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Making Miller Park Elementary School an Oasis of Hope and Excellence

Note: Maddie Fennell, a literacy coach for the Omaha Public Schools, is guest posting this week.

This morning at 8:30am, I will be standing at the cafeteria door of Miller Park Elementary collecting a summer's worth of delayed hugs, commenting on shiny new shoes, and guiding skittish newbies to their classroom. Miller Park sits in a high crime area of Omaha; about 95% of our students receive free and reduced price lunch. But we are an oasis of hope and excellence, knocking it out of the park in student learning, sports, and attendance - of both students and parents. We have had 100% participation at EVERY parent-teacher conference for 5 years, and we had a 95% student daily attendance rate last year. So why are we so successful while others, even in our own community, struggle to achieve? There are a myriad of reasons, but I want to share several critical building blocks.

As many teachers will tell you, first you must address equity issues. Omaha has done this in a number of ways. In 1999, the citizens of Omaha passed a $254 million bond issue that allowed Miller Park, a now 102-year-old building, to be renovated into an award-winning facility (we were named a US Department of Education Green Ribbon School in 2012). We have continued to upgrade our technology capacity utilizing federal and private funding (we are a one-on-one laptop building in grades 3-6). 

In addition, our legislatures passed a school funding formula that ensured that OPS, an urban district surrounded by 10 other school districts in our 2-county area, would be sharing property tax revenues across the metropolitan area; they also mandated a funding distribution formula that addressed student needs, not just enrollment. When distributing funds to individual buildings, OPS also uses a needs based formula to provide resources to those most in need.  

And I cannot say enough about the Omaha civic and philanthropic community. They have chosen to invest hundreds of millions in our PUBLIC school system, providing everything from pencils to football fields. Churches and civic groups operate food pantries, donate clothes, and volunteer regularly at our schools. Mentors develop one-on-one relationships that nurture our students and their families. Our community didn't abandon their public schools and isolate their giving to small groups of students in charter schools, nor did they pull needed resources into voucher programs. They have collaborated with us to provide the resources that can help fill in the gaps that, as educators, we know must be met for students to be ready to learn. 

The second key was great leadership. In 2009, via an interview process that included staff and community input, Lisa Utterback became our principal. Lisa, a single mom of two adopted sons, empathized with the struggles many of our kids face because she spent her life watching her mom rotate in and out of jail due to drug abuse. She is an athlete who went to college on a softball scholarship, so she began to cultivate a team at Miller Park that built on the strengths of every individual. She worked alongside us to achieve every goal we set. When she told us her first year, "We will have 100% participation at parent-teacher conferences," I thought, oh boy. But that was because I missed her first word - WE. She kept tabs on the parents who hadn't been here yet and pulled out all the stops - bolting from her office to grab those she saw walking by, picking up parents at work, covering classes for teachers. Lisa didn't make decisions in isolation, but in consultation with staff; resources were directed toward classrooms. She established an environment of hope and excellence, reminding kids every day that they were to be "On time, on task and on the Miller Park Mission."

Great leadership came not just from Lisa, but from the staff at Miller Park. They embraced EVERY student as their responsibility, not just those in their own classrooms. They established strong relationships with parents, often making home visits; it's not unusual to see teachers give parents their cell phone number or offer rides to and from school when needed. They constantly seek opportunities for new learning and skill development.  

As a staff, we decided to begin an informal peer observation program. Teachers agreed to watch each other teach and talk about what they saw. We lifted up good ideas in staff meetings; we began to develop a set of Miller Park best practices that we saw boosted student achievement. Teachers began to team up more to learn from each other - and to challenge each other. The professional CULTURE was changing, not because of policy changes, but because of educators who were committed to their students and to each other.

Miller Park teachers also took on one of the toughest problems: dealing with struggling colleagues. When the administration began to address ineffective practice with several teachers, the staff unified to assist their colleagues while putting the needs of students first. We provided guidance with a "no excuses" attitude focused on improving practice as quickly as possible. It was "all hands on deck" to maintain a high level of instruction in the classroom (and continuity when teachers chose to resign). The teachers at Miller Park were TRUE professionals - they were the quality control guardians of their own profession.

Last week our new principal collected the Gold Award for Student Achievement on behalf of the Miller Park community (Lisa has, sadly for us but wisely for our district, moved into a position of coaching and supervising 21 principals). We were recognized for not only achieving but outpacing our goals on the Nebraska State Assessment in all four tested areas - reading, writing, math, and science (sorry, the scores aren't public yet, but trust me, they are AMAZING!). 

Our success didn't come about by a scripted curriculum, turnaround strategies, or becoming a charter school. It happened because we began to address equity issues, we had strong leadership that built on the strengths of every individual, we focused on building teacher knowledge and skills through a collaborative process, and we worked with parents as our partners, consciously building an environment where every child is expected to succeed. We worked as a team to develop a culture that focuses on solving problems in service to our students.

Last year at one of our sporting events (our kids are also champs in basketball, soccer, football, and volleyball), one of our staff overheard a parent from another school say, "Miller Park? Geez, they expect their kids to be good at EVERYTHING!"  Yep - that's a reputation we'll take!

--Maddie Fennell

Disclaimer: Because Maddie works in many roles, she needs to say that her comments are not the official statements of anyone; they are her personal opinions that she is sharing with all of you!

Note: This post has been revised to reflect that the Omaha bond issue was for $254 million, not $254.

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