New test scores from Nebraska's public schools last week showed a big drop in math scores, as the state adjusts to new testing requirements. But one South Omaha principal is beating the odds.
Principal John Campin walks the halls of Gomez Heritage Elementary School, where brightly colored walls frame large open rooms, and light streams through the windows. Here, there's a generally happy atmosphere.
"Right here's the family room, so if you see the parents in there," Campin said. "And they bring their little ones, too, so it's an inviting place for the parents to come volunteer and be involved."
For Campin, leading a school is all about collaboration. Parental involvement is essential, he 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," he said.
Campin said he tries to create a positive, fun atmosphere, because if students and teachers like being at school, it's much easier for them to learn and teach. And his approach is seeing results.
"Teachers, administrators, counselors, that school team believes we can make a difference for these children," said ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent in the Curriculum and Learning Department at Omaha Public Schools. "Having that positive relationship, feeling emboldened and eager to embrace the challenges that come with serving kids from all backgrounds, I think is powerful."
Eighty five percent 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 about two-thirds of students are English language learners. That's a challenge that sets many schools back in terms of test scores. But at Gomez, 75 percent of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the latest 2011 numbers, exceeding Omaha Public Schools' 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 (NCLB).
"Having the opportunity to have targeted performance goals is a very positive, healthy thing," she said. "What becomes unhealthy is when those targeted goals for adequate yearly progress are no longer reasonable within the context of what's doable across the United States."
Kehrberg said despite Gomez' success, there are many other OPS schools labeled failing that don't deserve to be cast that way. In fact, the majority of schools in the Omaha Public School 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.) Kehrberg said a lot is being lost in the numbers, and that NCLB standards are inflexible and unfair. She said they demand unattainable improvement each year, with the ultimate goal of reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
"(It's like) if I said to all United States senators, we'll have 100 percent of you all running the 50-yard dash at proficient," she said. "Well, there's a possibility that some are actually proficient runners, and some may have certain disabilities, or sustained something in the course of their life 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 might be setting unrealistic targets, there's still room for improvement in Omaha's test scores. Last year's OPS reading scores averaged out to about 68 percent for grades three through 11. Writing scores topped out at 94 percent for grade 11. But this year, schools fell sharply statewide in math, including Gomez, which fell from 97 percent to 65 percent proficiency for fourth graders. Kehrberg said this was the first year for the statewide math test, as Nebraska moves away from localized STARS testing, and she's confident those math scores will improve.
"So I do think it's more difficult when labels don't really reflect what's happening in the school," she Kehrberg 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. But we want to do it in a way that's fair and honest and very straightforward."
Back at Gomez, Campin said 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 said, is keeping it positive.
"My philosophy is about collaboration," Campin 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. We're collaborating about decisions and what to do, and what the students' and teachers' needs are.
"So I think with al l those opportunities put together, and with the positive attitude, teamwork, collaboration between staff, students and parents, and the community," he continued, "it's really paid off, and our results have shown that."