When Mark Evans accepted the job of Omaha Public Schools superintendent in December 2012, he knew the mission would be immense in this sprawling urban district facing myriad challenges.
With 51,000 students spread out over 86 schools located in divergent environments ranging from inner city poverty to suburban affluence, the district responds to a wide spectrum of needs and issues. In his due diligence before starting the job he found the district's good work often overshadowed by controversy and conflict due to an embattled school board and an aloof administration and no clear, unified vision.
Besides struggling to close the achievement gap of its majority minority student population, many of whom attend overcrowded, poorly resourced schools, the district reeled from internal rancor and scandal. Longtime district head John Mackiel exited with a $1 million retirement payout many viewed as excessive. His replacement, Nancy Sebring, quit when it came to light she'd exchanged sexually explicit emails with her lover during office hours at her previous employer. The often divisive OPS Board of Education and its handling of the matter drew sharp criticism that resulted in its president's resignation. The perception was of deep rifts among OPS leaders who spent more time putting out fires than making systemic changes,
District elections turned over an almost entirely new board when Evans, who came to OPS from Kan,, officially started in 2013. The board has navigated a flood of changes that Evans has introduced in fulfilling a promise to shake things up and to address identified weaknesses in Neb.'s largest school district.
One of his first orders of business was conducting a needs assessment that sought broad community input. Feedback from parents, teachers, administrators and stakeholders shaped a new strategic plan for the district. The plan outlines strategies for better communication, more transparency and accountability, closer alignment of goals and greater classroom rigor. He reorganized district staff and created new positions in response to an expressed need for better support of schools. He's overseen a new student assignment plan, a new hiring policy and a facilities wish-list for $630 million in upgrades.
Evans wants to stem the tide of students OPS loses to other districts, saying that's difficult "if you don't have room for them and many of our schools are just packed to the gills." He adds, "You can't compete with other districts unless you have facilities of similar caliber and we're a real inequitable district today. About half our schools are beautiful facilities. The other half there's a whole list of things that need to be worked on." The facilities plan may go before voters as a bond issue.
He compares the task of changing the district's direction to turning around an aircraft carrier at sea. As captain, he plots the course but he relies on a vast team to implement the necessary maneuvers. Evans began the turnaround even before he started.
"I didn't start officially until July 1 but once I accepted the job I started visiting, collecting information, studying, so that when I did walk in the door I didn't walk in cold. I walked in running because I'd already met staff and community. I'd purposely reached out. I had a very clearly laid out entry plan that described the things we were going to do.
"You have to have a real clear plan of how you're going to implement this kind of stuff or you're going to get lost and lose the prioritization. You've still got to do what you've been doing but do it better while doing these major lifts. So a lot of it has to do with prioritization and focus. A lot of it has to do with 60-plus hour work weeks."
Evans likes what he sees on the horizon now that OPS has aligned goals at every level.
"We've not had a clearly defined destination until today. What you had was some schools saying, 'This is my destination, this is what I think is most urgent,' and they just kind of did it on their own. The difference today is we've got clear alignment and we're creating a system that creates support and accountability throughout. Everyone's success is contingent upon someone else's success.
"Accountability is now built in because it's on paper, it's in writing: Here's your goal for graduation rate, here's your goal for NESA scores, here's your goal for the achievement gap..."
He says strategies are being honed "to create that same level of accountability" at all 86 schools and in every classroom.
"That's the whole restructure piece we created. Principals told us, 'We want more help in our schools,' so we shut down a department in the district office and put 30 people out in schools. Then we created four executive directors of school support positions. Each is directly responsible for 21 schools. We spent all summer training them. They're former star principals who serve at the cabinet level with me and top level staff. They look at the alignment of the big picture goals to the school improvement plan and help principals improve that. Everyone is working towards the same goals."
He says until the strategic plan there wasn't a coherent, clearly expressed vision "of where we're at, where we're going and how we're trying to get there," adding, "I think what I feel best about is we've created more transparency and communication from the get go because we asked people what are the strengths and needs of our district. We did forums, we did surveys, we used different tools on our website. That was the start of our saying, 'We're going to ask you first and then we're going to use what you tell us to help us see our critical needs.' To be honest, I already knew we had critical needs but it can't be my plan, it's gotta be our plan, it can't be my thoughts, it has to be our thoughts, and the truth is most of where we ended up at I would have ended up at, too."
Engaging people in the process, he says, "is much more powerful" and staff take more ownership for "achieving specific targets." The changes have been welcomed by some and met with push-back by others. He jokingly says response is "somewhere between embrace and fisticuffs."
He's well aware steering this unwieldy district in a new direction will take time given its sheer size.
"You just have to know it's a big journey."
He left a good thing at the Andover (Kan.) school district to make this journey.
"I had a great job, we were making progress and nationally recognized. I'd been there eight years and I could have finished my career there fairly easily."
He declined OPS overtures before throwing his hat in the ring.
"I knew what it was going to take to do something like this, so I said no twice. The third time they asked me to call some people I knew up here and I did and I heard positive things from them. They said to look beyond the headlines because the headlines had been pretty devastating. In my initial research I saw a mess beyond repair but the further I looked, and I still feel this way a year later, the mess has been at the 10,000 foot level – with the superintendent and the board. It's about getting rid of the noise and distraction and chaos there.
"It wasn't easy moving but at the end of the day I thought I could make a difference here. I know how to systemically build schools. Everywhere I've gone we've been able to have progress with kids because I understand how to bring a system together and to build teams and create collaborative decision makers."
Making it easier for him to take the plunge was the community support he found here he didn't find in Wichita, Kan., where he spent 20 years working in that city's largest public school district.
"I'd spent most of my career in Wichita in a very similar setting – from the size of the schools to the number of employees to the demographics of the kids. But there is one significant difference and this is part of the reason I said yes – the community here is more supportive than Wichita is. This community still cares. People want OPS to be successful. There's philanthropic support. There's several foundations and individuals that care about OPS."
Along with the deep pockets of the Sherwood and Lozier Foundations, OPS has relationships with mentoring initiatives like Building Bright Futures, Partnership 4 Kids and Teammates. Recognizing that many of its students live in poverty and test below grade level, the district partners with organizations on pre-K programs in an effort to get more at-risk children ready for school. New early childhood centers modeled after Educare are in the works with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
Evans champions community-driven endeavors aimed at improving student achievement and supporting schools because no district can do it alone, especially one as large and diverse as OPS.
"Not only is it a big district, which creates some challenges, we have more and more free and reduced (lunch) students who qualify for the federal poverty line and we know that brings with it some extra challenges which is why we need community support. We have an increasing number of English as Second Language learners because we have a growing number of refugee families. These young people not only have language barriers but huge cultural barriers.
"We also have more young people coming to us with life challenges and neighborhood issues. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges. What we're trying to do in many situations is fill in gaps. Organizations are critical because we're filling in more gaps than we have before."
Those gaps extend to resources, such as high speed Internet access. Some kids have it at home and school, others don't because their parents and schools can't afford it.
He says the efficiencies possible in a corporate, cookie-cutter world don't fit public schools because no two suppliers, i.e. parents, and no two products, i.e. students, present the same specs.
"We take whoever walks in the door and wherever they're at is where we take them, whether they have special needs, language arts deficiencies or advanced skill sets. So school A and school B might look different, in fact they'll inherently look different even though the summative assessments are still going to look the same with standardized testing and those kinds of things. We do have these summative tools that tell us something about whether a school is progressing or not.
"On the other hand, school A may be quite a bit different than school B because school A has 20 percent refugees with some very specific skill gaps and so how we support them and the grade level assessments tied to that curriculum are going to be a little different than school B which has no refugees, no ELA-ELL (English Language Acquisition-English Language Learner) students. Students in school B are prepared and ready for something much different than what students at school A are prepared and ready for. And so we demand that each school and each staff differentiates based on the needs of the young people. You do formative tests to get those early indicators of where are the skill gaps and how are we going to bridge those skill gaps."
Differences aside, the same overarching goal apply to all schools.
"No matter where they're at, what you're looking for is progress in both groups. It's gotta be about growth and progress, wherever they came from, whether from a refugee camp or a single-parent family or a household where both parents are college graduates. The day they walk out they've gotta be better than the day they walked in."
Closing the achievement gap, he says, "Is not just resources," adding, "There's a lot of things we can do with existing resources – that's what we're trying to do with alignment. For example, if we know of a specific strategy to improve math or language arts skills for kids below level why wouldn't we train all our staff in that methodology for all our schools? We'd never done that. Instead, school A and school B would pick out whatever strategy they wanted. Some would buy a compute-based piece and some would do a tutorial piece at the Teacher Administration Center.
"There was no collaborative where educators said, 'Which one has the highest return on impacting those skills?' That just doesn't make any sense. So now we're attempting to scale those things. Part of it is getting out of our silos and scaling the quality and part of it is helping people develop the skill sets to know how to implement that, because not everybody knows."
His executive directors of school support, including Lisa Uttterback, were principals at high performing schools. Evans has charged them with helping principals adopt best practices at their own schools.
"Lisa had great success in a high needs school (Miller Park). The test scores look good, there's community partnerships and parent involvement. Kids are walking out the door with pride, ready for middle school. I took grief for taking her out of there but my thinking is she can have more impact by scaling her capacities to 21 schools. I need her to develop her skill sets to these principals she supports and I need the other EDs to do that with the leaders they support.
"The whole concept is to find where it's working and make decisions collaboratively on best practices and then support the implementation. It doesn't happen overnight. It didn't happen overnight at Miller Park, but it did happen. So what happened? Well, you had good leadership. She (Utterback) figured out strategies that work."
Other principals have done the same thing.
"We've got islands of excellence, we've got schools doing wonderful things, but then you've got other schools that for whatever reasons need more supports and until now there really wasn't a methodology to try to recognize it and to provide that support."
To achieve the greater classroom rigor district-wide the strategic plan calls for he says OPS is enhancing efforts started before he came to "retrain teachers on baseline skill sets for instructional practice." He acknowledges "these are things they should have probably had in college but for whatever reason didn't."
In addition to raising performance, there's a push to keep kids in school.
"In our district right now were at 77.8 percent graduation rate, which by the way is pretty high for an urban setting. But the truth is we've got to be higher than that, we've got to be over 80 and be moving toward 90, because if they don't have a high school diploma today the research abundantly shows the opportunities in life are slim.
"Were trying to move 13 percentage points over the next five years, which doesn't sound like a big deal but it kind of is a big deal."
Moving forward, he feels good about the school board he answers to.
"I would say our relationship's good. They've had an enormous learning curve. I think their hearts are really good. I think they're still struggling with the learning curve – heck, I am. They're trying to wrap their arms around big stuff, I mean, we're talking big numbers here – a $600 million facilities plan. We're talking big information – a strategic plan, a student assignment plan, a new hiring policy. I think they've done amazing for the amount of time they've had to try to capture this."
He says minus drama and acrimony at the top, OPS can thrive.
"We have great schools doing really good things. I thought and I still think if we could get rid of that noise and distraction and have an aligned, coherent system we may have one of the only opportunities in America where a community still values urban education, and they do here. There are very few communities like this."
He feels good, too, about he and the board having come in together to provide a restart for the district.
"I think this community wanted and desired a feeling of a fresh start. I think people feel like they are seeing something different today than what they saw the last five years. I know we are doing things different because OPS hadn't done a strategic plan in 10 years, they hadn't done a bond issue in 15 years, they haven't done a student assignment plan in many years, they hadn't done a reorganization with a focus of supporting schools."
Evans likes where his ship of a district is headed.
"We've got the pieces in place to get it lined up. We're already doing partnerships, we're developing better classroom practices, we're developing leadership for the schools and aligning them to very specific, collaboratively agreed upon goals. If we can pass this facilities plan we can give kids high speed internet access and safer, more secure environments.
"Without those kinds of pieces the ship's going to go on the wrong course."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.