Tag Archives: Westside Middle School

Three-Peat

September 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This state capital on the Pearl River was named after a president of the United States. What is the city and state? 

Most people could not answer this questions without going through an internet search. But Brendan Pennington, 15, wouldn’t hesitate to answer. 

“It’s as if he’s faster than Google,” insists Kristen Job, a secondary Excellence in Youth coordinator at Westside’s middle and high schools. 

Pennington’s brain is filled with facts about countless coastlines, odd flags, and endless tough terrains. Maps, globes, and atlases are a breeze for him to analyze. At 3 years old, Pennington pointed at cellphone towers and told his mom they looked like the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

“He has a real world perspective,” his father, Paul, says.

That is one reason why, when Brendan competed in the 2014 Nebraska’s National Geographic State Bee, he won.

Then, he won the next year. And two years after that.

Job believes it’s unlikely someone else will be able to capture a three-peat. 

Students in schools all around the state are required to take a geography test from fourth to eighth grades, then the top-scorers compete in their own geography bees. Each school champion then takes an online test to be eligible to compete in the Top 100 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Competing in this event is optional, although Pennington believes the opportunity is worth it, as it helps the knowledge “stick” and creates opportunities for critical thinking.

Pennington prepared by poring over samples and researching facts before the competition.   

“When my parents asked me questions, I was like ‘ugh, it’s like an assignment,’” Pennington says. “But I liked looking at the atlas because it was fun.” 

He scored top honors in 2014, 2015, and 2017—but he almost lost the last time. The contest went to a tie-breaker. Pennington won by correctly naming the Tigris as the river that runs through Baghdad.

With prizes of $100 in his pocket and new atlases in his hands, Pennington headed to Washington, D.C., three times for the televised National Geographic Bee Championship.

Unfortunately, Nebraskans never saw this local boy on television. Last year, they almost did. Pennington got one question away from making it to the Top 10, the portion that is televised. He can’t recall the question that eliminated his chance on the small screen, but he doesn’t let it bother him. 

“I just thought…it would be great if I won, but if I lost, it wouldn’t change my life,” Pennington says. 

But the experience has done just that. Each time Pennington went to Washington, D.C., he met other students from different states and countries. Pennington still treasures these connections.

The state champion’s prize includes an all-expenses-paid trip for the student (and one adult, either a parent or a teacher, depending on the year), including tours of the capitol, meals, airfare, and hotel costs. Pennington had the opportunity to cruise the Potomac and enrich himself with history. He met Jill Biden, the wife of then-Vice President Joe Biden, during an ice cream social at her house. She complimented his red Husker polo shirt.

For now, Pennington has to set aside his dreams of winning a national championship, since it isn’t open to high school students. Instead, he joined Westside’s Quiz Bowl and French Club. He also started cooking international foods and playing tennis.

Oh, and if you still don’t know the state capital on the Pearl River, it is
Jackson, Mississippi.


Secrets of a Three-Peat Geography Champion 

“If you are doing something you don’t enjoy, it will feel more like homework and you won’t get much out of it,” Pennington says. “But if you are passionate, you will learn a lot more from it.”

  • Study It. Pennington watched videos, read books, and studied maps for half an hour or so each day. Study patterns should reflect how a student learns best. One student  might need to look at an atlas, while flashcards might work better for another. “Study hard, but study right,” Pennington advises. 
  • Take a Chance. Pennington lost the state geography bee in the fourth and seventh grades. Pennington moved on and put more effort into the following years. “Even if you don’t win one year, you shouldn’t get discouraged. There will always be another chance,” Pennington believes. 
  • Stay Calm. During the competition, “take a chill pill.” Pennington believes if he looks calm on the outside, he will remain calm on the inside. “Just put yourself in the mindset that you are just getting asked questions. If you don’t win, it’s not the end of the world,” Pennington says. 
  • Do Your Best. Hard work and effort do pay off in the end. “If you don’t understand another country or culture, it will be hard to critically think about what is going on in the world,” Pennington says. “And when you see things on the news, you will be able to understand it and make sense of it…there is a lot more out there than just Omaha.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Giving to the Dogs

August 4, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Ella Alberts has loved dogs since she could remember. That’s how the 5’4” girl ended up standing next to the 6’4” swimmer who has won more Olympic medals than any athlete.

Ella’s helpless at the sight of round puppy eyes, floppy ears, and wiggly tails. Squeal! The pitter-patter of tiny puppy paws wins her over—every time. In fact, they are the inspiration of her volunteer work.

The 12-year-old Westside Middle School student has dedicated the better part of her young life to raise money to help animals at local shelters.

Ella’s big heart for small animals became evident when she was a tot, and the thought of a homeless animal tugs at Ella’s heartstrings.

“She’s not allowed to go into the Humane Society alone because she leaves crying,” Mary says.

Ella, an only child, has three dachshund siblings at home: George, Dodge, and Dolly. Quite active little pups. Mary and husband Ron Alberts say there’s never a dull moment in the family’s home.

The Alberts have fostered animals on-again, off-again throughout the years, but exclusively began serving as a foster family for dogs in 2013. That’s when the Alberts visited a local animal shelter where Ella found a small, aging dachshund named Paris with no eyes, no teeth, and a tumor.

“I just have to take her home to love her,” Ella told her mother, who explained that the animal may not live long.

Caring for terminally ill dogs is not about wishing the pets back to better health, but more about finding a place for them to comfortably live out the last days of their lives.

Then, it happened. One of the foster pets didn’t make it. Ella was heartbroken.

“She was in the room as it drifted off,” Mom recalls. “Ella was very comforting and calm. You don’t want them to pass in the shelter after many of them have lived neglected lives. This dog in particular was in a puppy mill her whole life and then went to the shelter…poor thing.”

The experience moved Ella to help others. She was 8 when she came up with the idea to host a lemonade stand. Sales increased once word got out that she was raising funds to help homeless animals. Ella’s one-day lemonade stand is a now-annual fundraiser for Hearts United for Animals.

The first year, Ella raised $600. Now, four years later, she’s since raised more than $1,300 and given countless shelter supplies such as dog food, beds, laundry detergent, and other puppy goods. Ella is pleased that the money raised pays for surgeries for needy dogs.

Ella’s love for dogs, and unwavering dedication to service earned her a special recognition. She was named the Nebraska recipient of the 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Award.

The national award program recognizes exemplary middle and high school students. Two students from each state and Washington, D.C., are chosen based on volunteer efforts.
The honorees received $1,000 and an engraved silver medal, which was presented by Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps.

Needless to say, the trip was life-changing for Ella. While in D.C. the Alberts visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which touched Ella deeply. She has since read several books about those who sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam War.

Ella kept busy with dance lessons and track this summer, along with her continued effort in promoting her lemonade stand, collecting donations, and fostering dogs.

“Isn’t that wonderful,” says Carol Wheeler, founder of Hearts United for Animals shelter. “Ella has done the lemonade stand for several years. It’s simply charming.”

The 65-acre no-kill shelter just an hour outside of Omaha is grateful to see such a young, dedicated person believe in its mission of rehabilitating animals medically and socially.

“I think she is exceptional for having done this for many years,” Wheeler said. “We do see young people who have their birthday parties and they have guests bring gifts for the dogs instead of them.”

Ella’s dedication is striking, says Wheeler.

“She’s exceptional because she’s dedicated herself…not just one year or one event, but continues to give. It’s very touching to receive her gifts.”

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