Dr. John Mackiel served the Omaha Public School District for 40 years, first as a reading and English teacher at Burke High School and for the last 15 years as superintendent, overseeing $254 million in school improvements, legal challenges to the state's school finance system and the formation of the Learning Community. He retired from the district on July 31.
What have been the best decisions the school board has made and that you have made in your tenure?
All of the decisions were grounded in principles and ideals of a quality integrated public school system. For example, math and science are tied to high quality teachers, labs and so forth. So any decision has far reaching impact.
Now all schools are open for summer classes. Now we have all day kindergarten and early childhood education at all schools.
It is a source of pride that all decisions were weighed against quality integration. When I started, we had ‘heat days’ and we couldn’t serve food because it was too hot on the fifth floor to prepare food. Now our buildings have air conditioning. Year long school could be possible now that some of the physical restrictions no longer exist.
Integration worked and the achievement gap narrowed. We used to have racially isolated schools.
What have been the toughest decisions?
All of the decisions were tough. What was hardest for me was discovering and facing the rudeness and hostility in the responses to integration. Having five school districts in one city wasn’t educationally right. Omaha was an urban school district that wasn’t adequately funded. I was continuously surprised by the response to basic issues and what was right.
The general public doesn’t know that Omaha was the only school district to be singled out by the legislature. Other school districts were funded to offer school for 198 days. Omaha was required to offer school for 190 days and summer school – but without the extra funding. Other districts charge tuition for summer school and those classes aren’t paid for out of the general fund.
What do you see as the best achievement accomplished during your time as the OPS superintendent?
The comprehensive nature of what we offer. We have early childhood education. We have Head Start. We know more about the impact and importance of small class size and extended learning. Students spend only nine percent of their time in the classroom. The other 91.8 percent of the influence on a student comes from outside factors and all of those factors can compliment and reinforce lessons and academics.
OPS has partnered with the Open Door Mission and 100 percent of the youngsters that we reached were on the honor roll. Teachers and tutors were assigned to the Open Door Mission. It just shows the importance. After all, in 180 days we are only seeing students for 9 percent of their time. These types of expanded opportunities greatly impact academic success.
What is the most important thing that you wanted to happen but didn’t happen during your time as the OPS superintendent?
Full economic and moral support for integrated quality education for all students and understanding of its importance.
I don’t think the public has a good understanding of the demographics of OPS and the resources necessary to support it. For example, our students don't just come from families who speak a few languages, there are 100 languages and two of these 100 languages have no written form. That has a huge impact on literacy intervention.
Omaha and OPS have the larges Sudanese population in the United States. We have the ‘Lost Boys’, students who were about age ten when they left Sudan. ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ were orphaned and displaced during a Sudanese Civil War. At age 10, they were living on their own in the African bush and wound up in refugee camps before they were resettled here. Now, when you measure their success, their access to our workforce and their contribution to our local economy, you have to consider their social and cultural integration – not just textbooks and test scores.
Another regret is the fact that we haven’t achieved full investment with the legislature. When there are five school districts in one city, when one district is excluded from investing in the common good – such as children east of 72nd Street don’t have the same opportunities as others. The fragmentation and segregation remains to this day. I would have liked to create an awareness of how much effect this has and to have the legislature fully vested in the kids.
When Elkhorn schools were carved out, I attended a meeting and one parent told me that she was sorry the other kids didn’t have access to the same educational resources as her’s did, but she was just concerned for her kids. The difference is, I am concerned for all of the students.
What are your thoughts on Sen. Laughtenbaugh's efforts to shrink the OPS board?
In 1872 when OPS first established 12 school board positions, there was respect for all of the constituents. The Chamber has 18 board members. The citizens and voters should be respected in all communities. I don't think we should single out and bypass the democratic process and try to wipe out a board of education.
For some reason there was an assumption that the OPS board ‘rubber stamped’ decisions and votes. In fact, we had more votes that were not unanimous than most major school districts in Nebraska. Gretna had 205 decisions and 200 were unanimous votes. Lincoln had 57 and 57 were unanimous. Westside had 90 and 90 were unanimous. OPS had 353 and only 340 were unanimous. That puts OPS in the lower tier on unanimous votes.
Tell us what are your thoughts on No Child Left Behind. Where do you see national testing and funding heading?
It is an ill conceived, deceptive and fraudulent concept – not a tool for the well being of students. It creates a crisis out of which will spring abandonment of public education. Public education should be a democracy. Now we can be faced with a privateer’s market. Testing is not teaching. What we have with NCLB is a 100-yard dash to complete in 9 seconds without any of the equipment (like athletic shoes) or training.
The school year has been kept at 190 days. When historians write about this they will be listing the ways in which we abandoned our children. There is an alarming mix of dishonesty and misuse of test scores to erode confidence.
Look at the crime reports with the shootings. What is on a child’s mind that walks to school to take mandated writing tests? Look at who is behind NCLB. It’s not the teachers. It’s businesses, politicians and privateers.
Instead, we should be celebrating people making miracles – like special education accomplishments or an African American achievement plan narrowing the gap of opportunities.
You also need to look at the tests themselves. Birds fly. A penguin is a bird. Do penguins fly? Yes or No. We don’t teach about penguins in OPS until 4th grade. A child who has had the opportunity to visit a zoo may know about penguins. But some families don’t have the transportation or economic means to visit the zoo. So those children don’t know about penguins when they encounter that question. The tests have nothing to do with intelligence and misuse data to paint pictures.
My vision would be that every parent has exactly what the President of the U.S. has for his daughters. They go to Sidwell Friends School – which is considered to be the “Harvard of Washington’s Private Schools”.
Kids with opportunities have life changes. By the way, Sidwell Friends School has a 23-member school board. It’s an elite educational opportunity. All youngsters – all students – should be able to realize a shot at the American Dream.
NCLB is a process to discredit and dismantle public education and might well be the death of it – the knockout punch.
Tell us what are your thoughts on state funding and testing. Where do you see state testing and funding heading?
I am a big believer in accountability. We have to have tools to test in Kindergarten. After 190 days we should test again and see what difference the time made. Pre and post tests. But, no matter how much we improve, 50% will be over and 50% will be under. It’s a basic curve.
Right now we have misappropriation of test data and politicians analyzing test data. There’s a significance difference in language proficiency with not regard to the real differences in health, safety, access to medical care.
What are your thoughts on the Learning Community and where do you see that heading?
The Learning Community was started knowing that it would impact seven generations out. Seven-generation impact is a concept where the effect on future generations is considered. It is important that the parents are vested in this. The Learning Community provides an umbrella so that funds are distributed in an equitable manner and not a racially segregated manner.
Funding is critical. For example, sales tax is equally distributed but property taxes are not and they are currently not pooled.
The Focus School is naturally integrated and very successful. The Learning Community has the capacity to have more days of school – all these things have 7th generation impact. The students today are the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents of tomorrow’s students.
What can OPS do to boost high school graduation rates?
I doubt if there is a more squishy statistic anywhere. OPS is boosting its graduation rate. But what the public is not being told is that graduation rates are measured and confined to 48 months – freshman to senior. We don’t read about or celebrate teens that graduate ‘late.’
You know, we have state of the art medical facilities here and some of the most medically fragile people relocate here. For health reasons, not every student can complete high school in 48 months from freshman to senior. They may take 56 months. They ‘graduate’ but aren’t counted in the statistics.
Special education students can be served until they are 21 years old. When a student has English as a second language, such as those students who come from families that speak one of the 100 languages other than English, it can take them 56 months to graduate.
In OPS, we have 1,000 students who are homeless. That affects the length of time it takes to complete high school. All of these students in these varying situations would be considered ‘drop outs’ under the 48-month standard for graduation because it may take them longer than 48 months to graduate. Fragile and special education students receive a certificate of attendance. We should measure these things.
I’ve never met a child who didn’t want to be in school. A significant portion of our population in Omaha has no idea of the weights that our school children bear.
We have a number of programs that serve these children. We have after school programs. We have credit recovery programs where students can ‘catch up’. We have summer school. We have accelerated programs. We have a career center.
We have Bridges to Success, a program initiated by the African American Achievement Council with OPS and area colleges. High school students are exposed to college curriculums and resources, develop enhanced study skills and it helps to provide a more seamless transition from high school to college. That helps students not only successfully complete high school, but to continue their education.
There has been recent coverage of best practices in other urban school districts, with the suggestion that OPS is behind peer school districts. What is this coverage missing or what should readers and the public understand about OPS relative to these stories?
OPS is, in fact, a model for several other school districts for our best practices. All districts are in some stage of reform. North Carolina is studying us. Our teacher evaluation process is a best model. Adeline, Tex. called us because of our teacher certification program.
No place has seen the end results yet from any of these. We should treat our educational deficiencies like we have the shortage of engineers and doctors – with funding.
What else should the public know that it might not?
I think what is missing is an understanding that everyone is dedicated to doing the best that they can for teaching students. We are all in this thing together. We should have one city and one school district in a partnership for the kids.