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Walthill schools recover with innovative approaches

WALTHILL, Neb. - Several years ago parents and school administrators found themselves at odds amid racial tensions that severely wounded the Walthill Public School.

Changes in management gave rise to a renewed effort to respond to an ever-increasing demand for programs that will prepare students for college and the workplace.

The rebuilding has focused on building new programs that do a better job meeting student needs and bringing the community closer to the school.

Just five years ago, the school was a flashpoint of racial conflict in a town that was deeply divided. The racial distribution at the school has changed. Nearly a decade ago, enrollment included only five American Indian students. Five years later more than 85 percent of the students were from the Omaha or Winnebago tribes.

Today the enrollment is largely American Indian students, but the school board is primarily white. Even so, changes in leadership - including a new superintendent who came out of retirement to commit his time to building a better environment for teachers and students - has allowed the school to advance education for area students.

While the board remained the same, the change in administrative leadership improved the atmosphere, said Jeva Sinjh-Anand, who has taught at the school for a number of years.

Work groups of parents, educators, teachers and administrators talk about areas that need improvement and how to implement those improvements. More programs promote inclusion of technology in the classrooms, innovative methods to help students who can't attend school under an average classroom structure and reaching out to community members with educational options, all have become part of the school's mission.

Despite outreach efforts and the move to repair the damage from the racial tensions, enrollment at the school continues to dwindle.

"There were a lot of hard feelings when I came here," said Superintendent James Deignan. "We've gotten through that. We've taken a school district that was in turmoil and put it back together so that it is functioning well again."

He said one of the key reasons for fewer students is the result of the state's move to allow parents a choice of school districts which led to "white flight."

"We had hoped enrollment would go up. I think the factors are that we raised the educational standards and it might be easier for students to go other places. And, of course, we deal with optional enrollment in the state of Nebraska. I don't necessarily agree with that. In my case, I think it was a good way to segregate the school," Deignan said.

"I think the absolute worst thing you can do is to have an optional policy. I think it is wrong," said Deignan, who is a member of the state Native American Education Commission. "It has taken this school from being 60 to 70 percent white to 98 percent Native American."

The decline in enrollment impairs the financial ability of the school to provide competitive programs because funding levels are determined based on enrollment, he said. It has also reduced the school's competitiveness in other areas, including opportunities provided by athletics.

Deignan pointed out some student athletes have moved to nearby schools to increase their chances of gaining recognition and furthering their chances of scholarships.

"In my opinion, sometimes the field isn't level. In this community, if the students opt out, where am I going to get the support to build a new building?"

The school's main building, a 90-year-old brick structure, needs to be replaced. While the enrollment isn't the issue when it comes to space, the layout of the building hampers staff efforts to make use of equipment. Because the school is on a hill top, it isn't easily accessible for people and that creates a physical barrier, he said.

Because the majority of the school funding goes to operate programs, little is left to fund construction of a building without floating a bond issue, he said.

"With our present funding, I don't like the idea of setting aside a large amount of that money from operating the schools to building facilities."

With enrollment falling in the high school, consolidation of the Omaha Nation and the Walthill high schools might allow students in the area greater resources, he said, adding that the two could be housed in a separate facility somewhere between the two communities.

"I think that's almost a necessity because neither one of us can afford to offer the curriculum our students need to become leaders in our world. With consolidation, the curriculum and instruction would be there for the students," Deignan said.

"We have to be sure our students are getting a fair break because my students are going to have to compete with students from other school districts. If we are lacking curriculum offerings because of numbers, they are at a disadvantage.

"There should be a corn field school between here and Macy. Both school districts should be placed under the leadership of one superintendent and I'm not applying for the job."

Deignan said that proposal may have come too late since the school in Macy is planning a $6 million addition to its building.

There is an advantage at Walthill in that the small enrollment allows students more individual attention from teachers.

"It's the best kept secret in Nebraska," said Sinjh-Anand.

Smaller class sizes helped teachers bring more intensive instruction and a more creative approach to the classrooms.

An after-school program has been added and an alternative school program offers teens and children facing developmental challenges a more flexible school environment. The school has added classes that offer students greater chances to pursue arts and technology and teachers have started giving students a more integrated approach to their subjects.

Project Washkon, the after-school program, is one of the two area programs funded by a three-year grant of $ 1.4 million by the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The Omaha Nation Public School also received money under the grant to start its after-school program.

The program offers academic and cultural enrichment activities in classrooms. Students must participate in academic work before they are allowed to explore other activities. The first hour after school is devoted to tutoring and helping students catch up on home work.

Other programs under development are a portable computer lab, a television studio to allow students to produce broadcasts on a cable, public-access television station and development of a technology education program that will allow members of the community to access computer training and equipment after school. Computer labs will be open to the community Tuesday and Thursday nights when classes begin in January.