Last week Schuyler Community Schools received welcome news, said Superintendent Dan Hoesing.
Schuyler Central High School was approved as a “priority school,” by the Nebraska Board of Education. The school was chosen from among the lowest-performing schools in the state's classification system. The approval brings intervention from the state.
Hoesing said he and school administrators didn’t have a problem with the approval, and in fact it was their goal to be chosen.
But in the process, Hoesing said, Nebraska Board of Education officials made some misstatements about the school’s situation. He and Dave Gibbons, director of teaching and learning, were eager to provide some clarification on issues that are fairly complex.
In recent weeks, he said staff members at the school met to discuss the priority status. The school was one of several that state officials visited “because of our willingness to cooperate and put into place model programs that can be replicated in other school districts,” Hoesing wrote.
However, news reports stated that the district was targeted, when that wasn’t the case.
“What was presented as an opportunity, was reported as more of a punitive measure, leaving our school and students negatively impacted,” Hoesing said. “The news release included quotes of statistics taken out of context. I am not sure why this is reflected in such a different light, but I believe the commissioner and deputy commissioner used pieces of data to sell our designation to the State Board of Education.”
Among the issues with the discussion was the department citing a chronic absenteeism rate of 16 percent.
“Reporting our truancy rate is not that difficult,” Hoesing wrote. “We need to understand how the department of education is calculating their numbers, so that we can either confirm their report or provide accurate data that is more than a sound bite taken out of context. Where the complexity enters is where we are counting the number of students who, according to our policy, have unexcused absences.”
“If we remove those absences that were legitimate, excused absences, the chronic absenteeism rate reduces to about 6 percent of our students. Also, for the 2016 - 2017 school year, our average daily attendance at the high school was 92.6 percent.”
Schuyler schools weren’t dodging the issue, Hoesing wrote.
“It should be noted as well that we have recognized that, regardless of the numbers used, we have an issue with truancy. That is why we have a truancy officer working with our middle and high school students and families for the past three years,” he wrote.
Other published reports noted that the state used the definition of chronic absenteeism as any student who has missed school for any reason for more than 18 days, however, state law (79-209.c) puts the number at 20 days.
Wrote Hoesing: “If we count the number of students absent for any reason for more than 20 days, it is 14 percent.”
“Some of the comments and figures that were not accurate include comments from the Education Commissioner that stated that we returned federal funds to be used for professional development. That statement is misleading and inaccurate,” Hoesing wrote. “No federal funds were released.”
He said that the district was said to have not spent some of its Title III funds on professional development. The funds are intended to be used for improving the education of English Learners by helping them attain English proficiency, attain high levels of academic achievement in English and meet challenging academic standards, as well as providing enhanced instructional opportunities for immigrant children and youth.
Last year the school received and spent $81,000 to hire a teacher and creating a additional courses for Limited English students, district wide summer school course offerings for LE students and supplementary program materials for our elementary students.
“A plan for professional development was in place, but the costs ran higher than originally planned so we worked with the state department of education’s Title III office to re-allocate those funds and write a professional development plan,” Hoesing wrote. “That plan is in place this year with the approval of the state Title III office. So, it isn't like we threw away professional development funds, we just needed to revamp our plans.”
Hoesing wrote that it was “disingenuous” of the department to say the grant was unsuccessful. Part of the confusion is the measure to define success. The school is in the second year of a five year grant.
“We have seen an increase in the use of powerful instructional strategies and we have seen an increase in student engagement,” Hoesing wrote. “We remain excited about the gains to be realized over the remainder of the grant. This priority designation could put additional support to the work currently in place in our high school.”
Hoesing was asked to describe the school district’s approach to improvement.
“Four years ago, Schuyler Community Schools applied for and received a three-year school improvement grant at the middle school, grades six through eight. The positive results at the middle school encouraged us to apply for a five-year school improvement grant for the high school (9-12). At the middle school, the grant focused on improving student academic achievement, learning climate, and staff professional development. One of the requirements of the grant was to replace the middle school principal.
"In the final year of the middle school grant, the high school leadership team recommended they apply for a school improvement grant to continue the growth realized at the middle school. We had just replaced the high school principal, so with this grant application, the recent change in the principal position, allowed us to receive the five-year grant with current administration in place. The high school grant focused on improving academic performance, attendance, graduation rates, post secondary college access, and improved learning climate.
"The discussion about the priority designation was to be able to secure financial support, professional development, and programs to help us meet the needs of all students in our high school as well as the diverse needs of our most challenging student population.
Goals behind the work
Hoesing described the goals behind seeking priority status.
”While we provide a competitive curriculum including access to dual and college credit classes for our juniors and seniors, we need more resources to support instruction to bridge the gap for students with limited English or academic skills often associated with the level of education or access to education as new arrivals. From our conversation with Department of Education officials, we felt the ‘support’ they were offering were benefits to impact our most dependent learners.
"We have proven that we are willing to do whatever it takes to improve student achievement and increase opportunities for learning in our district. We are still hopeful that the state will come in and work with us to develop and implement a plan that complements the actions that we are already taking and helps us monitor that plan.”
A humble and special friend to many in the Schuyler community recently crossed the rainbow bridge.
Gus, the red Australian shepherd and canine companion to Doris Ahrens, passed away Jan. 26 due to complications of surgery.
The duo could normally be seen making their rounds with Ahren’s donkeys and goats to area nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Gus was the center of attention wherever they went, offering smiles and licks to anyone who crossed his path.
“It didn’t matter what nursing home we went to,” Ahrens said. “They never asked how I was doing, they always asked about Gus. Every place we went to loved Gus.”
On their regular treks across Colfax and Platte County, Gus had two spots from which he never ventured far.
“Wherever I went, he went,” Ahrens said. “I’d put him in the tail gate of my truck and we’d just go all over the place. Even for church, I’d put the hitch down and Gus would sit back and wait for me. I’d get back and he would be getting pets and kisses from people as they left the church.”
Life started for Gus in Oklahoma. His former owners made regular trips to Columbus to visit the racetrack, Ahrens said.
“One time they brought Gus with them,” Ahrens said. “They would come up here and buy horses that couldn’t run very well anymore. The horses would go back with them to Oklahoma and try to sell them as pets.”
On this particular trip, the former owners brought their other dogs, a pair of blue healers with them.
“The blue healers didn’t like Gussy very much,” Ahrens explained. “They would just beat up on him. So I got to take Gus home with me. They told me he was about three years old at that time. I think that was in 2011, which means Gus would have been 11-years-old this year.”
Seven years of companionship led to many friendships and memories along the way.
Francis Jessepe of Schuyler Care and Rehabilitation Center enjoys the occasional cigarette outside the facility, and Gus often would accompany him.
“Gus was a really good dog,” Jessepe said. “Sometimes I’d be out here smoking and Doris would ride up. Gus would see me and just come running out right to me.”
Towards the end of his life, Ahrens said Gus began to act differently.
“He seemed to be in a little pain,” she said. “And he wouldn’t eat very much. So I took him to the vet and found out he had liver cancer. He might’ve had this for a while, but at least he didn’t suffer. He has been too good to me to suffer.”
Not only was Gus a friend to everyone, Ahrens considered him as a child.
“It’s so hard right now,” she said. “I find its better when I keep myself busy. He was just a wonderful dog. I really don’t think I’m going to get another dog. I’ll never find another like him.”
Most people don’t work with the complexity involved with the Nebraska Department of Education’s efforts to improve struggling schools across the state.
Schuyler Central High School, was chosen last week for intervention by the Nebraska Department of Education. The school was selected largely because the community's demographics have changed dramatically over the past 18 years.
SCHS was approved as a “priority status” school on Friday. The school will replace Druid Hill Elementary, a high-poverty school in north Omaha that state education officials said made enough progress in a year to be removed from the priority list.
State law requires the education department to classify schools according to academic achievement and designate three “priority schools,” a task officials have approached by choosing schools that represent four distinct categories.
They hope to help schools that face similar challenges.
The categories include urban schools, Native schools, schools in small communities and those with shifting demographics.
Santee Middle School in Niobrara and Loup County Elementary in Taylor will remain priority schools for another year.
The schools were chosen from a pool of 87 in the lowest of four classifications in the state-mandated accountability system. The system classifies all of Nebraska’s 1,130 schools and 245 districts into four levels: excellent, great, good and needs improvement.
The department hasn't reclassified schools since it first did so in December 2015.
Because state law allows the department to name only three priority schools at a time, it had yet to include one with large demographic shifts, so it decided to focus its attention there, said Deb Frison, the Nebraska Department of Education’s deputy commissioner of school improvement.
In 2005, 90 percent of Schuyler's students were white. Now, 87 percent are Hispanic and just 10 percent are white.
After working as a yardman for Schuyler Home and Building Supply for four years, Art Lindberg decided it was time for a change of pace.
Instead of moving on, Lindberg bought the business at the beginning of the year. His vision for this new venture is simple.
“First and foremost I want to grow the community of Schuyler,” Lindberg said. “We are here to support Schuyler and help it to grow to a vibrant community that people can be proud to be a part of.”
Schuyler Home and Building Supply was opened by Brian and Becky Schmidt in 1985. Since then, the company has produced a wide variety of custom-made projects for Schuyler and serviced contractors in town.
“We made a Christmas tree stand for someone last year and a custom-made table-top,” Lindberg said. “We also made an 8-foot-tall solid oak arbor for Railside Arbor just outside of downtown. Just recently we constructed a door out of an old homestead door.”
Lindberg prides himself and his business as being very “community minded”. Having lived in Schuyler for 41 years, he has grown to admire the town's sense of belonging and togetherness. Lindberg and his wife, Tami, wish to reflect this virtue in their work every day.
“I feel that even though we have lived here for a long time, not everyone knows who we are,” Lindberg said. “I would like to show the community that we are longtime residents of Schuyler who know Schuyler and have seen it grow.”
The company has changed with the times.
“We have more product every single day,” he said. “We do everything we can to give the community more options by expanding our product line. Just recently we got a new marquee that even lights up.”
Tami has some ideas of her own to make the space look even more welcoming.
“Now that we have the new sign, I want to start decorating the outside with flowers to make it all look very friendly for everyone,” Tami said.
Lindberg says the employees are the heart of the store.
“The employees have input on pretty much everything we do,” he said. “It’s a team decision. I throw that word around a lot- team, team, team.”
One team member is Donna Petersen who manages accounts payable.
“I’ve been here for a few months and I just love it,” Petersen said. “I do just about a little bit of everything here and it just feels like home. The customers are amazing and they make this place just so comfortable and welcoming.”
The other two team members are hardware manager, Rich Mehaffey and sales representative Emma Domingo.
Lindberg says the future is bright for Schuyler Home and Building Supply. The reason for this may just be the attitude he shows.
“We make custom projects all over the place, from Seward to Dodge,” he said. “One of the biggest things I want people to understand is that we are not contractors, but are here to supply contractors. We are not here to take their work. With that being said, where our contractors go, we go.”
Lindberg stresses the concept of keeping his company's profits local. This goes hand-in-hand with a different goal he has in mind.
“We are going to hang our hat on customer service,” he said. “We are out to be the best at customer service and the most important customer to us is the public. There is a friendly group of employees here at Schuyler Home and Building Supply and we all strive to always serve our community in any way we can.”
In March, Lindberg plans on expanding business hours to Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The store's grand opening will be Feb. 12 to Feb. 16, with special events on Feb. 16. Contact the store at 402-352-2526.