Tag Archives: high school

The Goal 

August 30, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Jose Soria’s summer vacation was not about sleeping in late and hanging out aimlessly. To the contrary, Soria spent the long, hot days of June, July, and August taking summer classes—not because he had to—but because he wanted to.

His preference for learning over spending his days at the beach began when he found out after his freshman year that his school offers students the opportunity to take college courses alongside their regular coursework. “I looked into the general education class requirements to get into the nursing program and started taking those,” he said. “I’d rather take them now instead of waiting to take them when I get to college.”

As a result, he’ll begin college with some of his required classes already completed, decreasing the overall time, and money, he’ll spend in college before he can begin his career.

He enjoys the opportunity to take these classes now while still in high school. He says this program is different from taking AP classes. “They’re similar to AP classes, but in AP classes you have to take an exam to see if you’re eligible for the college credit. What I’m doing now is [joint enrollment] with Iowa Western Community College.”

According to educateiowa.gov, the concurrent (or joint) enrollment program provides opportunities for high school students to enroll part-time in courses at or through community colleges. Per “Senior Year Plus,” concurrent enrollment courses are offered through contractual agreements between community colleges and school districts within their service area.

That means because Soria is a high-achieving high school student, he has taken courses ranging from college-level composition to intro to health care occupations, and the Council Bluffs School District paid the fees for those courses taken during the school year.

Soria hopes to go into the medicine field as a nurse, or working in surgery in some capacity. He’s drawn to the field because he wants the opportunity to “help a person out and make their day better.” His favorite classes are chemistry and health science, not surprisingly. He enjoys chemistry in particular because he is able to create something out of other things. Soria recently applied to volunteer at a local hospital and hopes to gain valuable experience in the medical field through volunteering.

When not studying or volunteering, Soria can be found exercising daily. “I walk or run every day,” he said, further demonstrating his ability to set a goal and work toward it.

His parents are from Mexico and were not able to finish high school. “They came to the U.S. to give us a better future,” he said. “This pushed me to become more independent and strive to get as much education as I can before I graduate.” Though he was born in Mexico, he has not yet visited there. Now an American citizen, his summers away from high school are full of “school, homework, and making sure I’m on track.” 

Soria has advice for anyone else who wants to accomplish their goals. “It doesn’t matter what your past is,” Soria says. “Always think ahead, and just because you’ve had a certain situation, it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. Do it for yourself.”

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

Third Time’s A Charm

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There will be a time in Larry Mercier III’s life when he won’t be lacing his ice skates and pulling a hockey sweater over his head. Until that time comes, the Papillion-LaVista South High School senior is determined to enjoy—and give back to—the sport he has played since second grade.

It was not readily apparent on an unusually warm and sunny day this past January, but the clock was already ticking down on Mercier (pronounced Muhr-SEE-err) and his time as a competitive high school hockey player for the Omaha Jr. Lancers. At 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, he is a bit undersized by hockey standards. But talk with any of his teammates and coaches and you will find out the forward-playing right wing more than makes up for his diminutive stature with a give-it-everything-all-the-time attitude on and off the ice.

Even with the best work ethic, the numbers are not in his favor. Only 10 percent of the nearly 36,000 boys playing high school hockey will make it to the collegiate level, according to 2015 figures as provided by scholarshipstats.com. So Mercier is trying to make the most of his hockey experience by lending a hand to others who are pursuing that dream.

During a winter practice at Ralston Arena, Mercier was easy to spot in a forest green practice jersey that stands out amongst a midst of powder blue, black, and neon-green-colored jerseys worn by the other two dozen players on the ice. He led a drill that had each player sprint the length of the ice while guiding the puck, then taking his best shot to fire it past one of the team’s waiting goalies. Occasionally throughout the hour-long practice, a whistle sounded.

It is a signal to every player to sprint and skate several times around the center logo on the ice. It is one way to stay in top-flight condition built from a foundation of off-season training.

Offseason hockey camps are just as important as regular season practice or the approximately 40 games that the Omaha Jr. Lancers will play between October and March. Camp is a time to become a better skater, to improve on puck handling, or to work on shooting, passing, and individual skills. An hour on the ice in the summer and another hour of “dry land training” can often be the difference between making the roster of a team at the next level or ending up as a player who does not make the cut.

For the past two seasons, Mercier has been passing knowledge from his own regimented training routine to youngsters on the Jr. Lancers bantam program, a team made up of seventh and eighth graders who aspire to play high school hockey. His younger brother, Logan, took that path to Jr. Lancers’ junior varsity team.

“I liked to help out with their practices, whenever we don’t have games on the weekend and they did,” Larry says.”

Sometimes it was just fetching water bottles or pucks after drills. Other times, I would be in the locker room before games and give them a little pep talk or tell them what I was seeing between periods.”

While helping youngsters at camps is a possible career option after college, more realistic is Mercier’s path of progress in academics, not athletics. The past four semesters, the honor roll student has juggled a full load of advanced placement courses for college—government, history, honors calculus, statistics, and physics. His diligence off the ice is preparation for a career in engineering or aerospace engineering … possibly even an appointment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Maybe I can become a test pilot of some sort,” he says with a tinge of enthusiasm. “I have always liked math. It not only has come easy to me, but I also enjoy it. That’s why I am thinking engineering.”

One of Mercier’s instructors at Papillion-LaVista South, Dustin “Bubba” Penas, noticed his potential in the classroom immediately.

“Larry is an outstanding student who always came prepared for class,” Penas says. “His positivity and smile were great to have and he was very engaged and active every day. He is a go-getter who will be outstanding in anything he goes into. He is able to take on any project and will always see it through to the end.”

And that end, as far as hockey is concerned, is likely right around the corner.

“I have always loved hockey ever since I started playing it,” Mercier says. “But there is a point for every athlete that they have to pick what they really want to do with their life. I have gotten to the point where hockey has been my passion. But I don’t think I want to play anything that is too huge as far as a time commitment. In the end, my education is going to be what gets me far in life. So I am hoping to focus on that.”

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


Elizabeth Byrnes

November 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…Toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

-Elizabeth Byrnes

Tucked away in a discreet supply room at Ralston High School, beyond the steel lockers and crowded classrooms, Elizabeth Byrnes is stocking nonperishable goods.

While classmates hurry to first period at 7:30 a.m., Byrnes shuffles paperwork, counts inventory, coordinates volunteer shifts, and organizes pick-ups and drop-offs for the school’s food pantry.

Byrnes is not your typical teenager. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old cheerleader who gabs on a smartphone and loves to shop at American Eagle. But this 5-foot-6-inch brown-eyed beauty takes her community service seriously.

So when she saw a sign last year advertising the school’s free food pantry, titled the R-Pantry, Byrnes decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know it was needed,” she says.

On that particular day, she visited the small closet of a lecture room where teachers had been operating a makeshift pantry that allowed students in need to shop anonymously for food, toiletries, and other supplies inside the high school.

Roughly 60 percent of students at Ralston Public Schools receive free or reduced-rate meals.

To create a healthy pantry, teacher Dan Boster says the Ralston High staff noticed the need and donated nonperishable items and the seed money—roughly $800 worth—in exchange for casual dress days.

“Once the pantry was created, we handed it off to the students,” says Boster, who also serves as National Honor Society adviser and oversees the pantry project.

Byrnes acquired the larder responsibility and has helped it evolve from the small closet of a lecture hall into a spacious supply room with large tower shelves brimming with food as diverse as artichoke hearts, fruit snacks, and granola bars.

Byrnes has grown the one-person operation to having 70 volunteers on deck to assist when needed. She has presented before the Ralston Chamber of Commerce when soliciting for donations and has advocated and made Ralston High an official Food Bank of the Heartland donation site.

She describes the families who utilize the pantry as living break-even lifestyles, existing paycheck-to-paycheck, with little left over for simple luxuries such as lip balm or toilet paper. Students from such families experience a lot of stress and anxiety over where their next meal is coming from, she adds.

“I saw how education is extremely difficult to get, especially if there’s a need in the household,” Byrnes says. “Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

Food insecurity—which means that people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—can be invisible, she explains. “Not knowing if there will be dinner on Friday night or lunch on Saturday.”

The R-Pantry idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation: student hunger. It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a start.

“I have so much respect and admiration for these students who are asking for help to support their

Byrnes excels in calculus, biology, and creative writing. She serves on DECA, is a class officer, and participates in National Honors Society. She enjoys running, hiking, and playing with her two dogs—Sophia and Jack.

Byrnes credits her family for always influencing her to do what’s best and help those in need. Dad (Robert E. Byrnes) is a doctor. Mom (Mary Byrnes) is a mortgage banker. Brother (Kent Keller) is a police officer.

“Her empathy for people runs very deep,” her mother says.

However, the driven teen doesn’t always communicate well with mom and dad, jokes her mother: “She was never one to seek glory. We didn’t know how involved she had been in the pantry until she was recognized. When she made homecoming court, we didn’t know about it until people began congratulating us.”

Mom adds, “She moves through life as if this is just a job. Helping others is just what she does.”

Byrnes plans to attend a four-year university next year and major in biology. She’d like to someday become a cosmetic dentist or dermatologist.

Byrnes encourages other young people: “If you see something you could change or help out, don’t be afraid to jump in there. You could change someone’s life with your one small action.”

The R-Pantry at Ralston High School (8969 Park Drive), is open on Fridays after school until 4 p.m. To volunteer, contact the school at 402-331-7373.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

Just a Little Respect

January 16, 2015 by

I can’t believe this,” Troy says.

“Sorry, Troy,” Nate replies.

“Yeah, me too…f**,” Troy says, using a homophobic epithet as he walks away.

And that starts it all.

Nate’s voice is full of defeat, shoulders slumped, face downcast. Even with glasses, tattered baseball cap and a plaid shirt, Troy is menacing compared to a shorter Nate.

Put yourself there. What would you do next?

This is just one scenario RESPECT, an anti-bullying group here in Omaha, poses to teenagers. Using short theatrical productions, RESPECT hopes to educate youth on how to handle abusive relationships. Standing Up, by Nick Zadina, is just one example of 14 plays these professional actors perform for schools around Nebraska and Iowa.

Executive Director Patricia Newman founded RESPECT as a problem-solving and communication tool for children of all ages. Bullying won’t ever go away, she says, but it can be decreased by education.

Newman, a clinical child physiologist, is hoping students will stop unhealthy and violent patterns early before reaching adulthood. “Kids can self-identify and change their bullying habits,” Newman believes. “The more times you hear it, it clicks.”

Just this year, the Centers for Disease Control reported 19.6 percent of high school students have been bullied sometime during the school year. Newman recalls being picked on as a child because she was poor and from a divorced home. Luckily, she says teachers made the difference by making her feel special. “The power in the classroom is amazing,” Newman says. Millard West junior Cody Janke says Standing Up was realistic and “not your average corny play you see in school.”

Once the play finishes, the actors allow students a few moments to write down anonymous questions on notecards. Greg, one of the 10 professional actors for RESPECT, pauses before responding to one student’s question, “Have you ever been bullied?”

Greg (RESPECT actors asked that only their first names be used) mentions how someone at school had once left a death threat in his locker after he talked to the bully’s girlfriend.

“I was terrified and a freshman so had no idea what to do,” Greg recalls. He ended up reporting the incident to counselors who helped the bully with his anger and jealousy.

The class is quiet and not quick to volunteer, so the RESPECT actors change things up by role-playing. One of the actors plays the part of the bully as he knocks books out of another actor’s hands.

“Okay, okay, so what would you do?” he asks the class.

One brave student, freshman Dan Catania, volunteers to role-play as the bystander. His shaggy brown hair covers his face as he picks up the books scattered on the floor.

“Dude, why did you do that?” Dan asks the actor. “Now, say you’re sorry.”

With an infectious grin, he apologizes and tells Dan “good job.”

With 251 programs each year and around 40,000 students, Newman hopes stepping into the action will teach kids from preschool to college to empower themselves and come up with their own solutions to make their lives safer.

After the RESPECT team leaves, most of the students agree bullying occurs mainly in middle school. Janke, a high school football running back, believes many teenagers outgrow these negative tendencies. Tall and muscular with a bit of a five o’clock shadow, he admits to being the bully once in middle school, although feels some of it was provoked. Now that he is older and more mature, he says he feels it isn’t worth it to put other people down.

Many students also say girls tend to be worse in middle school than boys. One of the freshman female students says boys are more willing to talk it out, while girls do everything on social media or behind someone’s back. Although statistics show boys are 1.7 times more likely than girls to bully, girls show a higher trend of victimizing others through rumors. “They (girls) are vicious,” she says with a laugh. “Guys are just like, ‘Bro, what are you doing?”

Newman agrees bullying today is deadlier because of the intensity and how quickly it happens on social media. She hopes RESPECT will give students one more tool to transform something negative into a positive.

Newman shares a touching letter she received from one boy:

“Thank you. You may have saved my life.”


The Big Leap

August 5, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

By the time most kids get to high school, they are familiar with how school works. They know how to maneuver through an eight-period day, how different teachers have different expectations, and how to get along with all kinds of people. But what happens when the child enters high school never having attended a traditional school? What if, for the previous eight years, your school was your home?

Kathy Bessmer has homeschooled 14 of her 16 children (that’s not a typo) through eighth grade. (Her youngest two are not yet school age). By the time her children are ready to enter high school, she argues, they each have had a well-rounded social experience. What can be tough, though, is making sure the academic transition goes as smoothly as possible.

“It was a little bit of an adjustment for their first semester of their freshman year,” says Bessmer. “They were very accustomed to my teaching and expectations, so they knew what to expect from me and what I expected of them. They kind of had to learn about what other teachers’ expectations were.”

Mary Lincoln, a school counselor with Lewis and Clark Middle School, explains that, like the Bessmers, children that have social connections outside the home will make the shift to public school smoother.

“For parents who homeschool—what I call the ‘right way’—meaning they have their kids involved in sports, music, something that get’s them out in a social situation—it’s a much easier transition because the kids have the social skills.” Lincoln says parents don’t always consider the social aspect of homeschooling. But it is a big deal.

“If the kids aren’t socialized, they don’t know appropriate responses,” she explains. “They don’t know how to read body language and non-verbals.” Homeschooled children often may not have the same exposure to different cultures and lifestyles as children in the school system do. “They haven’t been around girls wearing hijabs or people who look different than they look,” says Lincoln. “So it’s different and they don’t know how to interact.”

Even the structure of a traditional school day can be strange and overwhelming. “I think some [people] are not familiar with how school works: being on an eight period day; that each teacher may have a different approach to something or a different way to handle a situation. Or having pretty solid deadlines that maybe they’ve never had before.”

Knowing who to go to in the school to answer questions and help resolve issues is important for any child, Lincoln says.

Helping formerly homeschooled students learn their new role in the public school can be an adjustment. Also, Lincoln says it can be difficult for these new students to know when to seek help and from whom in certain social situations. “It’s important not to wait too long, until the situation gets out of hand.”

More and more parents are choosing to educate their children at home. There are still a wide variety of reasons for doing so. Lincoln explains that some parents, knowing their own children best, can push their children a little harder than teachers in the public schools, allowing them to excel at a quicker rate. Others may choose to shield their children from certain aspects of today’s fast-paced society. Some parents want that familial closeness that homeschooling brings. Others may consider homeschooling a way to protect a sensitive or special needs child from being bullied or being lost in the crowd. Whatever the reasons, homeschooling is becoming more and more mainstream.

“There are a lot of good connections for homeschooling parents in Omaha and people are making these connections.” Lincoln says.


The Big Shifts

August 16, 2013 by

Moving up a grade is one thing. Moving up to the next tier is entirely another.

The next tier, of course, is the shift between elementary school and middle school. Then, the jump from middle school to high school. Whole new worlds, whole new levels of responsibility for your child.

And the challenge for you, as the parent, is to keep up and know how to help your child navigate.

It’s bittersweet when that youngest child finishes their last year in elementary school. After all, it’s a small pond that your life has been built around for at least the last six years, perhaps longer. You know the teachers, where the classrooms are, which parents are the hardcore volunteers. You can plan ahead on how many bags of candy you’ll need to donate for Halloween. And what kinds of cupcakes pass the “no-peanuts” test.

Things change in middle school.

Generally, most Omaha-area kids make the shift after fifth grade. Some districts wait until sixth, but the changes are similar. The biggest one? Your student will have more than one or two teachers. They’ll have different teachers for every subject, plus the responsibility to move between classes quickly and efficiently.

They’ll probably have a locker for the first time—with a combination they’ll need to memorize. They’ll have to plan ahead for which books they’ll need for which class—because in some districts, children are no longer allowed to carry their backpacks during the day due to safety concerns. They’ll need to use their assignment books faithfully to keep track of what is due and when. They’ll have semester projects and far more opportunities for extracurricular activities. They’ll have their first school dance.

And getting involved as a parent isn’t quite the same. Middle-school teachers don’t rely on parent volunteers quite like elementary-school teachers do. Honestly, your 12-year-old probably doesn’t want you hanging around all the time anyway. Try not to take it personally. You’ll need to seek out those volunteer opportunities, but they are there. Most schools have some kind of parent-advisory team, and there are regular shout-outs during the school year for parents to help take tickets or chaperone events.

You’ll have to work a little harder to get to know your child’s teachers. After all, middle-school teachers have six or seven classes of students, not just one or two. But it really does matter that you show up for parent-teacher conferences and any other chance to support your student and get to know who is guiding your child’s education and social development. Teachers notice. And they may not admit it, but your child does, too. Middle school is hard. (Who would want to go back?) It’s when kids can start being really mean to each other—cliques form, bullying begins. It’s more important than ever for you to be supportive and accessible to your child.

Brace yourself. If middle school is a big change, high school is the Wild, Wild West.

But truthfully, by the time you reach high school, you are also parenting a teenager. While it might seem scary and a bit overwhelming when your children are small, when you actually get there, it falls into a natural progression. What the kids learn in middle school about time management, planning efficiency, and personal responsibility all come to bear when you start working out a high-school schedule.

In middle school, your kids will have a few electives they pick from. High school offers a whole smörgåsbord of options. In the Omaha area especially, students have a huge variety of choices on how to pursue their high-school education. Most kids will follow their middle-school friends to their district high school, but your family is not limited to that option. For example, Millard students who are interested in becoming teachers or accountants can apply for one of the special “academies” offering a career preparatory trajectory. Hundreds of teenagers attend parochial or private schools. A number of high schools offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. It really depends on your child and where his or her interests lie.

Once you’ve decided where your child is going to pursue his diploma, it continues to be important to keep open lines of communication with your student and his teachers. Make conferences a priority, keep an eye on your student’s workload and grades, and stay in touch with teachers and coaches as needed. Most schools list all staff contact information on their websites, and many teachers will tell you that’s the easiest way to reach them. Between games, concerts, and meetings, your student will likely have a lot going on, and it will be a challenge to keep up, but it is also exciting. You will start seeing glimpses of the adult that your child will one day become.

The hardest part for a parent? That stretch between the first day of kindergarten and the first day of high school feels like a blink of an eye. Relish every second. You can’t say “I’m proud of you, and I love you” too many times. And you can’t take too many pictures.

Starting a New School

Starting a new school can be both exciting and scary. From kindergarten to high school, we all want to feel accepted and fit in with our peers. Boys Town Pediatrics offers parents advice on how to help relieve some of their child’s anxieties and prepare him/her for a successful school year.

Talk with Your Child

When you are ready to tell your child about starting a new school, keep it positive. Do your homework and find out what sporting activities, clubs, or field trips are available at the new school. If your child seems nervous, talk it through. Once you know what worries your child, such as a bus ride, transitioning to classrooms, or trying out for a new team, you can offer helpful ideas and suggestions.

Time the Move

Whether you are moving to a new state or starting a new school down the street, timing can have a big impact on your child’s emotions and social behavior. Try to start the new school in fall with the new school year. Chances are your child may not be the only new student. Plus, your child will get to know the school’s routine from day one with the rest of his or her classmates, making the transition a little easier.

If you are moving to a new community, try to plan your move as early as possible, before school starts. This way, your child can adjust to the new surroundings and make a few neighborhood friends before the first day of school.

Take a Tour

Call ahead and schedule a tour of the new school. Some schools will offer an open house. This will give your child a chance to meet the teacher(s) and explore the cafeteria, gymnasium, music room, computer lab, and other areas of interest. For older children, ask to see an example of a daily class schedule and a list of extracurricular activities offered by the school.

Allow Time to Adjust

Some children can jump right into a new schedule and start making new friends right away. For others, the change is more difficult. If you feel your child is not adjusting well to the new school, you may consider talking to the school counselor. Find activities at school and outside of school that your child likes. Arrange play dates with school, church, and other friends. And most importantly, keep your communication open and allow your child to talk about his or her feelings.

Making Friends

Your child may worry about fitting in and making new friends at his new school. You can help ease the worries by:

  • Making your child realize his/her own strengths
  • Keeping a sense of humor about yourself and your shortcomings
  • Listening without criticism
  • Being kind, giving compliments, waving to a friend, and opening the door for someone
  • Showing understanding and empathy to others

During this transition period, continue to encourage your child and offer support. Over time, your child will begin to adjust to his/her surroundings and gain positive memories and new friends.

Decisions, Decisions

Jobs of the future will require more skill and training than the jobs of today—this puts additional pressure on schools to innovatively prepare students. Given the multitude of complex social, political, and economic issues of today, young people must graduate from high school with higher and different levels of knowledge and skill than previous generations.

Many high schools have answered this call and offer a variety of electives beyond the required core courses. Teens can choose classes in business, industrial technology, JROTC, music, band, or food science (to name a few). The purpose of these electives is to allow teens the opportunity to either explore possible career paths or to specialize their plan of study.

High schools also work cooperatively with local community colleges and universities to offer dual enrollment and Advanced Placement courses. These courses allow high school students to earn credit toward graduation and a college/vocational program simultaneously. While many secondary schools require a specific GPA to enter these courses, it is important that all students be allowed to participate.

In addition, it is important that parents persuade their teens to experiment with various career paths during summer camps and middle school. How many of us knew exactly which career we wanted by the age of 14? While it may seem unrealistic to think that a young adult would be able to select their lifelong career by their freshman year, it is vital that young people seize the opportunity to earn valuable training or college credits during high school. Many high schools are even starting to offer new ways to prepare students to explore possible career interests in a hands-on learning approach with business partners.

Schools need to strike a balance between exploration, career advancement, and college readiness. Our future as a nation and the future of each student depend upon the opportunity to receive a quality education with intellectual depth. Each student deserves the opportunity to meet the challenges of the future as informed and thoughtful citizens.