. “We want to cultivate local talent and artistry as a means to a more secure and sustainable economy in the urban core communities. There are so many resources out here that the people don’t know about because information isn’t made readily available
to everyone.”

Aside from the festival, which is scheduled for Sept. 16 at Aksarben’s Stinson Park, the busy creative is working on a documentary about the life and times of Marcey Yates, a solo EP, a mixtape series titled Chicken Soup, and the Flamboyant Gods II project with local rapper Mars Black.

“I’m constantly working on a new project,” he says. “I want to be one of the hardest-working guys in
the industry.

“Music is the only freedom that is really free,” he continues. “There are no rules to making music. It’s total creativity and a space you can go to anytime. Music is your life soundtrack for every genre in your life—from comedy to drama to suspense. When I get depressed or really bugged out, I create music to pull myself out of the sunken place. Everyone should have a creative hobby or passion because what is important to you, you will cherish and be passionate about.”

Visit op2mus.bandcamp.com to hear Yates’ work.

Saving For College

September 11, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Breathe. College can be paid for, and help is available.

When it comes to planning for college, “It’s definitely never too early,” says Joan Jurek, director of college planning for the Omaha office of EducationQuest, a private, nonprofit organization with a mission to improve access to higher education in Nebraska. “Families should start saving as much as they can for college when their child is young.”

For some families, planning for future college expenses may begin as soon as a child is born. This is the optimum time, as putting away $100 per month when a child is less than 1 year old could result in $20,000-$30,000, average, by age 18, depending on the plan.

The myriad possibilities include Coverdell education savings accounts (CESAs), IRAs, custodial accounts, and various investments like savings bonds, mutual funds, money market accounts, and CDs. Professional financial planners and advisers can present the pros and cons for each option. Ample information is also available online.

A 529 Plan is a simple option designed to help families set aside funds for future college costs, says Deborah Goodkin, managing director of savings plans with First National Bank of Omaha. First National Bank is Nebraska’s Educational Savings Trust (NEST) 529 program manager.

On the other hand, not every family can afford to start a college savings plan when their child is born. “It’s also never too late,” Jurek says.

“There’s no wrong time to start; just start when you can,” Goodkin says, adding that not only can any family member start a plan for a child, the NEST system also makes it possible to invite other family members to contribute.

“Whoever opens up the plan is saving for a child’s dream,” she says. “Statistics have shown that kids who know that there is a college account set up in their name are more likely to do well in school and do well in college. You’re setting the expectation for your family member to go to college and do well and think about their career.”

Parents can start saving for college, but at some point, the student will need to become involved in the planning process. This ideally starts in eighth grade, Jurek says.

“This will give them time to make sure the student takes coursework throughout high school to ensure college admission, explore career interests, and research colleges that fit those interests,” she explains. Families can then begin to more specifically assess costs associated with their student’s institutions of interest against available funds.

“The junior year is especially important, as that is when students should narrow their college choices and understand financial aid options. They can do this by attending a financial aid program, going on campus visits, and attending college fairs,” Jurek says. “This will prepare them to apply for college and federal financial aid early in the fall of their senior year.”

One thing parents should not bank on—college scholarships, especially sports scholarships. Only about 2 percent of students receive a full-ride Division I sports scholarship. Further, those full-ride scholarships are only available to boys in men’s football and basketball, and to girls in women’s basketball, gymnastics, volleyball, and tennis. Got a young Alex Gordon? Don’t expect a scholarship to cover the costs of college. That’s because in baseball, like many sports, the team’s available scholarships can be broken into smaller portions, so the “15 available scholarships” may become 20, or even 30, smaller scholarships.

Likewise, be cautious of expecting renewable merit scholarships to finance a student’s entire college career. In some states, as many as half of the B-average students who receive merit scholarships as freshman drop below the acceptable GPA for a merit scholarship by the renewal period for their sophomore year.

Which brings up finanicial aid. Jurek explains that some forms of federal financial aid are need-based, including grants, work-study programs, certain scholarships, and subsidized student loans. Online tools to estimate financial need are available to anyone on EducationQuest.org, but for students to be considered for federal financial aid, they must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at fafsa.gov.

“‘I can’t afford it’ is a common misconception,” Jurek says. “There are ways to make college affordable including applying for financial aid and scholarships, starting at a less expensive community college, or living at home while going to college.”

Post-secondary education also doesn’t have to begin right out of high school. Adults can start their own 529 Plan, Goodkin says. There is no maximum starting age for college if life circumstances force delays, or if a young person wants to work for a year or two and put away money.

Whether or not a college savings plan is in place early on, the later process of researching college options, finding scholarship resources, learning about financial aid, and completing college applications and the FAFSA can still be daunting.

“Families who are worried about the college planning process—or don’t think college is possible—should be aware that free help is available,” Jurek says.


Alternatives to four-year degree programs

A common theory at this time is “I need a four-year degree!” Do you? Maybe not. In some fields, work experience counts more than a piece of sheepskin. Enjoy working in restaurants? A person could start working right away and work their way up. Many chefs do this, taking jobs as dishwashers or servers and moving through the ranks as they prove themselves.

“In certain areas you can actually earn more than a person who completes a four-year degree, and come out (of college) with no debt or less debt,” says Metropolitan Community College (MCC) Career Services Manager Monique Cribbs.

Others choose career paths that may or may not include some education from a community college:

  • Earning an associate’s degree
  • Earning a certificate of achievement for expanded coursework in a specific area
  • Taking noncredit courses, which can expand a person’s knowledge of one subject
  • Enlisting in military service, which provides career education and paid experience
  • Joining a trade, such as International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which allows men and women to “earn as you learn”

A community college also offers core classes at a lower tuition rate.

“Community college is not a second choice or a consolation prize. It’s a valuable option for any person going back and increasing their knowledge or continuing their education,” says Cribbs.

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Deborah Goodkin

Roots Down

September 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ask Keith Rodger where he got his sharp musical tastes and his answer will be simple—from his mother. The 28-year-old Omaha musician, recording engineer, and co-owner of Make Believe Recordings grew up with an eclectic range of influences, which truly shaped his preferences.

“My mother always had a solid taste in music,” Rodger explains. “She gave birth to me as a teenager and I think that had a huge difference on what I was exposed to compared to other kids my age. She was never a musician, but always had an ear for interesting music. She introduced me to the reality of Prince’s lyrics, the anger of Prodigy’s sound, and the essence of Bjork’s personality. There were few limits in our household.”

He also credits his older brother, Alan, with inspiring him to pursue music despite the fact they grew up in separate households.

“When he visited with a guitar and amp one day is when I really wanted to become a musician,” he recalls. “He also introduced me to computer software that was used to make beats, which was what really changed my life forever.”

As he stumbled through various phases of what he refers to as “extreme attachment” to a bevy of different musical genres, he quickly realized there was an infinite amount of exploring to do. He tasked himself with learning the history and adapting to the culture as a young, inquisitive student.

Rodger eventually met Motor City native Rick Carson, another aspiring entrepreneur who was obsessed with music and had recently completed a course in recording/audio engineering at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. The two would establish Make Believe Records and Make Believe Studios in 2012.

“I met Rick in a dusty basement when I was in a band called Lightning Bug while recording our first record,” he says. “I really enjoyed his vision for the music industry and Omaha. What he was trying to build aligned with what I was interested in pursuing as a career. We came from completely different backgrounds and share very different interests in music, but our goals and views are very similar.”

Make Believe Records has been steadily working its way into the publishing realm. The masterminds behind the label have hit a point where their catalog is ready to be launched into the musical stratosphere. With artists like rapper Conny Franko, hip-hop duo BOTH, and soul group Sam Ayer & The Lover Affair—as well as Rodger himself—on the roster, there are several full-length projects on the horizon.

Similarly, Make Believe Studios is buzzing. Carson recently engineered Grammy Award-nominated artist Terrace Martin’s 2016 album Velvet Portraits, and recently mixed and mastered Danny Worsnop’s 2017 effort The Long Road Home. There’s a sense of exciting things coming together behind the scenes.

“We are busy, busy, busy,” he says. “We have some projects coming through this year that I never would’ve imagined getting the opportunity to experience.”

For now, Rodger, Carson, and Tristan Costanzo are hard at work on one of their latest endeavors, the Kismet production team, which recently scored a documentary series for boxing promotions company Top Rank about boxer Terence Crawford and his team at B&B Boxing Academy. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“I’ve also been working on an EP and film titled Evoleno,” he says. “This has been a project years in the making. It took me several attempts to try to lock in a concept that was worth pursuing to become my first release. Over time, I got the opportunity to work with a wide variety of musicians that helped me shape my ideas into the concept it has become.”

“I also recently locked in a very small crew for this film to keep our ideas consistent and confident without our own bubble,” he adds. “I tapped Miguel Cedillo to direct and Maria Corpuz as one of our main characters. These people believe in the project as much as I do, and I believe we will make something that challenges everything we know about making a film that is timeless.”

Rodger has undoubtedly blossomed into a key player in Omaha’s consistently evolving music and art scenes. From touring with The Faint as a stage technician and DJing for Omaha Fashion Week to writing music and co-helming the Make Believe Records empire, his tireless work ethic parallels that of any successful artist or entrepreneur. However, he always sees room for improvement.

“I think it’s growing into a scene that is more diverse sonically,” he says. “I’ve noticed there are more younger people embracing new types of popular music, and putting down guitars and picking up synthesizers. My inbox is usually filled with musicians asking me about sound design and I find it exciting and refreshing.

“I truly wish there were more women creating electronic music,” he continues. “I always try to encourage parents to allow their daughters to learn how to program and edit in a DAW (digital audio workstation). Fair balance between genders, race, and cultures helps create better ideas within communities.”

The ambitious Rodger finds surrounding himself with creative individuals, staying focused on his goals, adopting routines that exercise his mental and physical health, and teaching others is the way to reach his ultimate nirvana. He’s ready to put in whatever amount of work it takes.

“Omaha still has a long way to go as far as musicians’ and DJs’ careers being taken seriously by people outside of the music industry,” he says. “We plant seeds and starve during their growth, but when they bloom, we will have a garden to feed families. Music is about to change very drastically for consumers and creators. I’m very excited about the future and want to be a part of it when it happens.”

Visit soundcloud.com/kethro to hear some of Rodger’s music.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Keith Rodger

With A Beard and a Smile

August 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Walking into Lookout Lounge is a different experience than entering other music venues around Omaha. Admittedly, it feels a little strange driving into a business plaza just south of 72nd and Dodge streets for a punk show. But what distinguishes Lookout (formerly The Hideout) is more than just location. It is the bearded man sitting at the entryway, checking IDs and working on his laptop, that sets this venue apart.

Raised in Copperas Cove, Texas, Kyle Fertwagner knew from a young age that his destiny lay in music. At 6 years old, he was mesmerized by blues concerts in nearby Austin. “Those experiences are ingrained in my memory. There were thousands of people out there enjoying music, sharing that common bond of whatever that music meant to them.”

By the time he moved to Omaha at age 15, he and his younger brother, Keith, were playing together in punk bands. They got their start at The Cog Factory. Like many area music fans, Kyle is eager to share fond memories of that nonprofit venue, which closed in 2002. “That was our stomping grounds,” he says. “That’s where I basically grew up as a musician, as a punk rocker, as a person.” Before their first show at The Cog Factory, Fertwagner recalls that the owners greeted the band and “it just immediately felt like home.”

Recreating that welcoming DIY vibe is what drove him to quit his job as general manager of a local restaurant and take over The Hideout in 2015. Keith had already learned how to work sound systems, and Kyle had learned how to run a business from years in the restaurant industry.

With “a little TLC” and a lot of elbow grease, the brothers made the place their own. Kyle proudly showcases a sign from the original Cog Factory over the pool table. Next to it is the hand-painted mural featuring the venue’s name and the radio tower logo that has become an Omaha icon. Endless layers of screen-printed posters paper Lookout’s walls, and concert-goers have enthusiastically decorated the bathrooms with a vibrant collection of friendly graffiti.

Kyle describes himself as “owner/operator,” but upon attending a show at his venue it is immediately apparent that he does much more than the typical owner. Besides personally welcoming patrons into shows and tending bar, he works the lights and often shadows his brother on sound. But before any of that can happen, “it starts with the band.”

When asked about his work with local promoters and artists, Kyle can’t quite hold back a grin. Lookout is known around Omaha as a starting point for bands that have never played in public before. Its owner is the main reason for this reputation. His voice softens when asked about his role in helping young local artists get their music off the ground: “I think it’s important when you’re first starting out to have a venue you can call home.” This determination to give back to the music community makes Lookout special.

Kyle’s unique philosophy on booking shows is “to not try to take everything on ourselves.” This means more cooperation between venue staff, bands, and promoters. “It’s a team effort.” The additional networking and communication is more work, but well worth it.

From his days in small punk bands growing up, he knows the obstacles and struggles of getting a band onstage. This knowledge helps him guide others through the process.“We try to use our experience to help younger bands grow,” Kyle says. “That’s good for everybody.” He is always happy to reach out to local promoters and say “we’d love to work with you.”

When Kyle works to foster those relationships to put a show together, that’s when the energy of the DIY venue is created. “It’s ‘Alright, cool, we did it, we sold the place out!’ Instead of ‘I sold the place out.’ It’s more of an ‘us’ thing.” Shows that are assembled with teamwork are more rewarding for the band, everyone behind the scenes, and the audience. Those packed concerts are a staple of Lookout’s imprint on the musical community.

After taking care of the band, Kyle’s next focus is his role as head of security. At any show, he can be seen roaming around the audience, keeping out a watchful eye for any sign of trouble. He accepts personal responsibility in creating a positive energy at Lookout, and takes the security of the audience very seriously: “People shouldn’t feel unwelcome here for any reason.”

In order to ensure that everyone feels welcome, anyone exhibiting abusive behavior of any kind will be personally warned and, if need be, escorted out by Kyle himself. He is quick to explain, “Anything that happens here I take to be a personal reflection on me.”

Visit lookoutomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Kyle Fertwagner

A Return to
 the Classics

August 10, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Keyboarding. Computer skills. Microsoft Office. These classes were required of elementary and middle school students 15-20 years ago. Now, there’s typing in elementary school?

Those courses signify just how rapidly digital technology changes, and consequently, how much digital tech impacts the economy and the education system preparing students for careers.

Current and future professionals face some unique challenges in the workforce because of these rapid changes. A recently published PEW Research Center article revealed that 87 percent of workers believe they’ll need further training and have to learn new job skills to keep up with the dynamic demands of technology. The article indicated that some of the most important assets professionals need include creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking.

Multiple schools—at least three in the last two years—have cropped up in Omaha that are able to address these concerns in a unique way. How do they prepare students for an economic landscape that has changed drastically in the last 30 years and shows no signs of slowing down? Not by being cutting edge, but by playing the long game—employing a classical model of education that’s roughly 2,500 years old.

Sara Breetzke, formerly a high school English teacher in Elkhorn, is now the head of school at Trinity Classical Academy, a collaborative, Christian, classical school beginning its second year this fall. Classical education, she explains, is “about teaching kids to enjoy learning and to know how to learn for themselves.”

Classical schooling is made up of three distinct stages of learning that mirror the development of a child. It’s known as the “trivium.” The grammar stage (first through fourth grades), when children are considered “information sponges,” involves memorizing facts and information; the logic stage (fifth through eighth grades), when kids are consumed with “why?”, involves organizing those learned facts in logical ways; the rhetoric stage (ninth through 12th grades), when adolescents want to express themselves, involves critical thinking and persuasion.

Brandon Harvey, newly-appointed headmaster of the two-year-old Chesterton Academy, highlights the importance of the “unity between the content and the method” for learning well. “The goal,” he says, “is that [students] encounter truth, goodness, and beauty.”

Another distinction is the focus on virtue as a fundamental feature of education. A primary goal of the classical education is to create, in Harvey’s terms, “[People] of virtue [who] strive to not just know the truth but to imitate goodness.”

Trinity Classical Academy and Chesterton Academy are Christian schools, though the classical education method began in ancient Greece and Rome and need not necessarily be Christian. Through a variety of sources, classical schooling immerses students at a very early age in great works—from Aristotle to Augustine, Charlotte Bronte to Dorothy Day, Frederick Douglass to Charles Darwin.

Breetzke succinctly summarizes the philosophy behind immersion: “You can’t be creative until you’ve seen people be creative.” While rewarding, this is an extended endeavor—a pilgrimage of learning.

Whereas prevailing models of education assume content should be engaging and fun for students now, and tends toward mass production by teaching to a test, classical schooling assumes content will be engaging and fun once students are good learners, and tends towards character development. So, says Breetzke, “You’re not going to see much standardized testing.”

When it comes to tests like the SAT and ACT, Harvey explains, “Classical schools don’t really focus on standardized tests, and in doing so they actually surpass most other schools [in test scores].” Student success is due in part because the curriculum for each course intentionally integrates with others. Subjects are not treated like cities on a map, unique yet connected. The facts of science relate to the events of history, which are linked to the literature of the time. This method creates curious, critical thinkers. Therefore, Harvey points out, “Classical education is not just for the intellectual elite.”

So how does the classical model prepare students for a tech-heavy business world? By changing that very question. The goal isn’t to prepare students for a type of economy (technological or otherwise), but to create virtuous humans who know how to learn and can take responsibility for themselves and the world around them. Breetzke explains: “Career prep looks different. It’s not skills. It’s character…Skills are much more easily learned than character…We are giving kids resources and riches to draw on that can reinvigorate a tech-heavy business world.”

The wisdom instilled by the millennia-old trivium prepares students for the ever-changing digital-tech economy. Through it, students become people who can discern truth, imitate goodness, and enjoy beauty. While not the skills-based learning most people are used to, classical education instills qualities that a digital economy still needs.

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Weird Is Good

July 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since transplanting from Pennsylvania nearly a decade ago, Christopher Vaughn Couse has made the observation that Omaha is downright weird—but in a good way.

From the hipster-laden streets of Benson to the apex of West Omaha’s suburbs, where cul-de-sacs meet cornfields—and of course there’s our friendly local billionaire, Mr. Buffett, who you may just spot snacking on a Dilly Bar—Couse is right: There’s no place like Homaha. As an artist, to pay homage to all the things that make Omaha, well, Omaha, Couse painted a simple black-and-white design with text that reads “Keep Omaha Good Weird.” It was part of Benson First Friday’s Tiny Mural Project.

“It’s about celebrating the city’s diversity and everyone’s willingness to embrace others for doing their own thing,” Couse says. Of course, it’s also a mix of the almost-revoked Nebraska mantra, “The Good Life,” and the “Keep Austin/Portland Weird” slogans.

If you’ve walked the streets of Benson or Dundee, stopped in at one of the latest oh-so-trendy and oh-so-healthy Eat Fit Go restaurants, or are familiar with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s “We Don’t Coast” campaign, you’ve likely seen Couse’s work. He may not be a Nebraska native, but with roots firmly planted in this city, his work as a freelancer, photographer, and illustrator seems to be sprouting up everywhere.

And that’s pretty darn good for a self-described “art school dropout.” It took just two years of classes in the art photography program at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for Couse to discover he needed to try a different path —and eventually a different city—to forge his career. Determined to utilize his keen eye and knack for creative styling as a professional artist, he knew it was time to move on from the world of lectures and syllabi when a professor told him art photography was a dead-end job.

“Just like that, tuition money became payments for nicer photography equipment,” Couse says.

Just because Couse was done with school didn’t mean he was done with education. He took his lack of professional training as a chance to personally develop his craft and began learning new mediums.

While he had been taking photographs since his teen years, the next evolution of his artistry came when he began combining his shots with handwritten notes to make collages. Then came illustrating and painting, then printmaking, and even working on zines. One glance at his Instagram, @christography, and you could argue he’s made social media his next canvas.

“I delve into different genres of art, figure out what I like, and begin incorporating these aesthetics into my own work,” Couse says. “I’ll admit, I have a bad problem of not sticking with one thing and instead trying to tackle a lot of things.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any similarities across mediums. Stylistically, his work is usually filled with color, idiosyncratic humor, and his emotions as each piece reflects what he was feeling when it was created. Thematically, he regularly combines text with imagery, and he’s often inspired by the conversations, people, and the city surrounding him.

For one of his most popular series, a combination of party gossip and local lore inspired him. Shortly after moving, he heard boozed-up friends describing metro movers and shakers as “Omaha Famous.” Using his love for pop culture, he decided to borrow this phrase and started illustrating portraits of actual famous people who were born in Omaha. Perhaps nowhere else will you find a collection that includes the likes of activist Malcolm X, President Gerald R. Ford, and Lady Gaga’s ex and “cool Nebraska guy” Lüc Carl. There’s even a coloring book available online, so you too can shade the mugs of Conor Oberst and Marlon Brando for only $4.

“What I love about Omaha—and why it inspires me—is it has a small-town feel but in a big-city atmosphere. I haven’t found that elsewhere,” Couse says.

Couse has further made an impact in the community through his creative freelance work. Often collaborating with branding agency Secret Penguin, he’s helped design packaging for Eat Fit Go, design signs for Flagship Commons, and developed promotional material for
“We Don’t Coast.”

As if all that combined with balancing a full-time retail job and playing daddy to a newborn wasn’t enough, he also preps collections of his work to show at local galleries, with a recent exhibit at Harney Street Gallery.

“I’m always searching for ways I can do better in life, better in my craft,” Couse says.

With Omaha and all of its oddities keeping him so busy, art projects get done when he can find the time. If one makes him a sweet penny, then great. If not, that’s A-OK with Couse, too.

“My end goal is to have fun and inspire other people to create things,” Couse says. “It’s not complicated. I just hope my art makes people smile for even a second.”

And there’s nothing downright weird about that at all.

Visit christophervaughncouse.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

Christopher Couse

Seamus Campbell Takes the Stage

June 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like so many kids, 9-year-old Seamus Campbell loves The Jungle Book. He’s one of countless children to be enchanted by the thought of boppin’ around the jungle with cool, scat-singing Baloo, relishing the “Bare Necessities” that can make life so grand.

But he’s not just another kid imagining himself to be Mowgli, the freewheeling man-cub searching for his place in the jungle. This year, Campbell became Mowgli.

Omaha Performing Arts’ Disney Musicals in Schools program, produced in collaboration with Disney Theatrical Group, let Campbell and some of his Harrison Elementary classmates take on the role of storyteller and perform in their own production of The Jungle Book.

Campbell, who played the role of Mowgli, uses words like “proud” and “fun” a lot when describing his experience.

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Campbell’s love of The Jungle Book—particularly Disney’s 1967 animated movie version—was his original inspiration to participate. He describes Mowgli as “very stubborn,” but says his character learns “a whole lot, like trusting your friends and listening to others.”

Kathleen Lawler Hustead, Omaha Performing Arts’ education manager, says her team kicked off the program for the 2016/2017 school year, letting third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students from five OPS elementary schools explore musical theater from a new angle. Omaha Performing Arts is the 13th arts organization in the nation to implement the Disney Musicals in Schools program, which began in 2009.

“Disney only selects performing arts organizations with strong education departments, so we were thrilled to be among the select few brought into the program,” Lawler Hustead says.

The program is designed for sustainability, so Disney-trained, local teaching artists work with each school in its first year to develop school team members into music directors, choreographers, and stage managers, with the skills and confidence to continue the program when the teaching artists transition to the next batch of first-year schools.

“The great part about this program is it will continue for many years to come,” Lawler Hustead says, noting that after schools complete year one, they move to alumni status and continue to receive support and free or discounted materials in subsequent years. “We’ll add five new schools each year, with the eventual goal of nearly every elementary school in the Omaha area, and potentially beyond, having these sustainable musical theater programs.”

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Participating elementary schools are chosen based on need and commitment to sustaining the program in coming years. In addition to Harrison performing The Jungle Book, Omaha’s other Disney Musicals in Schools pioneers were Crestridge, Kennedy, and Wilson Focus—each performing The Lion King—and Liberty performing Aladdin.

After 17 weeks of preparation and rehearsal, Campbell and the other participating students performed the 30-minute shows at their schools. They also performed select songs at an all-school Student Share Celebration, produced by Omaha Performing Arts and held at the Holland Center.

“I am so proud of our kids and staff,” Harrison Principal Andrea Haynes says. “It just shows you that kids have this capacity and latent talent, and it’s our job to give them opportunities to cultivate that.”

Teaching artists Kelsey Schwenker and Sarah Gibson coached the Harrison team, which consisted of (director) fourth grade teacher Callen Goodrich, (music director) first grade teacher Anna Rivedal, (choreographer) librarian Rachel Prieksat, (stage manager) parent Danielle Herzog, (costume and set designer) paraprofessional Elizabeth Newman, and (production assistant) school secretary Linda Davey.

While the team successfully conjured Disney magic, there was much more to it than a simple flick of Tinker Bell’s wand. The school team and students devoted many extra hours of hard work and practice. Campbell is quick to agree that being in a musical is part work and part play—so what made him want to devote extra time between busy school days and evening Boy Scouts meetings?

“To make everyone like the play,” he says. “Since my parents and everyone are going to see it, I want to do a good job and make my family proud.”

Campbell’s eyes light up when he describes seeing the set and costumes for the first time.

“When the door opened, we saw there were vines, plants, and a rock—and it was raining glitter!” Campbell says.

The Harrison team created a vibrant jungle atmosphere and costumed the cast into a believable band of panthers, monkeys, snakes, tigers, wolves, bears, and, of course, one “man-cub.” At the Student Share, the creative, colorful costumes on display from all the schools were second only to the students’ enthusiasm.

“It’s been so inspiring to see what this program does for students and teachers, and to watch the students light up and grow over the process,” Lawler Hustead says. “Not only are they learning to sing, dance, and act, they’re learning critical thinking skills, problem-solving, communication, self-confidence, and how to be a team player.”

Campbell, who also loves Star Wars, football, and Percy Jackson, says his experience taught him to be brave and, of course, that the show must always go on.

“[If you mess up], you just redo the line or skip by that line,” he says confidently.

Haynes says exposing young kids to the arts fosters an important self-reliance.

“It can plant the seed in them that they can do anything,” she says. “That sense of self-confidence is so important in this world, and will carry you through all kinds of obstacles.”

Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Seamus Campbell

A New Day Arisen

June 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kelly Hill stands on the corner of 30th and Lake streets admiring Salem Baptist Church’s towering cross, which looms over the landscape. A member of the church for more than 15 years, Kelly grew up in the now-demolished Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from the area. He can remember a time before Salem sat atop the hill, when the Hilltop Homes housing projects occupied the area.

“I left Omaha to join the military in 1975, and I didn’t return until 1995. I missed all of the gangs and bad stuff in Hilltop,” Hill remembers. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t a bad area at all. Me and my sister would play around there all the time.”

Within those 20 years, Hill was fortunate to have missed Hilltop’s downfall, as it would eventually become one of Omaha’s most notorious housing projects.

A major blight on North Omaha’s image in the 1980s to mid-1990s, Hilltop Homes would eventually be the second major housing project demolished in the metro area after Logan Fontenelle.

Before Hilltop Home’s razing in 1995—which had the unfortunate consequence of displacing many lower-income minority residents—the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.

It was a far cry from their humble beginnings as proud housing tenements for Omaha’s burgeoning minority population that exploded in the 1940s.

Edwin Benson

Built around Omaha’s oldest pioneer resting place, the neighborhood takes its name from Prospect Hill Cemetery on 32nd and Parker streets. Prospect Place was repurposed by the U.S. government to house a large influx of minority and low-income residents, mostly African-Americans, who migrated to Omaha seeking opportunities outside the oppressive South during the mid-20th century. Some 700 units of public housing emerged across the city in the 1940s, including Hilltop Homes and the nearby Pleasantview Apartments.

The projects were conveniently situated. Hilltop’s 225 units were positioned in a centralized location along 30th and Lake streets, near the factory and meatpacking plants on 16th Street to the east, with Omaha Technical High School to the south (the largest high school west of Chicago at the time).

Multiple generations of families would come to call Hilltop and Pleasantview their first homes; however, the collapse of the job structure on the north side of Omaha in the late 1960s would be a major catalyst in Prospect Place’s eventual downfall.

Successful factories and stores that kept the area afloat—such as The Storz Brewery and Safeway Grocery Store—closed their doors. At the same time, new civil rights laws prohibiting job discrimination were being passed. Some believe that fear of change, and fear of civil rights era legislations, motivated major employers in the community to move from northeast Omaha westward. A disappointing trend of joblessness and poverty would eventually devolve the community into a powder keg ready to blow.

Multiple riots at the tail end of the 1960s would take an additional toll on North Omaha. Four instances of civil unrest would erupt from 1966 to 1969, decimating the community.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says.

The last North Omaha riot would happen a day after Vivian Strong was shot and killed by Omaha police in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from Prospect Place. Rioters would go on to fire-bomb and destroy a multitude of businesses and storefronts in the neighborhood.

The local chapter of the Omaha Black Panthers would stand guard outside of black-owned businesses like the Omaha Star building at 24th and Lake streets in order to prevent its destruction. Many businesses would never recover from the millions of dollars in damages caused by the riots.

These disturbances would mark an important time-frame for Hilltop and Pleasantview’s gradual downfall. The turbulence within the community, spearheaded by systematic racism and poverty would take its toll on the area.

The Prospect Place projects would devolve into a dilapidated ghetto, with even harsher times awaiting the neighborhood as gangs and crack-cocaine would hit the city hard in the 1980s.

Omaha wasn’t a place people would have thought the gangs of Los Angeles, California, would make a strong showing. Quite the contrary,  gang members from the West Coast would eventually discover Omaha’s smaller urban landscape to be an untouched and lucrative territory.

Ex-gang member Edwin Benson can remember the switch taking hold in his later teenage years.

“The Crips came first, I’d say around the mid-to-late 1980s. They took over areas like 40th Avenue and Hilltop,” Benson says. “The Bloods’ territory was further east, big in the Logan Fontenelle projects and up and down 16th Street. So, gang-banging kind of took over the city for a long while.”

The isolated, maze-like structure of Hilltop and Pleasantview, along with the high-rise apartments added in the 1960s by the Omaha Housing Authority, would make them ideal locations for the burgeoning Hilltop Crips and other smaller street gangs.

“I can remember kids from Hilltop coming over to Pleasantview and starting trouble.” Benson recalls. “We would fight about who had the better projects! We fought with our fists, rocks, sticks…whatever was close you got hit with!”

A refuge for illicit activity had sprung to life within Prospect Place in the 1980s. Members of the community, as well as police officers, grew hesitant to venture into the area. Hilltop became a forgotten segment of the city, lost to the surrounding metro’s progress, marred by a decade of violent crime and drug offenses.

Hilltop would see an unfortunate trend of senseless homicides and gun violence that would peak in the early ’90s.

In 1990, two young men from Sioux City were shot outside of Hilltop when they stopped to ask for directions to the Omaha Civic Auditorium on their way to an MC Hammer concert.

In 1991, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for stabbing a 13-year-old boy during a fight. That same year, a local Crip gang member was gunned down at the 7-Eleven on 30th and Lake across the street from Hilltop.

In 1993, the pointless murder of another teenager may have finally spelled Hilltop’s doom. 14-year-old Charezetta Swiney—known as “Chucky” to friends and family—was shot in the head from point-blank range over a parking space dispute on Oct. 22. A sad occasion at the beginning of the school year, Benson High School was gracious enough to host the high school freshman’s funeral with more than 700 people in attendance. She was the 31st person slain in Omaha that year.

Jay W. Green, 27, would eventually be found guilty of Swiney’s homicide, charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony in the summer of 1994. At the end of that same year, Omaha’s City Council would begin laying the groundwork for Hilltop Homes’ eventual razing in 1995.

Benson, the former gang member, believes Swiney’s murder and the rampant gang activity within Prospect Place were the main reasons for Hilltop Homes’ demolition.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says. “Once the projects were gone, I think the Hilltop Crips just kind of faded out. We would joke and call them the ‘Scatter-site Crips’ since everyone was being moved to the scatter-site housing out west! If you hear someone claiming Hilltop these days they are living in the past.”

The demolition would leave a desolate space in its wake. Fortunately, the barren eyesore would not last long, as Salem Baptist Church would make their ambitious proposal for the site in 1996.

“I can remember me and my sister marching from the old church grounds on 3336 Lake St. to the new site on the hilltop,” Hill says, reminiscing with vivid recollection of April 19, 1998, the church’s groundbreaking. It was a glorious Sunday for church members, led by then-senior pastor Maurice Watson, a culmination of Salem’s proposed “Vision to Victory.”

Salem’s groundbreaking ceremony was heralded, marking the once-troubled land of Prospect Place as an “oasis of hope.” The community witnessed the progress as the newly razed 18 acres of land transformed from a vestige of poverty into a church sanctuary seating 1,300 people, in addition to classrooms, a multi-purpose fellowship hall, a nursery, and ample parking. Prospect Place was undergoing a new renaissance which would continue well into the new millennium.

Othello Meadows is the newest pioneer at the head of changing the image of Prospect Place. Having grown up on Omaha’s north side, Meadows remembers the projects as “a place not to linger if you weren’t from there.” After years away from his hometown, seeing the remnants of Hilltop Homes and Pleasantview Apartments was eye-opening.

“When I came back to Omaha, I was surprised by the disinvestment in the area after the projects were gone,” he says. “It went from housing thousands of people, to a sense of abandonment; like, only two houses were occupied on the entire block.”

Meadows’ words ring true. Other than Salem’s deal with Walgreens, which acquired acres of land for around $450,000, no additional development had taken place for years within Prospect Place. Fortunately, Meadows and the 75 North Revitalization Corp. are looking to reinvigorate the area.

As the executive director of 75 North, Meadows refers to Prospect Place as the “Highlander” area, which helps to separate the land from its troubled past. His goal is to bring life back to the area.

The development company now owns the land where the Pleasantview apartments resided before being demolished in 2008. A plan for a new neighborhood with continued growth is the main focus for the area, and he expects tangible progress in the coming months.

“If you drive down 30th Street between Parker and Blondo, you’ll see real work happening and real things going on.” Meadows says. “We have about 12 buildings under construction that are 50-70 percent complete [as of early February 2017], including a community enrichment center called the Accelerator that is 65,000 square feet, a very beautiful building. By late April to early May 2017 we should have some apartments up, and we already have people putting down deposits and signing leases. People are excited to be moving into the neighborhood.”

When asked about the targeted clientele for the new apartments and retail space, Meadows provides a broad answer: “The motto that we follow is—trying to create a mixed-income community. We’re not trying to recreate the projects, of course, but we also don’t want to create a neighborhood where longtime residents can’t afford to live. We have to balance the prospects of affordability and aspirational thinking.”

Indeed, when looking at the seventyfivenorth.org website, the ambitious vision for the Highlander Apartments is a far cry from the projects. Photo galleries and floor plans envision a renewed community akin to Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village. The images are cheerful, depicting people riding bikes and walking dogs, even an imagined coffee shop.

In a way, the renewed development, optimism, and potential for economic growth in the Highlander area can trace its roots back to the members of Salem and their desire to build a signal of hope where it once was lost.

But Hill (the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects resident who left Omaha in 1975 and returned in 1995) doesn’t think the church is given adequate recognition for its contributions.

“If a person didn’t know this place’s history of violence and poverty before Salem was built, they would only see the progress in this area as simple land development,” Hill says. “Salem doesn’t tend to broadcast the things they do for the area other than to its members, so those on the outside don’t necessarily recognize its lasting influence.”

It’s undeniable that the soaring church spire on the hill is a spectacle to behold on a bright, sunny day. It stands as a symbol of hope and belief. Benson still looks at the former site of Prospect Place with a hint of longing.

“I know it might sound crazy, but I was a little sad when Hilltop was torn down.” he admits. “A lot of good memories were made in those projects. But I love seeing the church up there. I hope whatever comes next is good for the community.”

Visit salembc.org for more information about Salem Baptist Church. Visit seventyfivenorth.org for more information about 75 North.

Salem Baptist Church