Tag Archives: Omaha Public Schools

Joan Standifer

December 22, 2017 by
Photography by Heather and Jameson Hooton

These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits.


Joan Standifer, 75

I’m a fabulous, 75-year-young woman with an attitude that embraces the joy of living.

I’m an Omaha native who raised two now-adult children: Michael, who lives in Omaha, and Monica Baker, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. My legacy continues with granddaughter, Micka, and 8-month-old great-granddaughter, Zaina. I am married to the marvelous love of my life, Stanley Standifer, and enjoy a blended family with his four children and seven grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

My college education culminated with a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha in education administration. Over a 30-year span, I held several positions with Omaha Public Schools, retiring as an elementary principal.

Many years of my life were spent as an advocate of social equality and quality education. I consider myself a cultural navigator, dedicated to lifelong learning and discovery of the world and its people. This philosophy has been reinforced by my travels to 75 percent of the world, and in serving on civic, social, and education boards. As a UNO-sponsored Fulbright Scholarship recipient, I traveled to Pakistan, met world leaders, and shared these experiences in presentations. Many honors and awards have been extended to me as a result of sharing my experiences.

Happiness is knowing that my life has been a beacon for my former students and members of my family. It’s rewarding to know that a former fifth-grade student of mine, to this day, regards me as the “greatest teacher ever.” I relish the fact that at this age, I continue to make a difference in the lives of those around me.

Let your light shine so that others can walk in your path toward success in life. Let others discover their value and be willing to share of themselves for the greater good. Be honest and unpretentious in your relationships. Aging becomes less of a factor when you live by faith and have respect for mankind.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Giving Kids 
a ‘Tech-Up’

October 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

Tracking the Controversy

June 23, 2016 by and
Illustration by Jimm Wagner

America’s culture war has entered the most private of public spaces. Enactment of North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill—House Bill 2 (HB2), aka the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act—corresponded to a rash of similar proposals across the U.S.

The controversy is tangled in the history of federal anti-discrimination laws, Title IX, and local city ordinances. Supporters of gender-restrictive bathroom mandates have cited defense of women (especially girls in school locker rooms) as justification. Opponents of HB2 (and similar proposals) see a government-sanctioned affront to those who do not identify with their gender assigned at birth; they argue that transgender individuals have a right to use the restroom most closely aligned with their gender identity.

Omaha Public Schools told Omaha Magazine that the local school district remains determined to keep their schools safe for all students, including students of different genders. “Although this has come up on a national level, it certainly is not new to our schools. Our district has been responsive to our students for many years,” says Sharif Liwaru, director of OPS Office of Equity and Diversity.

TIMELINE

1964: The federal Civil Rights Act is implemented to stop workplace discrimination based on sex, religion, race, color, or national origin.

1972: Title IX—part of the U.S. Education Amendment of 1972—extends federal anti-discrimination requirements to public education and federally assisted programs

October 2010: Omaha fails to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance that would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to a list of protected classes.

March 13, 2012: Omaha City Council approves (by vote of 4-3) a controversial ordinance introduced by Councilman Ben Gray that makes it illegal to discriminate in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

April 29, 2014: The U.S. Department of Education publishes a 53-page guidance for complying to Title IX. The document states: “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity” and “the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the parties does not change a school’s obligations.”

November 3, 2015: Charlotte elects a new mayor, Jennifer Roberts, who supports LGBTQ-inclusive changes to local anti-discrimination ordinances.

Feb. 22: Charlotte City Council adds LGBTQ protections to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.

Feb. 23: North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore calls for legislative action in response to the “bathroom piece” of Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance.

March 23: The North Carolina General Assembly passes HB2 (“the bathroom bill”). Gov. Pat McCrory signs the bill into law. HB2 restricts usage of public restroom facilities to people based on the gender listed on their birth certificates and prevents local anti-discrimination ordinances from protecting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

March 28: The ACLU files a federal lawsuit to overturn HB2 because of its unconstitutionality (failure to uphold the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment) and its violation of Title IX.

April 8: Bruce Springsteen cancels his concert in Greensboro, North Carolina. Springsteen’s protest against HB2 is mirrored in several other entertainers canceling North Carolina events to protest HB2.

April 12: Responding to criticism of HB2, Gov. McCrory signs an executive order preventing state employees from being disciplined or fired for being gay or transgender.

April 19: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which also presides over North Carolina, rules in favor of Virginia high school student Gavin Grimm. The transgender student—who was born female—sued the Gloucester County School Board for violating his Title IX right to use the boys’ bathroom facilities.

April 21: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says North Carolina must change HB2 for the league to hold its 2017 all-star game in Charlotte as scheduled.

April 27: NCAA Board of Governors adopts a new anti-discrimination process for all sites hosting, or bidding to host, NCAA events in order to “provide an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination.”

May 9: Gov. McCrory files a lawsuit asking federal courts to declare that HB2 is not discriminatory.

May 9: U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces that the Department of Justice is filing a civil rights complaint against North Carolina because of anti-LGBTQ language in HB2.

May 13: The Obama Administration and U.S. Department of Education issue guidelines insisting that public schools allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms corresponding with their gender identity.

May 15: Delegates to the Nebraska Republican Convention adopt a resolution calling for a Nebraska bathroom law akin to North Carolina’s HB2.

May 17: Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson objects to the Obama Administration’s (May 13) bathroom guidelines. In his letter, Peterson promises that his office will do “everything in its power to resist any attempt to unconstitutionally expand Title IX requirements.”

May 18: More than 200 corporations sign an open letter condemning HB2. North Carolina loses 400 potential future jobs when one signatory, Paypal, withdraws its plans to open a new global operations center in Charlotte.

*Update after press deadline

June 21: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools revised its policy to protect transgender students in the classroom and comply with Title IX, in defiance of the state law, HB2.

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Against Transphobia

Facts and Figures of Marginalization

RISK FOR SUICIDE

Trans people suffer from an elevated risk of bullying, homelessness, and attempted suicide. According to a 2014 report by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, 41 percent of trans people have tried to kill themselves at some point in their lives—compared to 4.6 percent of the total adult U.S. population.

SEX OR GENDER?

According to the World Health Organization, “Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”

INTERSEX INFANTS

Most newborns receive gender assignments at birth. But not all. Newborns with ambiguous genitalia are deemed “intersex.” Sometimes intersex conditions do not become apparent until later in life, often around the time of puberty. According to the American Psychological Association, “experts estimate that as many as 1 in every 1,500 babies is born with genitals that cannot easily be classified as male or female.”

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To read more about the spectrum of gender identity in Omaha, see the current issue of Omaha Magazine: http://omahamagazine.com/2016/06/engendering-identity/. The author of the article, Dr. Jay Irwin, was profiled in the January/February issue of Omaha Magazine: http://omahamagazine.com/2016/01/trans-logic/

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Dr. Antoinette Turnquist

May 27, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of 60-Plus.

She’s been described as “Dynamite.” “Amazing.” “Unique.” “A Living Legend.”

These are just some of the words Dr. Antoinette Turnquist’s former students use to describe her and the difference she has made in their lives.

What makes one teacher stand out among so many others, and make such an impact on his or her students…an impact felt even years later? It might be her basic teaching philosophy: “Every student matters; every student can learn,” as she puts it. Or, her “great joy in watching them learn…watching them discover things.” Whatever the reason, these glowing remarks are about someone, surprisingly, who never even wanted to be a teacher.

Dr. Turnquist, a teacher in the Omaha Public School System for 39 years (1964-2003), says she had planned to go directly to graduate school for a Master of Fine Arts degree. “I wanted to become a producing artist,” she explains, “but I took just enough education courses to be certified as a kind of insurance policy.”

That, of course, was before she ever stepped into a classroom. “I did my first semester of student teaching,“ she recalls, “and fell in love with it…with the kids, with the process, with the whole concept of public education.” She adds, “I myself was a product of public education, but I had never fully comprehended the significance of it until I stood there in front of all those waiting faces.”

Her long and illustrious teaching career began with three years of teaching in both the old Monroe Junior High and McMillan Junior High schools and ended at Omaha South High School, where she taught for 36 years. And though her teaching days are over, (she admits she misses her students), she is still indirectly impacting them…52,000 of them, to be exact.

In 2003, her dedication to public education led her, quite naturally, to the Omaha Public Schools district office, where she served as Coordinator of Business Services. In 2008, she was named Director of Business Services, and today, she is the Executive Director of District Operational Services, responsible for the many support services for all district students.

Todd Andrews, who works with her as communications director at the district office, says, “At 50-plus years with OPS, Dr. Turnquist is one of the living legends of the district. She has humbly and energetically dedicated her entire professional life to educational excellence. The district is extremely fortunate to have her.”

Looking back on her teaching days, Dr. Turnquist fondly recalls that “one of the first things I discovered at South High was their wonderful diversity, which included Hispanic and Latino as well as Caucasian students, and the whole philosophy at South, which was to implement programs for every student.”

She started out as an art teacher, serving as department chair for the Visual Arts department. One of her former students, Jeff Koterba, a 1979 South High graduate, also recalls those days: “I took Toni’s art classes, and if not for her, I wouldn’t be the artist I am, but more importantly, the man I am,” says Koterba, the longtime editorial cartoonist for the Omaha World-Herald. “Because of her belief in me, her patience and her wisdom, I found a better path, the path I was meant to follow.”

Eventually, she chaired the newly-created Fine Arts department, which included Visual Arts, Theater, Drama, Vocal Music, Instrumental Music, and Humanities, giving students many new opportunities, including working at Opera Omaha on local productions.

“It was an exciting time to be a teacher,” she recalls, “as we looked for new avenues of education for our students.” That goal, in fact, led to her and another teacher creating a new course for young women, so they could see what opportunities were available to them, and also to learn about their own history. They called it “Women’s Studies,” and “it proved to be a very popular class.”

Another former student, in fact, can personally attest to that. Lenli Corbett, a 2001 South High graduate, says, “Dr. Turnquist’s Womens’ Studies class was incredibly important to me, to my development as a woman and as a future professional. She brings out the best in you…not every teacher is able to do that.”

When asked if she considers herself successful (her list of achievements include Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers (1994), among many others), Dr. Turnquist quoted Lee Iacocca, who said, ‘Your legacy should be that you made it better than it was when you got it.’ Thus, I would say yes, I think I have been successful both as a teacher and as a central office administrator. What anyone else might think about my success along that line is anyone else’s call, not mine, and I am quite comfortable with that.”

Turnquist says she has no plans to retire anytime soon, either from OPS or her 50-plus years of working as a visual artist. “Some may think it’s strange,” she says, “but I still like getting up every day, getting dressed, and trying to make a difference.”

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Brothers & Sisters

February 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Meeting Gene Haynes in a crowded breakfast place turned out to be a bit of a mistake. After all, the gregarious North High School principal had to begin his morning by making the rounds, chatting it up with table after table of familiar faces.

The onset of the interview was further delayed when, during the usual introductory niceties, the 47-year veteran of the Omaha Public Schools system queried, “Brother Williams, we already know each other…but from where?” The writer’s daughter, you see, had gone to North for her senior year. That was a distant 15 years ago. Out of the many thousands of students and parents that Haynes had encountered over that span of time, he could still instantly make out the face of a parent who a decade-and-a-half ago had been a North High Viking for one brief term, the equivalent of a cup of coffee.

“It brightens my day whenever I can reconnect with a parent of a former student and athlete [the writer’s daughter was a swimmer],” the former athletic director says. “These kinds of connections are what make being an educator in Omaha Public Schools such a great reward. And they’re also the kind of connections that make Omaha such a great city.”

Haynes, who began his career at the long-defunct Tech High School in 1967, was enshrined in the Omaha Public Schools Hall of Fame in September. Adding to his recent honors, the stretch of 36th Street abutting North High has been renamed Gene R. Haynes Street.

He was raised in the Mississippi of the Deep South at the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. “I vividly remember Emmett Till’s body being found in the Tallahatchie River,” Haynes says of the 14-year-old African-American teen who was brutally tortured and murdered by whites in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a young white woman. “Later, when an attempt was made to integrate the University of Mississippi, I remember seeing federal marshals on every corner as our school bus passed by. Those were troubled times, but—and this may seem strange—it made me a better person. I was blessed to have had great teachers, the kind that were called ‘Negro’ at the time. They saw and understood the world around us. They taught that you had to do more with less. They taught that you had to persevere. They stressed that the only way up was through education.”

He and his wife, Annie, a retired OPS teacher, became college sweethearts when they met at Rust College, a historically black institution in Holly Springs, Miss. Mirroring his parent’s pattern, son Jerel, now 38 and working as a producer in Los Angeles, courted the Hayne’s future daughter-in-law, Erin, now herself an educator, when the pair attended North when Haynes was vice-principal. He and Annie have two young grandchildren, Kaleb (6) and Jacob (almost 3). The couple recently celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

Haynes has been at North since 1987, but his reach also extends broadly across the community through his work with the Urban League of Nebraska, the NAACP, the Butler-Gast YMCA, and numerous other organizations. He and Annie worship at Salem Baptist Church.

“This has been my life,” Haynes says of his service to students, parents, faith, and the community. “Being an educator, by definition, means that you must also be involved in the community. You can’t see what’s going on inside a school if you don’t what’s happening outside of it. Educators who can’t do that, who can’t see a community’s dynamics at a high level, are the ones who struggle—the ones destined to be short-termers.”

And what is this most youthful-looking of 70-year-old’s timeline for retirement?

“I figure I still have at least of couple good years left in me,” Haynes says with his ever-present smile. “My philosophy at school, in the community, in sports, anything in life, has always been to give 110 percent. I’ll know it’ll be time to go when I can only give, say, 109 percent.”

The interview had continued in fits and starts as Haynes occasionally paused to greet or bid adieu to others in the coffee shop, addressing one and all as “Sister” or “Brother” so-and-so. It’s the same style he uses with students in the halls of North High School, where the use of the “Brother” or “Sister” appellation preceding a last name suggests a union of the familiar and the formal.

“It recognizes their identity,” Haynes says. “It recognizes that they matter, that they are a person who deserves and is worthy of your respect. Besides, last names are a whole lot easier to remember after almost a half century in education.”

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Rose Baker

January 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Rose Baker is a graduate of Monroe Elementary School.

That’s not a typo.

Monroe Elementary became Monroe Middle School in 1956. Baker doesn’t need much of an excuse to return to her alma mater. She’s there over 20 weeks a year on Saturday mornings giving swimming lessons in the school’s pool.

“My dad made sure everybody in the family knew how to swim,” Baker explains. “And I decided I kind of liked it.” She went on to a stint as a lifeguard at a now defunct neighborhood pool. She graduated from (the also now defunct) Tech High School before enrolling at Omaha University (now the University of Nebraska-Omaha), where she won two events at the first Nebraska College Invitational swim meet in 1964.

But by then, Baker was already five years into her work as a swimming instructor, which she began in 1959.

That, too, is not a typo…1959.

Ike was in the White House. Buddy Holly’s plane went down in an Iowa cornfield. Bridget Bardot was the hottest thing on two wheels. Bobby Dain crooned about menace named “Mack the Knife.”

Baker, now a retired Omaha Public Schools physical education teacher, is known for a firm-but-gentle teaching style that has become familiar to generations of Omaha families.

“My recollection of Rose is that she didn’t take anything from anybody,” says Brian Neu, who is now 33 years old. “Her no-nonsense style is the key to her success. We started our daughters (Reese, 5, and Morgan, 8) in lessons elsewhere and we didn’t seem to make much progress. Then I learned that Rose was still teaching and now my kids are with the same woman that taught me how to swim. Their progress with Rose has been just remarkable.”

“Swimming is for everybody,” says Baker, who was recently recognized with a place of honor in the Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame. “I’ve also done a lot of classroom water safety work, but the pool is where it’s at. I want to be in the water. And so do the kids.”

What she calls her “tough love” approach is legendary in this city and, after more than a half century of splashing around in the water, she is equally taciturn in talking about the “why” of it all.

“Sure, it’s fun and rewarding and all of that,” she says, “but the main reason I do this, the main reason this is so important to me, is pretty simple. I don’t want to ever have to read about a kid in the paper…a kid who drowned because he didn’t know how to swim.”

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Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue

October 27, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Beth Ostdiek Smith was working at her old job and was amazed to hear about the amount of healthy meals and snacks that were being thrown out at the end of the day. She knew of an organization in Arizona called Waste Not, a perishable food rescue that was run by one of her sister’s friends. She thought Omaha could use something similar to address the city’s hunger problem.

Smith, who had been involved with local businessman Jerry Hoberman’s Winners Circle program and later in Partnership 4 Kids, both of which helped students in the Omaha Public Schools system, was looking for a new venture. Late in 2012, she met with members of the Hunger Free Heartland, which included the Food Bank, three of the city’s largest pantries, and some members of former Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle’s staff to explore the need for a perishable food rescue. She says all agreed this would fill a niche not being met in the community.

Smith traveled to Scottsdale, Ariz., in February 2013 to meet with the head of Waste Not.

Smith gathered information about how the company picked up food donations from different restaurants, caterers, and other food purveyors, and then delivered them to local nonprofits that feed the needy. She came back to Omaha and went about raising funds and building partnerships to create what would become Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue and Delivery.

“We do not have a food problem in Omaha but a food connection problem,” Smith, president and founder of Saving Grace, says. “Saving Grace’s perishable food pipeline addresses that issue.”

One of the first partners was Akin’s Natural Foods, which was just coming to Omaha. Company officials agreed to donate food. Now Saving Grace has 10 regularly scheduled donors, including Trader Joe’s, Greenberg Fruit, three Pizza Ranch locations, and Attitude on Food.

One of the biggest purchases that Saving Grace needed to get running was a refrigerated truck so workers could collect and deliver perishable food such as dairy, produce, meats, prepared foods, and grains. Saving Grace does not have a warehouse, and all pick-ups and donations are done on the same day, Smith says. A good truck, therefore, is a must.

Several years ago, Smith had met former Precision Industries CEO Dennis Circo (featured on the cover of this month’s issue of our sister publication, B2B magazine) through Omaha businessman Willie Thiessen, and decided to approach Circo about helping fund her new venture. Circo said he wasn’t sure it would work, but took a leap of faith and agreed to buy the refrigerated truck. He also donated office space to the nonprofit at his new Enterprise Center on 96th and L streets.

Saving Grace delivers food to 10 nonprofit groups, including the Bethlehem House, Heart Ministries, Hope Center for Kids, Open Door Mission and Siena/Francis House. Food rescue and delivery operations started last September.

Smith said the goal for Saving Grace was to deliver 300 pounds of food a day for the first three months, then add an additional 200 pounds of food a day every three months. After nine months of delivering, 152,842 pounds of food have been delivered to the needy. Smith said that besides the partnerships her group has made with donors and financial backers, Saving Grace has been successful because she and others have met with all the recipients to determine what their food needs are. The less those organizations must worry about where their food will be coming from, she says, the more time they will have to help meet the other needs of their clientele, like finding jobs and repairing broken lives.

“I see this as a movement, really,” Smith says. “People want to know where their food goes, and I think we’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg [of this venture’s potential].”

Smith hopes to purchase another truck and continue to grow the number of recipients, donors, and financial partners. Educating the public on how they can help feed the hungry while saving landfills by getting the word out on Saving Grace are also big priorities moving forward.

Visit savinggracefoodrescue.org for more information on Saving Grace.

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What Should I Get Out of a Parent-Teacher Conference?

January 27, 2014 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Spring semester parent-teacher conferences are coming up soon, but parents wanting to maximize their return on these quick meetings with their kids’ teachers might want to start a few habits now.

Don’t expect to solve major problems in five minutes

Anna Rempel, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Conestoga Public Schools, says she tries to keep individual meetings between five and seven minutes long. Josephine Langbehn, a seventh-grade art educator at Omaha Public School’s Monroe Middle School, says her meetings may average ten minutes.

Serious problems, like acting out in the classroom or demonstrating a need for special education testing, aren’t tackled here. “If a student is struggling, I’ve already e-mailed a parent about it,” Rempel says, adding that school counselors and the principal would handle those concerns.

Parent-teacher conferences, on the other hand, are more along the lines of checkups. Expect to be handed a grade report and discuss:

  • Test average
  • Homework average
  • Overall grade
  • Any missing homework
  • Suggestions for improvement

Take notes

Parents can receive a lot of information in very condensed form during conferences. Rempel says she offers pointers like homework organization or encouraging a student to check against a calculator. Langbehn will discuss more abstract skills, such as a student’s ability to navigate art criticism or form their own ideas about what makes good art.

Whatever the subject, jot down the teacher’s suggestions and refer to them the next time you help your child with homework.

A teacher may even offer insight directly from your child. A few days before conferences, Rempel has her students write three sentences on their own grade reports. “I have sentence starters for them to choose from: I’m doing awesome at blank, I’m not really understanding blank, I participate by blank.” That way parents can hear in a student’s own words what’s going on in class.

Ask how to take grades to the next level

If maintaining a specific grade point is important to you and your child, ask for specifics: “If my child has a B and I want them to have an A, what else could they do?” Paying attention to grades posted online is another way to monitor progress, Rempel says, and note any warning signs in particular subjects.

For improving on concepts like creatively solving for solutions, Langbehn suggests asking the teacher for more self-guided goals and projects to pursue outside the classroom. “That is a life skill now. You have to be able to think creatively.”

Be proactive with your communication

If you or the teacher mentioned concerns during your conference, Rempel strongly encourages contacting the teacher again in a few weeks. Langbehn adds that it’s important to find the best way to reach a particular teacher. “If we need to follow up, how will that happen?” she says. “I personally 
prefer e-mail.”

While Rempel encourages parents to attend at least the first conference of the year (you can usually expect one in fall and another in spring), she suggests sending an e-mail to a teacher if you’re not going to drop by.

“The important thing is that a parent and a teacher work together as a team,” Langbehn says. “It’s not just me telling a parent that your kid needs to do this.”

If all goes well, Rempel says parents can expect to hear, “They’re doing great. I appreciate your involvement in your child’s education, and if there are problems in the future, I will definitely contact you.”

Aquaponics

November 22, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Colton Allen, a seventh grader at King Science and Technology Magnet Center, counts the tilapia swimming circles in the horse trough. “Eleven?” he guesses. “Twelve?” It’s difficult to say, since the “tank” of his class’ aquaponics system is solid black.

“The system can take more,” explains magnet facilitator Kristine Denton, “but this is our let’s-make-sure-they-survive phase. Later today, we’re actually getting perch.”

“What?” Allen says. “I gotta be here for that.”

Is there a benefit to having perch versus tilapia in an aquaponics system?

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Raising seedlings, monitoring pH levels, and designing tanks that will keep the fish from ending up on the classroom floor are all responsibilities of the seventh-grade service-learning class at King Science Center.

“I don’t know yet,” Denton admits, laughing. “We’re going to find out.” Which is appropriate. The theme of King Center, one of Omaha Public Schools’ 19 magnet schools, is, after all, inquiry.

The food-growing system that holds pride of place in her seventh-grade service-learning class is the result of Denton’s desire to find “a really cool project that would get my students tied with the community.” In 2011, she attended the UNO Service Learning Academy, a weeklong program connecting public school teachers, professors, and the community, and discovered the aquaponics systems of Whispering Roots. She partnered with Greg Fripp, founder of the food education nonprofit, to bring the concept to her school, “and it’s been great ever since.”

Three years later, Fripp still supplies the fish and helps troubleshoot a system that’s not complex but is all about balance. “These kids are engaging with next-generation technology,” says Fripp. “You try to teach pH levels at the board, and their eyes glaze over. But if you point out that it’s a life or death issue for the fish, then, yeah, they’re engaged.”

DeAjai Philmon, an eighth grader, describes the concept of aquaponics with ease.

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The wastewater from the tilapia, she explains, is laced with ammonia, goes up a PVC pipe and dumps into a shallow wooden box of untreated 2x4s lined with plastic. Bacteria growing on the marble-sized clay balls that cover the plant roots in the box convert nitrites from the fish waste into nitrates, a fertilizer for the plants. About twice an hour, the box—essentially a gigantic biofilter—drains cleaned water back down to the fish, completing a cycle that encompasses water filtration, fish farming, and vegetable production. The most expensive parts of the system, Denton says, are the UV lighting that hang just above the plants and the heater that keeps the 100 or so gallons of water at 78 degrees for the tilapia.

“The plants are getting all their nutrients from the fish water,” Denton says. “You don’t need soil, you need the nutrients that come from the soil. Or in this case, the nutrients that come from the fish.”

The iceberg lettuce in this box is about two weeks old. “We harvested recently so we replanted seedlings,” Denton says, pointing to a set of six trays under grow lights. “We have some radishes, and we’re going to try peppers. We’re also going to try peas.” They’re climbing peas, so the kids will have to figure out how to give them proper support. “That’s like 90 percent of it,” she says, “figuring things out.”

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“Excuse me, Ms. Denton,” says Armani Price, also an eighth grader. “Is this basil?” She points to a tiny seedling with only a couple true leaves. Price says she’s getting better at identifying plants. She also assists with the school’s urban farm where she’s helped grow collard greens, jalapeños, bell peppers, tomatoes, watermelons, “and we did have a peach tree.” She’s discovering that fruit trees aren’t very easy.

Price and Philmon were part of the class that helped finish building the frame that holds the bed’s grow lights. Students are 100 percent involved in building structures, Denton says, as well as being in charge of crop rotation, water testing, and fish care. »
« “They’re responsible for making sure we have seeds and letting us know if we need to reorder.” Grants are in place for them to purchase supplies.

“We want to start a salt water system, too,” says Price. “[Ms. Denton] said we’d want to grow things like seaweed and kelp. Is kelp good?”

Denton allows that it’s okay while Philmon asserts, “It’s nasty.”

“We have to plant things that might not be part of our palette,” Denton says, explaining the importance of learning about food and growing environments in other cultures. Either shrimp or a variety of saltwater fish will be the marine culture, which is a bit trickier than freshwater. Fortunately, the school partners with the Henry Doorly Zoo, which Denton says is very understanding of a learning process that might result in the loss of a jellyfish or two.

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The first year, a class of about 19 students looked after the system. This year, Denton has 26 in her seventh-grade service learning class. Aquaponics is only part of the service learning class: This year, students will create lessons on video to show to other schools, ensuring that they exercise presentation skills alongside gardening and engineering and science. “The social aspect is really key as well,” Fripp says. “What we do every day is engage kids on so many levels.”

Another area of learning is in the art of giving. As part of her service-learning class, Denton and her students volunteer at Open Door Mission. When a food drive brought together a variety of canned and dry goods, some of her students asked, “Why can’t we donate fruit and lettuce?” Now, she and at least four kids take their aquaponics produce over to the mission after school every four to six weeks. “We’re able to harvest that quick,” Denton says. “And they immediately wash and serve it that night.”

Not exactly everything is donated. The students always eat a first harvest themselves, and they haven’t forgotten about the fish. A true aquaponics system is about raising fish to eat as well as produce, and Denton says her students decidedly do not view the tilapia as pets. “We haven’t eaten any yet,” she says, “but they keep asking for a fish fry.”

Young Hero:
 Leyna Hightshoe

November 16, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“No ten-year-old girl wants to have to wear a neck brace,” says Carla Podraza, whose daughter, Leyna Hightshoe, 12, was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 10.

Leyna, now a student at Norris Middle School in the Omaha Public Schools district, had an s-shaped spine (called double lateral curve) that made it hard for her to breathe. “When she was diagnosed, it was already severe enough that bracing couldn’t resolve the problem,” Podraza says. “But she was so young to have to undergo such a major surgery.”

Within a year of diagnosis, Leyna’s spine got worse. “The top was measured at 83 degrees while the bottom curve was around 79. A brace is recommended around 20-29 degrees, and surgery is considered to correct curvatures over 45 degrees,” explains Podraza.

But Podraza found an extremely skilled orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis, Minn., who seemed to be the right fit for Leyna’s case. “He took such care in considering all the details…nothing I told him seemed irrelevant. His staff was available to us all the time, answering questions, lending support.”

Podraza was told that Leyna’s condition needed to be addressed immediately. Unfortunately, other issues kept appearing. For example, the doctors discovered that Leyna also had a bleeding disorder called von Willebrand Disease, which affected her blood’s ability to clot. “That had to be taken into consideration and planned for before the surgery could be scheduled,” adds Podraza. “Because of all the impediments, plus trying to figure out how to pay for a surgery of this magnitude…our nerves were stretched pretty thin,” she says.

Despite everything, Leyna was brave. She decorated her neck brace with rhinestones and puffy paint. She accepted all of the frightening information from her doctors calmly—from the descriptions of how her muscles would be peeled away to expose the spine during surgery to the “and in worst case, death” disclaimers. And she dealt with the incredible pain after her surgery.

“She pushed herself to get through it, and to do whatever the doctors said was necessary,” Podraza says. “For her to sit up within a day of the surgery seemed impossible, and to walk the next day was even more unbelievable.”

Chromium rods attached with two-dozen screws now support Leyna’s spine. Since the surgery, it has corrected her curves to 23 and 16 degrees, respectively. “Her breathing is so much better,” Podraza adds, “and her back is so much straighter than it was.”

Podraza is glad to have her daughter looking and feeling better, but what still amazes her is how Leyna was able to handle everything with grace and courage.

“Everyone has it in them to be strong when they need to be, but sometimes they don’t know that. [Leyna] was able to get past fear, doubt, and self-pity to figure out how to cope with the situation.

“She found it in herself though to find a way to get through each of those moments that were so emotionally tough…It showed me a new side of her—this fiercely strong person—[and] impressed me when I watched her push through the toughest parts, physically and mentally.”