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Omaha Magazine

A Culture of Excellence

Mar 12, 2020 02:40PM ● By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman

The child of an active-duty military member moves between six and nine times over the course of their education. That means they attend six to nine different schools—making and leaving six to nine different groups of friends, often in different parts of the country, or even the world.

While studies have been done regarding the effects on children’s mental health and success in making and keeping friendships, just as important are the effects on their success (or lack of) from being moved from one school to another.

Bellevue Public Schools, which has a high percentage of students with parents in the military, has been working with a grant from the Department of Defense and National Math and Science Initiative. This grant helps level the playing field so students can walk into a school confident they are getting a good education and potentially walk across the graduation stage with college credits already in hand.

Superintendent Jeff Rippe, Ed.D., had been working on a NMSI grant for a while, but the schools were able to implement it in 2018 with the help of assistant superintendent Robert Moore, Ed.D. Moore had experience with NMSI through his previous position at Rogers Public Schools in Rogers, Arkansas.

“We had NMSI before, as funded by EXXONMobil,” Moore said. “I had seen what it did with 1,200-2,500 students at that school. I also saw that we had opportunity here that was not being met.”

The school district brought NMSI teachers to BPS to show them what the school system is able to achieve at this time. The NMSI staff were able to see that BPS is underserved, and that many students in the system who could take high-achieving courses were not.

Bellevue received the three-year NMSI grant last year, and in that first year of assistance, the teachers and the students have seen tremendous success.

“We couldn’t begin to give our teachers the resources that NMSI enables them,” said Fran Pokorski, assistant principal at Bellevue West High School. “About 60 teachers get training. They get a mentor. There is a student management system, and they supply a budget each year.”

Breck O’Grady is a senior who is benefitting from the program. In his physics class, O’Grady is able to use sensors that allow him and fellow students to look at force, velocity, and more with objects such as a basketball. In another experiment, the students use smart cars with a spring that enables them to move on their own. Students can then track position using the technology. They can crash the cars to see the impact.

It isn’t one vehicle or one sensor—the program enables the classroom to purchase several of each supply so students can work on the same project at the same time.

“That’s been great,” said Susan Jensen, assistant principal at Bellevue East High School, who works with Pokorski on this program. “Before we would have had one car, one sensor…if that.”

The program also builds in study sessions on 12 Saturdays throughout the school year to enable those students in the program who wish to excel in the AP exams to expand on their knowledge. NMSI flies in experts on those days to work with students.

“They want students to learn more than just study skills,” Pokorski said. “They want kids to learn how to collaborate, how to study in groups.”

The study sessions are held in one facility and alternate between Bellevue East and Bellevue West, depending on availability.

The combined hands-on work and extra help is encouraging more students to go into high-level classes.

“Kids can be scared to go into AP,” Jensen said. “Sometimes the extra work is scary for students, and sometimes the extra work for teachers seems tiring.”

The NMSI program, however, works to allow students of all abilities, from all areas of the country, the same opportunities.

As the teachers become more aware of AP opportunities, more middle-school teachers are thinking about higher-level classes, and they are starting to encourage students to look at higher level classes. Instead of looking at those students who achieve straight As and encouraging them to pursue AP and higher-level classes, they are starting to see potential in students who may not achieve straight As and encouraging them to pursue those higher-level courses as well, because the built-in support enables all students the ability to learn in this system.

“We rely on middle-school teachers for course recommendations,” Jensen said. “It’s been nice to have them know what this program is and that any student is capable of working in it.”

When it comes to taking the AP tests, the students and staff are more ready than ever to succeed. Students and teachers take the mock exams and the instructors use them for feedback. They go through the exams with the students and find out where the inefficiencies are, then help students learn to correctly answer the questions.

“In chemistry, when we took the mock exam, I barely passed,” O’Grady said. “A lot of things we covered in the beginning of the year I had forgotten. Two to three months later, knowing what was coming, I took the actual exam and I did well on it.”

The result of all this emphasis on higher learning has been a culture shift in the schools from a thought of AP courses being scary or only for 4.0 students into the idea that anyone can have the ability to take these courses.

The effects are visible. In the 2017-2018 school year, before implementation of this program, 1,179 students were enrolled in AP courses. In the 2018-2019 school year, 1,478 students enrolled in AP courses; and in the 2019-2020 year, 1,643 students are enrolled in AP courses.

While taking AP courses is beneficial for knowledge, the potential monetary payoff comes from the exams. With a qualifying score of three or higher, students can earn college credits, exempting them from paying for those classes in college. O’Grady has earned four college credits in chemistry and four in calculus at the University of Nebraska by taking, and excelling in (earning a score of 3 or higher), the AP examinations.

In spring 2019, 671 students enrolled in AP courses took a total of 1,222 AP exams. As of December 2019, the district projected that 943 students would take 1,643 exams this school year.

Part of the reason for this uptick in exams is the stipend that the grant gives for the fees. The exams cost around $90 each, which is offset for three years by the grant. At that point, the hope is that the culture shift is encouraging people to continue taking these exams, but the money is still important to many students.

“If I could have one thing, it would be a continued stipend for paying for these exams,” Moore said.

“[We are] thankful for having the ability to have this,” he added. “This is taking time, energy, and effort after hours from staff. Fran and Susan are the lifeblood of this program—their passion has driven the success.”

This article was printed in the 2019 Summer Camp Edition of Family Guide. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

students, staff from Bellevue Public Schools

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