Listen To Our Children

As I reflected on the most recent school shooting, I realized that our high school students are the first generation of students to have consistently known lockdown drills and similar safety measures in our schools. Many of our high school seniors were born in 1999, the year of the Columbine school shooting tragedy. I was a principal at the time and know firsthand the changes Columbine brought to all schools across the country.  The biggest change was that, as a parent, I always expected my child to come home from school each day. Columbine changed that expectation. It is true that Columbine was not the first school shooting and, sadly, was not the last, but it has come to symbolize school violence. It brought doubt that my child would walk through the door at the end of the school day. A chilling thought for any parent.

I have had several thoughts after the Parkland, FL tragedy.  First, our children are angry about living under this specter of violence and feel that society’s response to these repeated acts of violence has not kept them safe. Yes, these events are hard to prevent entirely, but it seems our society only wrings it hands after each tragedy, making empty promises to reduce the threat of violence. Adults argue back and forth about gun legislation, mental health issues, and who is to blame, but never truly listen to one another or our children. Time goes by and adults move on to the next topic to argue about in the legislative halls of this country. The issue of school safety fades until the next event and the cycle begins anew.

Next, I continue to see mental health issues facing many of our learners, even our youngest students. Again, our society seems to pass these young people from agency to agency with little or no communication between them. A clear and deliberate communication plan could support agencies, including schools, in helping these struggling students. In Florida, it seems that everyone knew about this former student, and yet no one truly knew him.  

Westside Community Schools contracts with Children’s Hospital to provide mental health resources and threat assessments (click here to learn more) but, like any school district, Westside could certainly use additional support. It is an area where we continue to improve our communication between agencies working with students who are troubled to ensure we are doing all we can to support them and their mental and emotional well-being.

It is time to listen to our kids who have lived their entire lives under this cloud of violence.  Today their voices are being heard. While Westside continues to update its safety procedures and policies and to prepare for any type of emergency (click here to learn more), we need the help of our entire community. Our children are telling us that the time has come for government and school leaders to work together to address this continuing threat the best we can and in reasonable ways to reduce the violence in our schools and provide a safe environment for students and staff.  

As educators we need to continue to teach our kids and create cultures of kindness, acceptance and tolerance for ALL students.  We must create cultures of safety, encouraging students that if they hear something or see something to tell an adult. We need to build positive relationships across our schools and communities. We need to do this by being role models of kindness, acceptance and tolerance by treating everyone with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Today, it is the voice of our children that I hear loud and clear. They will no longer accept the status quo. It is time to listen.


Blane McCann

Family Matters

I recently visited Ireland on a family trip with my wife Marie, her two sisters and one brother-in-law.  It was an amazing trip and we visited several areas of a very beautiful country.


I also had the opportunity to visit my ancestral home in Killinchy, Ireland in County Down south of Belfast. I found a Presbyterian Church built in 1739 that included a cemetery with several generations of McCanns. I brought my great aunt Adella’s research of our family history, dating back to the early 1700s in Killinchy, Ireland.  In 1792, my great, great, great, great grandfather brought his family to America from this small village in Northern Ireland.

While I was standing at the gravesite reviewing our family history, a woman approached our group. She explained that she saw us at the McCann grave site and, since she is also a McCann, wanted to see if we needed any help or had any questions.  As it turns out, we are probably 5th or 6th cousins as we compared our families’ histories.  I am already in contact with her daughter and we are sharing information to determine common relatives. It was fate that we had this chance meeting.


On the return flight, I reflected for several hours about this chance meeting with a stranger that turned out to be a relative. I recalled a book by Dawna Markova titled I Will Not Live an Unlived Life: Reclaiming Purpose and Passion. I strongly encourage you to find and read this book (click here if interested!).  It is very inspiring and meaningful.

The one thing I remember from Markova’s book, and that I was reminded of on my recent trip to Ireland, is the concept of family. Markova tells us that we all have relatives that have been working for generations to make our lives better.  My relatives worked very hard to make my life better in 2017 when, in 1792, they made a decision to leave Ireland and travel over the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, they did not realize they were working for me – their great, great, great great grandson – to find success.  I do feel them standing behind me each and every day encouraging me and my children.  Markova reminds us that we are doing the same; we are also working for our grandchildren and their children, many of whom we will never know, and helping them to find success throughout their 80+ years.

I then reflected about my 30 plus years as a teacher and educator. I realized in our jobs as teachers, educational assistants, principals, custodians, maintenance experts, and food service staff that we are also building upon the legacy of Westside employees who, for the past 70 years, built a positive culture of excellence in District 66.  We are standing on the shoulders of great people who never knew us but worked very hard so that our careers would be successful and meaningful.

We, like our predecessors, are working for future generations of students, helping them to find their path, and to be prepared for life after their PK-12 schooling is complete. We do this, not because of recognition or awards, but because we want to make a difference.  We are working for future generations that we will never know.  Today’s kindergarten class is the senior class of 2030, and I am pretty sure that I will not be preparing commencement remarks for their graduation.  Like you, I work today for future generations of students that I will never meet and it is what gets me up every morning to come to work.


Education is a relational profession. We are like parents and these students are “our kids.” As a parent of five children, I know how much teachers have done for my children and their current success. We do “pay it forward” in our profession. We have generations of great teachers behind us, and we do work for learners we have never met. I once spent four days with Margaret Meade’s daughter, Catherine Bateson, and she told me “…if you want to leave a legacy get a kid in your life.”  Our profession allows us to impact the future long after we are gone from this world, just like my great, great, great, great grandfather James McCann and grandmother Elizabeth Sibbett McCann did for me during their lifetimes.

Blane K. McCann



Personalizing Learning in Every Classroom: A Case for Implementing the Schoolwide Enrichment Model

I recently attended the 40th anniversary of Confratutue sponsored by University of Connecticut. This was the 8th or 9th time I have attended this very special event. As described by founders Joe Renzulli and Sally Reis the event is a hybrid of a conference, institute and fraternity, or a “Confratutue” (once voted the worst word to enter the English language.)

At each event, I learn so much that I am able to use in my daily work.  The following is my reflection of my time learning over they years at Confratutue and the fact that I believe that all teachers must treat all kids as gifted students because they are in their own ways.

Blane and Madden

Consider the notion that any student with a commitment to learning is gifted. It is not only intelligence that plays a role, but also creativity and commitment. Giftedness is not just a test score.

How many students have we, as educators, seen who did not have a test score to qualify for a gifted program, but became an expert in an area of passion and interest? I’ve personally seen hundreds of students. I remember one learner vividly who I knew would become a meteorologist. Today, he is considered an expert on the weather of the Great Lakes region and is sharing his research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the National Weather Service. Task commitment can take students places they never thought possible.

This broader definition of giftedness is one I learned from Dr. Joseph Renzulli, a longtime professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, for whom the Renzulli Center for Creativity, Gifted Education, and Talent Development is named. I met Renzulli at a conference in 1996 and in the more than 20 years since, I have worked in three school districts as a building principal and superintendent, collaborating with him to apply his pioneering ideas about giftedness and personalized learning approaches in PK-12 settings.

Westside Summer School students programming robots

Implementing change in public education is not easy. Renzulli understands this. He himself encouraged me to embrace the vulnerability I felt and he provided me with the courage needed to make changes based on what my students wanted and needed to be successful. I was able to help teachers see how student agency and student engagement could be improved along with their test scores. We built a school culture focused on learning and engagement for all students. I observed changes with our teachers as they implemented these practices in their regular education classroom. They took into consideration students’ interests and allowed for more student voice and choice as well as flexibility in their classrooms because they facilitated an enrichment cluster.

Westbrook Elementary staff taking part in professional learning before children arrive for the 17-18 school year

In working as superintendent of Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb., I wanted to put the joy and wonder back into learning after decades of high stakes testing had sucked the joy from our classrooms. So I asked our staff the question: What if we could personalize learning for all kids in all classrooms?

Another of Renzulli’s principles — the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) — serves as an entry point for schools that want to do just this. I want all kids to be able to follow their passions and interests every day. Every one of them could be “gifted” if we could find ways to engage them in their learning. As I learned about personalized learning, I quickly saw the connection to SEM to this evolution of learning.

What connections did I make? First, students identify their interests and passions through a survey. Next, SEM is about student ownership of their learning. In a SEM cluster students drive their learning with the help of the cluster facilitator. Additionally, teachers do not create a lesson plan prior to the cluster meeting but help student determine their own learning path through class discussions, which allows students to choose different learning paths.

Summer school students from Westgate and Paddock Road researched different animals & built models during a Rainforest Enrichment Cluster.

From my 20 years of experience with SEM and now personalized learning, my colleague and I have identified five elements to personalize learning. Those elements are:

1) Know your Students

2) Voice and Choice;

3) Flexible Groups, Spaces and Mindsets;

4) Data Informed; and

5) Technology Support.

A teacher must know their students well before they can teach them. A teacher who knows their students well can allow for more voice and choice because they know their interests and their capacities to learn and work. Once students find their voice and make learning choices a teacher becomes more flexible. I had a teacher tell me she was letting go of deadlines because students wanted to make sure they submitted their best work and needed more time.

Data is used to inform our work with individual students. This data is critical for a teacher to map out a learning pathway that is personalized based on student needs, which can extend learning or help relearn content.

Finally, Westside Community Schools is a 1:1 learning environment.  Our teachers enhance learning by using technology such as iPads and MacBook Air computers in our classrooms. We do this because we want our students to create personalized content and use individualized applications while they work at their own pace to master our standards and benchmarks through a personalized learning approach.

Yes, I experienced many obstacles and barriers to building this culture. Most issues are about control and trust. We alleviate those issues by focusing on our District’s standards and benchmarks.  However, I would hear comments such as “we don’t have time to implement this framework” and staff told me “the cluster did not exactly follow the curriculum” or “students will miss critical learning time.” I explained that students would be applying District standards in many different, but authentic ways. In each district where I worked, the staff and I altered the daily schedule to accommodate student learning that allowed for this type of deep learning.

The results we now are seeing are definitely worth the journey. Our current results are measured with not only test scores but with engagement, with voice and choice, and with student ownership for their learning. At Westside Community Schools, reading scores are improving and fewer students are in need of remediation. Further, our Gallup student and staff engagement scores are on the rise demonstrating that people enjoy the teaching and learning that takes place in our classrooms.

Did You Know

I have seen similar results every time I have implemented these types of learning approaches. For instance, we first implemented SEM in our middle school in 1997. At John Bullen Accelerated Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I observed an increase in student ownership for learning as well as an increase in student attendance and a decrease in poor student behavior. Achievement gaps closed. Student achievement increased. Students seemed to see the relevance in the subject matter based on their interests. Most importantly students’ academic confidence grew. They knew they would accomplish their learning goals especially disadvantaged students who are rarely given an opportunity to experience learning in this manner.  SEM leveled the playing field.

Today, Westside has 9 of 10 elementary schools and our middle school implementing SEM. In addition, our high school, with the help of a U.S. Department of Labor grant, is implementing a version of SEM through our Center for Professional Studies (CAPS) and other academic departments such as Business where high school students operate and manage the Colosseum, our school apparel store. All of these students participate in a variety of meaningful, real-world learning opportunities, such as job shadows and meaningful internships.

CAPS students working on the Oakdale Media Center desk, a project they owned from conception to creation

One group of students recently took part in a CAPS project focused on designing and building a circulation desk using recycled materials from a historic district elementary school that was recently torn down to make room for a brand-new school. One of those students became so engaged that he is now pursuing a major in architecture this fall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His excitement and engagement is off the charts, thanks to his involvement in this project.

I strongly urge other educational leaders to consider making this journey. I was able to transform the middle school where I was principal in a 2-3 year period. At Westside, the District is making tremendous progress with staff to transform learning for all students in four short years. It can be done.

Today with the emphasis on personalizing learning for every student, SEM is a perfect entry to explore and help staff feel comfortable relinquishing classroom control and begin to trust their students. It is my sincere belief that if you commitment to this journey that like my former student, it will take your learners places you never thought they could go.

Blane K. McCann


Public Service and Partisan Politics

I have recently been listening and watching the lack of bipartisanship among local, state and national governments. The negative rhetoric that goes back and forth between political parties seems to prevent them from working together for the common good of all. We may have lost sight of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, a message that hung on the wall of my father’s law office. President Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”


Photo courtesy NPR

I grew up in the time period where public service was encouraged through Kennedy’s programs such as Vista and the Peace Corps and other public service opportunities. The greatest generation worked toward and encouraged future generations to improve the quality of life across our great country through public service. The idea of public service was a big reason I became a teacher.

blane and student

It has occurred to me that we are losing the values of the greatest generation, my mother’s and father’s generation, which lived through the depression and fought a World War. These men and women seemed to understand the need for hard work and for providing a helping hand. They saw the value of public services that supported the common good of all Americans. It seems to me that public services such as public education, law enforcement and firefighting are all partisan arguments now.  The idea that everything is a business and should be treated as such, with winners and losers, is breaking the covenant between the civil servant and the public.  

My dad and my father-in-law were members of the greatest generation. They were World War II veterans and leaders in their communities. They never once complained about taxes that supported their community.  My father-in-law would say “you never want to pay the firefighter until your house is on fire and then you will pay the firefighter anything.”  

OPD AND students

You see, they both understood the value and importance of a high quality education, public safety and key public services.  They did not see these “public services” as politics as usual, but as services needed to provide a high quality of life in a community.  Both men instilled these values in their children.  

Don’t get me wrong. They were political and, in fact, my father ran for political office. For sure, they both complained about taxes; just not the “quality of life” taxes that provided public services. I guess it’s because they returned from a World War where they felt lucky to come home at all.  My Dad earned a law degree using the GI Bill.  The fact that his fellow countrymen felt that they should invest in returning veterans made an impact on him, his future and, consequently, my future.  He taught us to “pay it forward.”  

My father and I

My father and I

I remember these values because of my experiences as a youngster and a young parent. I remember as a very young boy when my father decided our small town needed a swimming pool and tennis courts.  He walked the neighborhoods to raise the money so that we could learn to swim, play tennis, and have a positive place to go where we were safe.  I also remember the tennis courts had a curb that doubled as an ice rink in the winter, very efficient for the times.

I’ll never forget the time my youngest child was playing outside and walked to the corner of our block and a deputy sheriff stopped and brought her home.  While I was a bit embarrassed, the deputy was just making sure everything was ok with my daughter.  He could have kept driving but he provided the extra that improves the quality of life in a community.

As our great state of Nebraska goes through another round of debate on school choice, school funding, and the next silver bullet of school reform, we stand to lose time that could be spent collaborating on what is best for all learners in our state.  I find it so interesting that in today’s society people are so quick to tell schools that they are failing so they can justify taking more funding from public schools.  However, the fact is that public schools are doing better than ever with their learners.  


Yes, I have seen change in public education and our profession has a moral obligation to help every child find success. I’ve watched public education become more inclusive with special education students, which was much needed and life changing for all learners. (Click here to see proof of that at Westside Middle School.) I’ve seen schools use data to increase graduation rates and test scores of students of color, and to close achievement gaps found in our student populations.  We are not where we want to be, but gaps are closing across this country despite the loss of revenue and an ever-changing set of state and federal goals as we all strive to fulfill the promise of President George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind initiatives. students 2

In my opinion, public service should not be discussed within the political realm. It is my strong belief that funding for public services such as public education, clean drinking water, sound electrical grids, and public safety drive a high quality of life in a community, attracting people to live and do business. My father and my father-in-law, one a democrat and one a republican, agreed on the importance of such funding. Both men were business leaders but did not see every service as being market driven or fee based. They worked for the common good of society, not merely for the good of a few.

Today, I see the values of the greatest generation slipping away, especially supporting our public servants because they are there to serve the common good of our democracy.  When I entered education in 1980, I felt that my local community valued what I did for their children and appreciated my hard work to help every child, in partnership with their parents, find a positive pathway to lifelong success.

When was the covenant between the public servant and the public broken? I’m  not sure. I have been a superintendent in two states over a 14 year period.  I have had to reduce expenses to meet inflationary costs in 13 of those years.  Each of those districts became much more efficient with school spending by focusing on the needs our children. Our learners never suffered, but staff were consistently asked to do more with fewer resources and they continue to rise to the challenge and maintain quality educational opportunities for all learners.

Unfortunately, it seems positive results have never really mattered. I only heard the public outcry if test scores went down and more money was withheld.  Yet, if test scores went up or achievement gaps were reduced, there was silence and no additional funds were allocated.  Those results went largely ignored and I was asked again to do more with less.  

I believe that all of us want and need our public servants, whether they be teachers, police officers, judges, or firemen. A public servant is not the enemy; however, if we continue to rupture the covenant between the public and the public servant, the self-fulling prophecy will play out in communities across the country where public services are compromised, including public education the very cornerstone of our democracy.  

blane and staff

I propose that we work in a bipartisan manner to restore this covenant and collaborate to operate our public services efficiently, but with the eye squarely on the prize of a positive quality of life in every community – small and large. Please join me as we work toward the common good of all of our society.

Respectfully submitted,

Blane K. McCann


Making Progress with Strategic Plan, Personalized Learning

Many of you are aware that District leaders, teachers, parents and community members spent considerable time early in my tenure as superintendent conducting focus groups and seeking to understand our desires for our children as we carefully crafted a new strategic plan to carry Westside into the future.

One of the key elements of that plan was to personalize learning for students and staff, with the goal of bolstering student engagement and, as a result, student achievement. We all know that if we’re engaged in an activity — from work to play – we try harder and are more likely to succeed. The same goes for our young people. That’s why you’ll see them devote untold hours – with no complaints — to perfecting plays at football practice or dance numbers at show choir rehearsal.

We’re trying to put that same kind of joy back into learning, both for students and teachers. But it takes a little recalibrating.

The five elements of personalized learning are giving students some voice and choice in what they learn and how they learn it, providing flexible groupings and spaces for them to do it in, encouraging staff to make instructional decisions based on data, and getting to know students and their interests well while integrating digital tools to make it all possible.

So far, we’ve trained more than 80 teachers in the elements of personalized learning, and a third cohort of 40 teachers will begin training this fall. That means we have early adopters in every building who are already putting personalized learning into practice as well as encouraging their colleagues, with more to come.

To ease into personalized learning, we started by adopting the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. These interest-based enrichment opportunities are our version of the University of Connecticut’s enrichment clusters, and they’re now up and running in most of our buildings.

The model was developed by Dr. Joseph Renzulli, director of the Neag Center for Creativity, Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Connecticut.

Renzulli said he began to realize in the early 1980s that the kind of instruction used in gifted education could – and should – be used with all students.

While gifted education and the opportunities that go with it usually are reserved for students identified through standardized testing, Renzulli’s framework looks beyond standard measures of academic achievement to non-cognitive skills such as motivation, creativity, and interests. And it calls for offering enrichment opportunities for all students.

I began working toward personalizing learning in the late 1980s. I took more of a hands-on approach to learning, which holds that students construct their own meaning based on prior experience and knowledge. Further, I believe every child should be treated as if he or she is gifted and talented. As educators, it’s our job to figure out how to tease out each child’s special talents, whether it’s auto mechanics or the actuarial sciences.

That’s not to say we’re forgetting about gifted students. We continue to offer opportunities for accelerated learning, which is made more seamless by our commitment to one-to-one technology. Our teachers, by knowing their students well, ensure that every student is learning what he or she needs to know at his or her own pace as we prepare every one to graduate ready for college and careers.

Schoolwide enrichment, Renzulli said, looks like activities that are part of the regular curriculum. But the model takes those activities to the next level, exposing kids to new ideas, issues, problems and areas of study. More importantly, it gives students with a particular interest an opportunity to engage in advanced kinds of study that are creative and investigative in nature and to run with their learning and truly take ownership of it. They are able to practice critical thinking and problem-solving skills from a very early age through this interest-based learning approach.

In early June, our teachers had the opportunity to attend a two-day institute at Westside High School led by Renzulli and his colleagues to learn more about schoolwide enrichment and personalized learning. The institute followed a visit by a small group of Westside educators to a Renzulli-led conference in Connecticut in 2013 and a workshop for District administrators during the fall of 2015.

Our learners now can choose an adult-led enrichment area based on their strengths and interests. Clusters meet for an hour or two a week. The goal is to slowly shift the activities from being directed by teachers to being led by students.

Renzulli said what’s impressive about Westside’s efforts is that change is coming from the top down and the bottom up, from administrators as well as teachers.

“That’s what makes it work so well here,” he said.

While it’s still early, we’re beginning to see results from our commitment to personalization. Some are anecdotal, like the Westgate youngster who told his grandfather that he had to go back to school after a dentist appointment because he didn’t want to miss his enrichment time. A sixth-grade teacher told me her students tell her that they now feel more responsible for their own learning. Others are more concrete, such as our strategic plan student survey results that indicate that 67 percent of learners feel they have a voice and some choice in their learning.

We’ve also seen other positive outcomes as a result of this and other elements of our strategic plan. Graduation rates are up and, due to our renewed focus on literacy, 182 fewer students – a reduction of 4.5 percent — have required reading intervention since 2012. That’s huge, because being able to read on grade level allows students to advance in all areas and take ownership for their learning.

We anticipate having even more good news to share when the state education department lifts its embargo on last year’s test scores. We’re excited about the gains we’re seeing, and we hope you are, too. Meantime, we’ll continue to work hard to realize Westside’s mission as an innovative educational system that ensures academic excellence and serves the unique needs of all learners.

Supporting School Choice

I wrote the following OP-ED, which appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on Wednesday, February 18, 2015.

School choice continues to be at the forefront of education reform, specifically charter schools.  I, along with the other Metropolitan Omaha Educational Consortium (MOEC) Superintendents, expect charter school conversations will take place during the upcoming legislative session.

My colleagues have asked that I share my experiences with school choice. These experiences include charter schools, voucher systems, open enrollment, dual credit options, choice-driven desegregation plans, and private/parochial schools.  What I have learned from my involvement is that the factors driving the success of any choice program are similar to what drives the success of a public school.  Achievement in any educational setting begins with highly qualified and committed teachers who engage students in a rich learning environment.  The governance of a school or school district rarely influences student achievement by itself.  Yes, structure is important, but to transform schools, we must set high expectations for students. We must provide comprehensive, readily available systems of support. We must develop and implement best learning practices that deepen students’ understanding of content and strengthen their ability to be independent life-long learners.

Recent studies at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, along with results in Michigan and Wisconsin, indicate that charter school outcomes are mixed at best. Last year, a Detroit Free Press investigative series highlighted that more than a billion dollars paid into charter school opportunities had not resulted in increased student achievement.  The Free Press also found that Michigan’s charter schools, as a whole, fared no better than traditional public schools in educating students in poverty.  Just as troubling, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that during a ten-year period, Wisconsin taxpayers paid $139 million dollars to schools that were ultimately terminated from a voucher program for failing to meet expectations and state requirements.

In my experience, the most successful charter schools were created by existing school districts and university systems.  My former district embedded a successful charter school within its high school. In contrast, I have not seen positive results when municipalities or outside agencies, not regulated in a similar fashion to public schools, were allowed to create charters. Too often charter schools syphon away both funding and students from an already cash-strapped public school system.

When charters were first created, they were designed to be incubators of educational innovation.  The hope was that the best ideas discovered at charter schools could eventually be replicated in public schools, leading to transformation throughout an entire system. Unfortunately, this original concept was weakened and charters instead ended up competing with public schools.  Sharing best practices, while a noble intention, simply did not occur in either direction. Further, charter schools have frequently failed to change the basic model of educating students.

However, through the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, a vehicle exists – called the Focus School concept – that allows Learning Community Districts to collaborate and develop innovative ideas. Unfortunately, only one focus school has been created since the Learning Community came into existence and is now supported by OPS.

Other choice opportunities also exist locally beginning with Omaha Public School’s many magnet programs as well as an OPS partnership with University of Nebraska-Omaha where students earn dual credit while they prepare to attend the University. Further, Millard and Papillion-LaVista operate student academies such as the Zoo School housed at the Henry Doorly Zoo.  Lastly, several districts collaborate and enroll students at the University of Nebraska Medical Center during their junior and senior years of high school in preparation for careers in medicine.

With the proper nurturing and funding mechanisms, additional focus schools and student academies could be created, and charter schools, as defined in other states, would be unnecessary.

Furthermore, I believe the concept of Innovation Zones, which are now in use in multiple states, is a concept worth examining. All schools within Innovation Zones are more likely to be transformed by implementing rich learning environments and not by creating additional governance structures. By collaborating with the Nebraska Department of Education and by removing regulatory obstacles for all schools, not just charter or voucher schools, all schools are encouraged to innovate and achieve excellence.  This kind of freedom sparks the best new educational ideas to transform learning.

Encouraging the transformation of learning through technology is also a factor. It helps to personalize education by encouraging academic engagement, by promoting deep learning, and by allowing students to learn at their own pace.  This kind of learning helps every student, but is especially galvanizing for students living in poverty.

Creating learning settings that encourage students to follow their interests and passions in a flexible environment is the type of choice that will lead to improved results. Rich learning environments in all schools, not just selected ones, will nurture our next generation. These young people will have the capacity to solve the complex issues facing our society in government, the economy, and at home.

Rich, customized learning approaches provide the ultimate educational choice.




Combating Toxic Stress

Recently, I heard some enlightening research about supporting very young children and building their capacity for success later in life.

The research came from Dr. Laura Jana, who is an Omaha-based board–certified pediatrician, health communicator, and award-winning author.  She shared research focusing on brain development in very young children and the dangers of toxic stress in young children.  She explained how that stress manifests itself much later in life and may actually lead to early death.  We know that children who are exposed to constant stress later exhibit health problems such as alcohol abuse, chronic depression, and poor self-esteem.  These outcomes are especially true for children who live in chronic poverty.

The key to combating toxic stress is to put a caring adult in the life of that child.  We all need to pay attention to a child’s emotional health very early in life. The emerging research suggested that children, who are emotionally healthy, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are healthy because they have a caring adult in their life.  A caring adult develops a more hopeful child by helping them build a picture of the future that they see as possible.

Learning Community Superintendents’ recently published a report that emphasized the need for excellent early childhood education as well as the need to support learners who live in poverty. We are currently exploring ways to help local school districts increase and improve these programs.  In fact, the Learning Community Superintendents’ have written an early childhood plan with the help of Sam Meisels and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute that will be implemented in the fall of 2015.

Educating the whole child is very important.  As an education system, we must not forget the importance of the social and emotional health of our students.  We are beginning to find out that it may be as or more important than their academic health.  Westside recently received a $1.2 million dollar federal grant to support and explore the importance of the social/emotional health of our students.

Educators like myself are lucky because our legacy is the relationships we develop and build with our students.  Part of our job is to help build hope in our students and keep them safe and free of toxic stress; at least part of the day.  Many of us see former students who tell us the difference we made in their life.  I know you can think of a former teacher or coach who changed your life.  Let’s be intentional about building positive relationships, safe environments, and hopeful people to combat toxic stress found in those who live in chronic poverty.

The Future of Learning

During the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, amid the chaos in my home with my grandchildren, my children, and their spouses, it occurred to me once again how learning has changed since I was a child.  I’m keenly aware of the pace of this change across generations from my 31-year-old son, to my 15-year-old daughter, to my 2-year-old grandson. The evolution of learning from static to dynamic is akin to the evolution of yesterday’s Encyclopedia Britannica to today’s Wikipedia. Technological advances are transforming us from passive learners to active learners.

Information is everywhere and is available all the time, fueled by the passion and interest of our learners. My children download recipes for a delicious meal or watch a video that teaches them how to bake a pie or prepare sweet potatoes.  Learning is becoming more personal because technology provides information instantaneously.  This instant access to knowledge is pushing the education profession in directions we thought were not possible just a few years ago.

PK-12 education truly sits at a crossroads and is in the midst of deciding its future. We must remain relevant by designing educational opportunities that embrace the technology and help our students understand what they are learning. We must guide them as they apply their knowledge and show them how to behave ethically with large amounts of information.  Today, teachers must be conduits of learning, instead of the sole purveyors of knowledge. They must engage all students to become independent learners.

I hope we take this moment to shake off the legacy of the factory model where we sort and select kids. I hope we design a future where we support our teachers and administrators as they transform our schools from a “one size fits all” to a collaborative, problem-solving environment where students think critically and globally.

We must support teachers as they help students discover the joy of learning through real-world opportunities. As educators, we must share their excitement for learning. We must give students nurturing and supportive environments where they can create, solve problems, make mistakes, and find their voice under the watchful eye of a professional educator.

At Westside, we are developing programming to help students direct their own learning PK to 12th grade, through approaches such as school-wide enrichment, internships, and possible academies. These approaches allow students to understand the relevance of school and how classroom content applies to the real world.  We want to develop opportunities where students can identify interests and see a glimpse of a possible future, one that is meaningful to them and fuels their passions.

In Support of Public Education

I’m usually not a very political person because as a social studies teacher, I wanted students to form their own opinions and not parrot mine.  As an educator for the past 31 years, I focused my efforts on what I felt was good for children and our schools. As I watch the Nebraska Legislature debate legislation that would allow charter schools, I felt it was important to speak on this topic.

I’m reminded of Diane Ravitch’s remarks at a recent conference. Dr. Ravitch is an education historian who has worked in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. Dr. Ravitch previously advocated for the privatization of public education through various choice programs, including charter schools; she now admits she was wrong.  The very ideas Dr. Ravitch once promoted in her role as assistant secretary of education, she denounces today as so flawed that they could ultimately lead to the demise of public education as we know it.

Her ideas resonate with me because it is my belief that our country’s successful democratic culture is built on the very concept of educating every student and developing an informed citizenry. These ideas are now in danger, due to the wishes of some to privatize public education.

I admit that public education created some of its own challenges by not providing focused professional development and by not implementing strong national standards to help all students succeed. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation, however well-intentioned, set up schools for failure, especially those with the most disadvantaged students. We should not create an educational culture of rewards/punishments based on a test. Instead, we must create an educational culture based on rigorous liberal arts programs that develop the critical thinking skills of all, not some students. Only then can we provide a strong academic foundation for our future innovators and entrepreneurs. Our conversations must focus on the whole child, including academics, but also on developing ethical students with strong character traits.

In my 31 years as a teacher, the education field has experienced continual reform.  I was in graduate school when A Nation at Risk appeared in 1983.  At that point, our profession began a generation of reform to fix our public education system, which has led us to our current situation. As Dr. Ravitch observed, A Nation at Risk made sound recommendations that were appropriate at the time.  Those recommendations were focused on the teaching and learning of students and staff.  The report did not promote privatization or heavy-handed accountability structures that exist today.

In my opinion, A Nation at Risk did not go far enough to redesign our educational system. However, it offered solid recommendations that focused on stronger academic and behavioral expectations, increased graduation requirements, more time for students to master the curriculum, and better training for teachers. Given some of the same freedoms afforded charter or choice schools, I believe that our public schools can design institutions that work for all students.  We have great employees and supportive communities throughout our nation ready to design schools that develop persistent, independent learners.  Why not encourage and allow our public schools to innovate and try new practices without fear of penalty?

With that said, I am not aware of any specific reform effort that will solve our challenges easily.  I only know that through collaboration, communication, creative problem solving, and really hard work, we can begin to implement our vision for children who attend our schools. We need to think deeply about the future of schooling in America if we are to meet the needs of every learner.

As your Superintendent, I recognize that our success is directly due to the unwavering support of our Board of Education, our community, and the many outstanding employees, including support staff, who serve our students every day. Thank you for your continued commitment to the Westside Community Schools.