Failing school? Central High says ‘No way’

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October 18th, 2011

Omaha, NE – Four of the high schools in the Omaha Public Schools district have been labeled “Persistently Low Achieving” by federal standards. But are these schools really failing our kids? And what does that label really mean? In the second segment of the KVNO News’ State of Our Schools series, Robyn Wisch goes inside one of those schools… where the principal is soundly rejecting the label.

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“This is who we are,” said Dr. Keith Bigsby, the Principal of Central High School, as he stood with a group of students in front of the 152-year-old institution’s wall of famous graduates: which include notables like actor Henry Fonda, philanthropist Dick Holland and state senator Brenda Council.

“And the hope is, someday, what?” Bigsby asked the students, who responded quickly: “I will be on that wall in five years.” “I want to be on it too.”

Central High School is one of the oldest and largest schools in the state of Nebraska. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

Central High is the largest school in the state of Nebraska with almost 2,500 students from around the city. Set in the heart of downtown Omaha, the school is also on a federal list of Persistently Low Achieving Schools.

“What that label basically means to me is some people who don’t understand public education, don’t understand public secondary education, have attempted to quantify a human process,” Bigsby said. “It’s impossible to quantify a human process.”

Bigsby said students come in to Central at different levels, and each requires a different kind of learning environment to succeed. The challenges of creating those learning environments, he said, are what the labels don’t take into account.

“So when I look at those labels, and I say, are they negative? Yeah. Am I frustrated by the labels? Absolutely. As a parent, am I angry about the label? Absolutely. Because my kids go to school here,” he said. “I have two kids who are getting the finest possible education in the state of Nebraska. If I didn’t think so, I’d send them elsewhere.”

Principal Keith Bigsby stands in front of Central High's view of downtown Omaha. (Photo courtesy The Reader)

“When a school is unfairly labeled Persistently Low Achieving, Rosenthal and others would have labeled that a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Dr. ReNae Kehrberg is the Assistant Superintendent in the Curriculum and Learning Department at Omaha Public Schools, “because it puts you in a mindset that doesn’t reflect the hard work you’re doing.”

Kerhberg said the goals of the No Child Left Behind law, which sets the federal standards that have labeled Central low-achieving, are unrealistic. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agrees. And President Barack Obama is pushing Congress to revamp the law. He’s also given schools waivers in the interim so their funding doesn’t go into jeopardy. But, criticisms aside, many educators agree No Child Left Behind shone a stark spotlight on a wide and growing achievement gap that has left students in poverty, and minority students, trailing their wealthy white counterparts.

“I think public schools embrace having people take a look at what we’re doing to make sure we’re meeting our public’s needs and demands,” Kehrberg said. I think that’s fair, I think that’s something taxpayers are owed. But we have to do it in a reasonable fashion that allows achievement to ensue.”

Central High has a winning math department, and placed 16th nationally in the 2011 Collaborative Problem Solving Contest. (Photo credit John Best, courtesy Central High)

“I have no problem with accountability,” said Principal Bigsby. “I think that’s one of the good things that No Child Left Behind brought to us, which is a sense of, how well are you doing? Are we really working?”
“When I started in this business 29 years ago, we didn’t drill down to the individual student. We looked cursory, we kind of said, yeah, we’re doing pretty good. But now when you’re to the point of drilling down, and saying we need to get this kid up, he’s deficient in these kinds of skills and these kinds of activities, we do some good things.”

Bigsby spent a large chunk of his educator career as a coach. And his competitive nature comes out when he’s talking about his school. Unlike some suburban schools that fare better on testing, Bigsby said, Central High has many students who live in poverty, and his teachers are often asked to take on the role of the parent, and fill in lessons with social skills or anti-drug campaigns. That, Bigsby said, takes time away from teaching the fundamentals of reading, writing and math. But, he said, while those are fundamentally important – should there be more to high school?

“ The high school experience is becoming a very stressful one for a lot of kids,” Bigsby said. “We see a lot of kids who are turning off because right now, we’re in the middle of midterms, and from midterms, we’ll head into some district-mandated assessments, and then we’ll go into some state-mandated assessments… we’re probably spending close to a quarter of our time doing some kind of mandated assessments.”

“And we’re not having a lot of time for social discourse,” he said. “We’re not having the opportunity to teach what it is to be good citizens.”

“High school is preparation for the bigger step that one day I’m going to be an adult citizen, what are my roles and responsibilities? And I don’t think we spend enough time on that right now, and we’re seeing the results.”

Bigsby wrapped up his tour of Central High checking out the extra-curricular activities. “This is the best part right here. This is what you don’t see. Everyone wants to talk about testing, but now, you get a chance to see the kids interact and be proud of what they’re about and where they’re going.”

It was long after the bell rang, and students were still busily walking the halls, and practicing their skills on the courts and on the field, and on the stage. “What are we getting ready for?” Bigsby asked the group of kids hanging out on the stage and setting up the scenery. “Hello Dolly!” they shouted back.
Bigsby said eighty percent of his students are involved in an activity after school – part of the high school experience he laments gets ignored in the score book.

“We’re constantly fighting the misconceptions, you know, that ‘oh, you’re an inner city school.’ No, we’re a downtown high school. ‘Oh, you’re only good at sports.’ Are you kidding? My math team just beat everybody else in the city and nearly took out the state champions in Lincoln East. One point.”

Nebraska’s State of the Schools report for 2011 will be released Wednesday. And Central High’s status as a failing or achieving school will be determined then – at least by the score book.

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