This story is part of (DIS)Invested, an ongoing series from The Reader and El Perico investigating the solutions and obstacles to solving system inequality in Omaha through housing, education, criminal justice and family issues.
When the pandemic shut down in-person and virtual classes for Omaha Public Schools in March 2020, Jenelle Emory would sit in her home with her daughters — a first grader and a kindergartener at Adams Elementary — and walk through the packet of optional work they’d been given for the week. She noticed her kindergartener needed more time and guidance on most of the concepts.
After going through the lessons with her at home, Emory discovered her kindergartener has dyslexia. She thinks that wouldn’t have been caught by a teacher in a crowded OPS classroom.
“That really encouraged me that I needed to give her that more one-on-one time,” said Emory, a Black reiki practitioner, business owner and now homeschool mom.
In late summer of 2020, she and her husband registered their household for homeschooling under the Nebraska Department of Education right before the deadline — joining the influx of home-school filings across the state in response to local schools’ decisions on remote or in-person learning.
She thought, “We can fool around with the public school system, or we can take their education into our own hands.”
The Emorys are part of a swath of families in Nebraska — and across the nation — who have left their public school since the start of the pandemic. In Nebraska, roughly 5,231 students left their public school in the fall of 2020, contributing to the first drop in public school enrollment in 20 years, the Omaha World Herald reported.
Omaha Public Schools lost about 1,602 students between fall 2019 and fall 2020, an almost 3% drop, according to district data.
Millard Public Schools lost about 405 students, about a 1.7% decrease, during that same time period, while Westside Community Schools dropped by 0.05%.
There’s myriad reasons families in Omaha have left their schools throughout the pandemic — poor experiences with virtual learning, preferring one district’s COVID-19 safety measures over another and disapproval of mask mandates, to name a few. For the Emory family, homeschooling was the best choice over moving to another school district or paying for private school tuition.
But one trend in OPS enrollment that began long before the COVID decline has continued throughout the pandemic. White student enrollment in OPS and other metro public school districts has fallen each year. The drops have been largest at OPS, which has seen the trend for more than a decade.
In 2013, 16,031 white students made up about 31% of OPS enrollment. That dropped to 12,081, or 23%, in the fall of 2021 — about a 24% decline.
Enrollment data in western, predominantly white public school districts shows similar, yet smaller, trends. According to the Nebraska Department of Education, white student enrollment declined by almost 7% at Millard Public Schools and about 10% at Westside Community Schools, between 2013 and 2020. On the other hand, Elkhorn Public Schools increased in total student enrollment and was up about 43% in white student enrollment between the fall of 2013 and 2020. (NDE data for 2021-2022 was not available ahead of publication.)
In 2013, 16,031 white students made up about 31% of OPS enrollment. That dropped to 12,081, or 23%, in the fall of 2021 — about a 24% decline.According to OPS District Membership Reports.
At OPS, Black student enrollment also has steadily declined over time, but not nearly as sharply. Between the fall of 2011 and 2021, Black student enrollment at OPS dropped from 26.2% to 24.5%. By contrast, Hispanic or Latino students now represent the largest group of students at OPS. During the same decade, their numbers increased from 30.5% to 38.3% of students in the district, a 29% jump.
OPS declined requests for interviews on the subject.
David Jespersen, public information officer at the Nebraska Department of Education, says lots of factors could be causing the trend.
Families could be utilizing the enrollment option program, an application process students can use to transfer into neighboring school districts. The process isn’t meant for families to shop around for schools, Jespersen said. Rather, it’s a one-time opportunity to opt into a school outside of your home district. The Reader and El Perico requested demographic data from the Nebraska Department of Education of students in the metro who have utilized the enrollment option program, but the request could not be fulfilled before this issue’s printing.
The changing populations in Douglas and Sarpy counties could also give clues, he said. While both counties grew at higher rates than others in Nebraska between 2010 and 2020, they saw fewer white people and more people identifying as Hispanic, according to the latest U.S. Census data.
The Omaha metro’s population has experienced rapid foreign-born growth — about 28.4% from 2010 to 2019, which is more than double the 12.9% national rate, according to Census Bureau data highlighted in a 2021 report by Heartland Forward, an organization focused on economic growth in the central regions of the U.S. Experts project the number of immigrants, particularly from Latin American countries, to rise in the coming decades.
“The demographics of communities affect the demographics of the school district,” Jespersen said.
These shifting demographics mean schools need to change the way they serve and support students. At OPS particularly, while fewer than one in four students are white, the majority of OPS teachers are white. OPS teacher Michael Silva (whose name has been changed to remain anonymous) says teachers need to reflect the student populations they serve.
Students from Latin America and English learners have been the majority in every OPS class Silva has taught. He’s seen how much it means to his students to have a teacher from South Omaha that can connect with their lived experiences.
“They see someone who looks like them sitting in a place where they may not feel they fit in,” he said.
Silva wants to see a community-based approach to hiring teachers for OPS schools — one that creates pathways to becoming a teacher without an education degree and makes it possible for more people to teach in the schools in their communities. He thinks that not only helps students survive, but thrive.
“There’s always been this fear in Omaha about ‘the minority’ taking over,” he said. “If our student population is one way, what does that mean for our city in the future?”
Omaha has a history of white students leaving the OPS district for suburban districts or private schools. White student enrollment in the OPS district plummeted in 1976 when a U.S. federal court order mandated busing to integrate Omaha Public Schools. Following the order, white families moved from North Omaha and into suburbs west of the city.
Recent data shows Omaha’s largely white suburbs are some of the fastest-growing areas in the city, partly driven by cheaper housing and development costs, according to the Center for Public Affairs Research at UNO.
Becky, a white mother who declined to share her last name, had hoped to keep her twin six-year-old boys at their OPS elementary school through their early years and then move to Millard for junior high and high school. The pandemic accelerated those plans. Her family moved to the Millard Public Schools district in April 2021, and her sons started first grade at a Millard school in the fall.
“The decisions that were being made through the OPS Board of Education and the superintendent regarding remote learning were really the driving force,” Becky said. Keeping up with virtual learning while both working full-time jobs became too much for Becky and her husband. She felt like her kids were falling behind.
“I have a kiddo in speech therapy, and while the teachers and the therapist did the best they could with what they had, it just was not conducive to an effective learning environment,” she said.
Sussie DeVeney, a white mother of four and a former OPS teacher now working a part-time job, was already hesitant about continuing at the district after her oldest son experienced bullying and got his phone stolen at his OPS middle school. Like Becky, virtual learning was the tipping point for DeVeney’s household.
In one instance during the 2020 school year, her first grader was confused with what was going on in class and raised his hand, not realizing it was a pre-recorded video he was watching and no teacher could respond.
“(OPS) put kids on a tablet, and were like, ‘Nope, watch these videos, this is how you’re learning today,’ and expect them to understand, then expect the teachers to somehow follow up on that, and then just assume that they get it,” she said.
DeVeney called around to private schools in the area, and by October, all three of her school-aged kids were enrolled at St. Wenceslaus, a Catholic school located at 15353 Pacific St. Within that first week, her son’s new teacher sent an email saying her son was below the first grade reading level.
Even though the migration of some students can be explained by families switching to private schools, that’s not the whole picture.
Between 2019 and 2020, enrollment dropped in schools within the Archdiocese of Omaha, which oversees 70 schools across 23 counties in northeast Nebraska. Those Catholic schools saw a slight increase in 2021, according to the Archdiocese of Omaha.
At the 22 Catholic schools within the OPS district boundaries, there’s been about an 11% decrease in white student enrollment in schools since the 2016-2017 school year, according to the Archdiocese. That could mean those families are moving west of the OPS district boundaries, Kovar said. On the other hand, she said, the Hispanic population increased by about 30%, mostly due to the support of a Latino outreach coordinator who works with families in the community.
As white student enrollment dips in OPS and surrounding public school districts, it’s unclear exactly what could be the effect. The pandemic has sent more students off-track overall, contributing to the achievement gap between Nebraska’s students of color and their white counterparts. The Nebraska Student Centered Assessment System, a yearly benchmark for student overall success, shows that in the 2020-2021 school year, 56% of white students were proficient in English Language Arts compared to 31% of Hispanic/Latino and a quarter of Black students. Fifty-five percent of white students reached proficient levels in math, compared to 19% of Black students and 28% of Hispanic/Latino students.
Lower enrollment overall could negatively impact the federal and state funding a school receives, which is typically based on headcount. Roughly 78% of OPS students qualify for free and reduced lunch due to their household’s low-income level. And with less funding, there could be fewer resources to address critical issues impacting the students who remain.
As COVID-19 persists in disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities, students of those same communities continue a third year of learning interrupted by the pandemic. Empty seats for students who are out sick or missing is the norm in OPS teacher Silva’s classes as omicron surges.
“There’s been a total lack of communication from the district for the past two years,” Silva said.
Before the pandemic, teacher shortages and overcrowded classrooms among other issues had already put the district in crisis. Since the pandemic began, he said, the district has been in triage.
“You can’t really advocate for your students when you’re trying to make sure the school doesn’t fall apart,” Silva said. “No one has time to do the important work because they’re stuck in survival mode.”
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