This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
Editor’s note: The Omaha Street School refrained from sharing students’ last names to protect their privacy.
For the first half of her freshman year, Mercy had her routine down at Omaha South High School.
She’d go to one class to be marked ‘present’ for attendance, leave school, come back for lunch, then skip classes the rest of the day.
“I just felt like I had nobody there,” she said of South, where students outnumber teachers 19:1. “I just didn’t want to be there, so I wouldn’t ever go.”
Six months passed before her parents finally got a call from the school informing them of their daughter’s absences. Shocked to learn Mercy had been skipping school, Mercy said her parents were even more concerned it took months for the school to notice and notify them.
After an Omaha Public Schools student has racked up five days of unexcused absences, school officials are required to communicate verbally or in writing with the parent or guardian of the child, according to Nebraska Board of Education policy. OPS did not provide comment on students’ chronic absences for this story.
The call home did little to motivate Mercy. While continuing to skip class, she got in trouble for stealing and was assigned a parole officer. He warned her that she needed to go back to school. Any more absences could extend her probation or send her into the juvenile justice system, since Nebraska school districts have the ability to report students who miss 20 or more days of school to the county attorney.
That’s when Mercy’s parole officer told her about the Omaha Street School, a private, faith-based alternative high school for at-risk students, including those struggling with chronic absenteeism and truancy.
“Kids can’t skip classes here, because someone’s going to notice.”
Within the halls of the Omaha Street School’s brick building located near the corner of N. 45th and Wirt St. in North Omaha, about 30 high schoolers start their morning with breakfast before heading to class. Here, students who struggled in a traditional high school setting get a second shot at earning their high school diploma.
The Omaha Street School receives no federal or state funding and relies on donations. Students learn of the high school by word of mouth or are referred by a counselor due to behavioral issues, poor grades or lack of engagement in their former schools.
The most common reasons students come to OSS are truancy and chronic absenteeism, said Linda Reimer, executive director of the Omaha Street School. Chronic absenteeism is when a student misses 10%, or about 17 days, of the school year.
In the 2019-2020 school year, about 33,000, or 10% of Nebraska students were chronically absent, according to data from the Nebraska Dept. of Education. And the pandemic has only made the problem worse.
While chronic absenteeism affects all students, research shows the issue disproportionately impacts students of color. In the Omaha Public Schools district, where the majority of current Omaha Street School students once attended school, data shows Native, Black, Hispanic and mixed-race students are at highest risk of being chronically absent.
In OPS schools, attendance teams made up of a counselor, social worker, nurse, school support liaison and other colleagues meet regularly to discuss students in need and barriers to attendance, an OPS spokesperson said in an email with The Reader.
Despite these efforts, “too many of our kids just fall through the cracks,” Reimer said. “Our kids have become invisible in the big schools.”
In the largest and most populated school buildings in Nebraska, educators might not have the resources necessary to keep tabs on all the students, said Principal Anthony Williams. That can lead to a student’s habitual absence.
“Once kids learn a system to ditch classes, they do it for a while until they’re caught,” he said.
That’s why the Omaha Street School is intentionally small. Class sizes no larger than 10 students, mentorship programs and access to mental health services improve student attendance and allow more one-on-one time and attention from teachers.
Each student is assigned at least one staff member who checks in with them regularly and makes sure they’re feeling seen, according to Williams. Students also attend HUDL, a confidential group therapy session with the school’s therapist who checks in one-on-one with students each week.
“Kids can’t skip classes here, because someone’s going to notice,” Williams said.
Improving students’ truancy is a combined effort between students, staff and families, said Charles Wilson, a student advocate and athletic director at OSS. Staff members go out of their way to help alleviate the barriers that may block a student from getting to school for a successful day.
That means he might pick up students in the morning, drive them home after school, or visit their home when they don’t show up to see why they missed class. He said meeting families where they are can make a difference when building trust with parents.
“We can not only go above and beyond for the student while they’re here in school, but even outside of school,” he said. “When families see us do that, it is like, ‘(OSS staff members) aren’t judging us; we don’t have to hide anything from them.’”
Wilson drove Alex, an OSS senior, home from school on a recent cold afternoon in January and passed Alex’s old high school, Omaha North High Magnet School, located near Ames Ave. and N. 36th St.
“Mr. Wilson, I used to skip right over there at 11:30 and go down the street,” Alex said, nodding toward the fast food chains and gas stations that line Ames Ave.
“Man, in this open area?” Wilson said.
Alex shrugged. “You know, nobody really paid attention.”
Like Mercy, Alex would attend one class to get his attendance for the day before skipping school the rest of the day. At OSS, if he or another student isn’t in class, the front desk will call home the same day to see why a student is absent.
If the office doesn’t get hold of parents, and the student is absent again for another day or two, Principal Anthony Williams calls the parents. If the school still has trouble reaching students or their parents, a staff member may go to a student’s home to check in and see why the student hasn’t been at school.
Attendance records at OSS show improvements for students who were referred to the school due to their truancy issues, according to OSS officials.
On average, students who enroll at OSS had an attendance rate ranging from 15% to 64% before coming to OSS. Current OSS students have an average attendance rate of 84%, according to OSS attendance data.
“If you have that inviting environment or safe environment, kids want to be a part of that,” Wilson said. “They’ll do anything they can to try to get here.”
“Tabula rasa”: A clean slate
OSS staff members also take a less punitive approach to discipline than at traditional high schools. When a student isn’t having a good day, teachers might give them the option to take a break and go to the bathroom, speak with a counselor or meet with Miles Busby, OSS’s behavior interventionist.
This process is part of the school’s larger mission of affording each student and teacher tabula rasa — a Latin phrase that means “clean slate” — every day.
At first it was hard for AJ, a senior at OSS, to adjust to the idea of a clean slate when she transferred into the school in January 2020.
“Coming from a public school, you’re stuck in this mindset of all of the bad habits that you had, and they slowly break away,” said AJ.
At her old school, she felt like teachers held students’ actions over their heads. OSS’s concept of tabula rasa has given deeper meaning not only to each day of school, but every moment.
“You can come back to that same class and have a whole new attitude,” she said.
Mercy feels more comfortable at OSS and less of the isolation that drove her to skip classes at South.
“Every single teacher here, like, you can talk to, and they’ll give you advice,” she said. “I think that’s probably one of the best things about the school — that nobody ever really feels alone, so it’s easier to get through the day.”