Curriculum at Underwood Hills focuses on 21st century-learning — technology and communication skills — and each student has access to their own laptop.
The rumors were starting to pile up like the early January snow surrounding Underwood Hills Focus School. Faced with looming state budget cuts, the innovative elementary school near 90th Street and Western Avenue was in danger of closing. Last December the Elkhorn school district was the first to pull out of the collaborative venture with the Westside and Omaha school districts. Twenty percent of the school’s funding was suddenly gone. The state was staring at its own potential $1 billion deficit and was looking to cut as much as $478 million in public school funding over the next two years. Every school district in the state was being forced to re-examine spending. In Omaha, one school district stood in particular stuck out. Underwood Hills wasn’t your average school. It offered a longer school day, an extended school year and an open enrollment area that encompassed the entire city. The curriculum focused on technology and communication skills, featuring a laptop for each student and small class sizes. Underwood Hills was different, but different can be a bad place to be when each and every expenditure is being scrutinized. It cost $11,700 per pupil at Underwood Hills last year, nearly $1,700 more than the state average, according to the Nebraska Department of Education. Longer hours and longer bus rides meant more money, something the state didn’t have and the school couldn’t get, thanks to a state law effectively barring them from state aid. In late January the Westside and OPS districts announced the school would close at the end of the school year. It wasn’t a popular decision with the parents or with board members who made it, but Underwood Hills principal Bret Anderson says they tried to proceed as normal. The staff prepared to return to jobs within their own school districts. Anderson figured he would be a principal somewhere else in the OPS system. They tried not to talk about the closing around students, but students were talking about it among themselves anyway. Anderson heard it on the playground and buses. “Our school is closing.” Each teacher would have a job and every child would have a school, but it wouldn’t be this school. “Most of us got to build and create this model and it was showing good results,” Anderson says. “Knowing that was going to end was difficult. We knew we’d be going back to the status quo.” The status quo can be a tricky thing. Underwood Hills was founded to exceed the status quo and now it was being closed in spite of it. But being different was also the common thread uniting parents, state lawmakers and one charitable organization. Over the next few months, they fought hard enough to engineer a last-minute reversal of the decision to close. On March 14 the OPS board announced receipt of an anonymous $1.4 million donation per year, for the next three years. The donation would keep the school open for the next three years. The School Underwood Hills was founded in 2008 as the first focus school in the Omaha metro area. Like a magnet school, it’s designed around a singular focus. Parents in the three partner districts — Elkhorn, Omaha and Westside — were polled in 2007; they wanted a school that could focus on 21st Century skills. Underwood Hills, and its technology and communication focus, was born. The appeal was evident immediately. For the first class of 120 students, Underwood Hills received nearly 800 applicants, doling out spots via lottery. Unlike a magnet school, Underwood Hills is open to any third-through-sixth grade pupil in Douglas or Sarpy Counties. Students can choose to be in school until nearly 5 p.m., and attend from early August through late June. The extended hours offer opportunities for enrichment and leadership through activities like basketball, book making and bridge. School news is provided daily through student-produced podcasts. Classroom websites, blogs and wikis are all used to supplement the traditional school curriculum. But a unique approach alone wasn’t going to be enough to keep Underwood Hills open. The ultimate decision to keep the school open was the result of a combination of factors, Anderson says. “When parents started realizing that we could be closing they rallied very quickly,” he says. “They were very active, attending school board meetings and fighting for a change in legislation for the collaborative to exist. It wasn’t just screaming and hollering. They put themselves together in a really organized way.” While the parents were pleading their case for keeping the school open, lawmakers in Lincoln were considering a proposal to boost state aid for collaborative focus schools. In 2006, lawmakers created the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, a political subdivision designed to spur collaboration between the 11 metro area districts and increase opportunities for students. The Learning Community flung school doors wide open, offering students the chance to apply for enrollment in any school in any district. It worked well with the transfer of students between districts, but Underwood Hills wasn’t part of the Learning Community. Focus schools with no defined attendance area weren’t part of the original provision — meaning Underwood Hills was missing out on some state aid other schools were receiving. Omaha Sen. Jerry Nordquist introduced a bill, LB 558, before the legislature that would change that, but by mid-March it seemed to late for the state to save Underwood Hills. The issue was still money. With Elkhorn and Westside pulling out of the collaboration, OPS couldn’t afford to fund it on its own. That’s where the Sherwood Foundation stepped in. The Results Two weeks after OPS announced the $1.4 million anonymous the board revealed the familiar source making it possible. The Sherwood Foundation, Susie Buffett’s charitable organization focused on childhood education and social justice, had agreed to pay the school’s operating costs, up to $1.4 million each year, through 2014. While it was the differences present at Underwood Hills that ignited the passionate fight to save it, Jerry Bexten, Director of Education Initiatives at the Sherwood Foundation, says it was the measurables that got his organization involved. “We looked at what the academic results had been and it looked like it was working,” he says. “We liked the model and we knew we’d like to keep it going if at all possible.” For the 2009-2010 school year, only the school’s second year in existence, 98 percent of students at Underwood Hills passed the state writing assessment test, according to the Nebraska Department of Education. It was the highest score among the three partner districts and nearly 10 points better than the state average. Underwood Hills scores for students from high-poverty backgrounds were even more impressive. Statewide, 54 percent of third through sixth graders eligible for lunch subsidies, the state’s way of measuring poverty rates in schools, passed the reading assessment test in 2009-2010. Across the Elkhorn, Westside and OPS districts the cumulative average was 58 percent. At Underwood Hills 75 percent of students eligible for lunch subsidies passed the state reading exam, a score that was seven points better than the average reading score for all Nebraska students. Bexten says the results spoke for themselves and the decision to support the school came together quickly. Despite all the gratitude the Sherwood Foundation has received, he hopes this type of funding solution remains an anomaly. “The bottom line is that in order to run schools, you can’t wait for funders to step up and back it,” he says. “It’s going to have to be supported by taxpayers.” Luckily, for the long-term future of Underwood Hills and focus schools in Nebraska, the state was ready to make a change to its school aid formula. The Future Lorraine Chang sees the irony. The Legislature enacted LB558, 42-0, April 20. It revised the law preventing Underwood Hills from receiving some state aid as a three-district partnership; but it came after the school was already down to one district. The new Underwood Hills would have qualified as a Learning Community school under the old guidelines. But the change is a net gain for education, says Chang, an elected council member in the Learning Community district serving Westside, Ralston and Midtown Omaha. “We worked for three years to change this law,” she says. “The change wouldn’t have allowed Westside to stay in, but when times are better it should help spread the risk in terms of districts going in together.” And that’s something Anderson said Underwood Hills would be open to in the future. In addition to increased state funding, the school is also now eligible for additional funding through the Learning Community, which should make things easier should another district want to join. But for now the focus is on finishing up the school year, then turning Underwood Hills Focus School into the new Wilson Focus School. Westside Community Schools owns the current Underwood Hills building, necessitating a move for the school as OPS takes over sole operation. The district had already planned to shut down Wilson Alternative School, creating a natural new home for the focus school at 51st and F Streets. Anderson says he was able to maintain most of his current staff; some longer tenured teachers and administrators from Westside and Elkhorn elected to stay with their home districts to avoid losing retirement and benefits credits. Preparation has already begun on the new building. New signs are going up and new paint is on the walls. The old mascot and school colors will make the transition as will the focus-based curriculum. “The students like their school, they’re proud of it and now I think they’re looking forward to something new,” Anderson says. “It’s almost like we’re doing the same thing again.” And that same thing will almost assuredly be far from the status quo.