New test scores from Nebraska’s public schools recently showed a big drop in math scores, as the state adjusts to new testing requirements. In the first of a series of reports on how Omaha schools are performing, we stopped by South Omaha to talk to a principal who’s beating the odds.

As Principal John Campin walks the brightly colored halls of Gomez Heritage Elementary School, he points out a family room, where parents are writing and working on computers, their youngest children at their feet.  There’s a positive, and generally happy, atmosphere at Gomez that is hard to ignore.

Parental involvement at school is essential for student achievement, Campin said. And it’s his job to make opportunities available to parents for them to spend time at the school. In fact, he logs their hours and awards prizes for participating in family room projects, school concerts, or even for time spent taking care of the grounds.

A big part of that can be seen in what Campin has built, along with parents and teachers, outside. Set against a backdrop of wooded hills is the Gomez Elementary Outdoor Classroom. There’s a mini stage, wooden bridges crossing over carefully-maintained gardens, a stone walking path and a designated “messy” area – a big pile of dirt for the littlest kids to play around in and look for bugs. “The kids can come out here and be creative.” It helps create an atmosphere where students and teachers enjoy being at school, he said. “If everyone’s happy when they come to school, it’s a lot easier to learn.”

And Campin’s approach is seeing results. Dr. ReNae Kehrberg, the Assistant Superintendent in the Curriculum and Learning Department at Omaha Public Schools, said Campin is doing a lot right. “Having that positive relationship, feeling emboldened and eager to embrace the challenges that come with serving kids from all backgrounds, I think is powerful,” she said.

85.2% of the kids at Gomez Elementary are living in poverty – that’s based on the number of kids who receive free or reduced-price lunches. And just under 65% are English language learners. That’s a challenge that sets many schools back in terms of test scores. But at Gomez, 75% of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, by the latest 2011 numbers – exceeding OPS’ average by 15 points. Gomez is also one of the few schools that made “Adequate Yearly Progress” last year, as required by the federal education law No Child Left Behind.

“Targeted performance goals (are) a very positive, healthy thing,” Kehrberg said. “What becomes unhealthy is when those targeted goals for adequate yearly progress are no longer reasonable within the context of what’s doable.”

Kehrberg said despite Gomez’ success, there are many OPS schools labeled failing that don’t deserve to be cast that way. In fact, the majority of schools in the OPS district are failing to meet NCLB standards, according to the latest federal assessment. The second largest district in the metro, Millard Public Schools, also failed to meet federal standards for its middle and high schools in 2009-2010. Kehrberg says a lot is being lost in the numbers, and NCLB standards are inflexible and unfair. She says they demand unattainable improvement each year, with the ultimate goal of reaching 100% proficiency by 2014.

“If I said for all U.S. Senators, we’ll have 100% of you all running the 50 yard dash at proficient. Well, there’s a possibility that some are actually proficient runners, and some may have certain disabilities … that doesn’t allow them to run at a proficient level. So it’s no longer realistic to think that we’re all the same at the same time.”

But while NCLB may be setting unrealistic targets, there’s still room for improvement in Omaha’s test scores. Last year’s OPS reading scores averaged out to 68.64% for grades 3-11. Writing scores topped out at 94.43% for grade 11. But this year, schools fell sharply statewide in math, including Gomez, which fell from 97.6% to 65% proficiency for fourth graders. Kehrberg says this was the first year for the statewide math test – as Nebraska moves away from localized STARS testing – and she says she’s confident those math scores will improve.

“I do think it’s more difficult when labels don’t really reflect what’s happening in the school,” she said. “But on the same side, we want to be really honest. When we look at our data, in terms of what is working and not working, and how we can push towards student achievement, we want to do it in a way that’s fair and honest and very straight forward.”

Back at Gomez, Campin says he depends heavily on data to drive instruction. In fact, he has a regular “data night” where teachers share graphs and stats with parents and kids. But the key, he says, is keeping it positive.

“My philosophy is about collaboration,” he said. “I’m working for the teachers, I’m working for the students, I’m working for the community and parents. So rarely I’m telling them what to do.”

Campin said providing opportunity for involvement, and relying on data, along “with the positive attitude, teamwork, collaboration between staff, students and parents, and the community, it’s really paid off and our results have shown that.”

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