Tola Dada Shifts From Court-side to WE-SIDEFeb 19, 2021 09:31AM ● By J. D. Avant
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Tola Dada once started every basketball game at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, scoring in double figures 11 times. He had a career high of 21 points against Northern Colorado.
These days, Dada is less often found courtside, and more often found WE-SIDE. There’s a myth permeating Omaha that Tola Dada would like to dispel.
The assistant principal at Westside High School knows many people living outside District 66—which includes schools such as Westbrook Elementary, Westside Middle School, and Westside High School—tend to assume every parent in the area is affluent and the district lacks diversity.
It’s a misconception Dada once believed himself.
“One thing that surprised me, is Westside High is more diverse than I thought,” Dada said, recalling his initial days at the high school. “There’s still the perception that Westside is 95% white and everybody’s parents make $200,000 a year, and that’s not true.”
The Nigerian-born educator joined the staff at Westside after leaving Bellevue East in 2019. Working as a biology and science teacher, basketball coach, and dean of students over his six-year stint at Bellevue East, Dada enjoyed a diverse atmosphere where students got along regardless of race or how much someone’s parents made per year.
The atmosphere reminded him of fond memories playing UNO basketball and winning a conference championship in 2004 with a diverse group of teammates.
His experience with, and interest in, people in all parts of the education system was a factor in his being hired at Westside. As with basketball, building relationships with his team of students and staff is a priority, and that has led to him being a top-notch educator.
“Tola is an outstanding leader and educator, and an incredible asset to the Westside team,” said Mike Lucas, Ed.D., superintendent of Westside Community Schools. “We hired Tola because of his exceptional skill set, experience, and proven impact he has on students and coworkers.”
Dada was pleased to find a similar feeling of diversity at Westside when he joined as one of the district’s first Black administrators. Westside Principal Jay Opperman points towards demographic and statistical profiles to highlight the community’s progression.
“Westside is a community and school district that has seen significant change,” Opperman said, noting the area’s demographic transformation over the past 15 to 20 years.
A look at Westside Community Schools Demographic and Statistical Profile for 2019-2020 highlights these changes, including an increased population of nonwhite students, students qualifying for special education services, and those qualifying for free or reduced-price meals.
“We are a much better representation of Omaha and what the city truly is,” Opperman said.
Events such as local protests and the murder of James Scurlock stirred district leadership and the board of education to take a close look at their policies. They want to make sure every student is treated with dignity, support, and love.
On June 15, the district passed a resolution in which they pledged to renew some community advisory groups, press harder to decrease bias, and seek remedies to problems. This is why District 66 created the WE-SIDE Community Council. An acronym for Welcoming Equity Support Inclusion Dignity for Everyone, the council was formed to achieve district goals for equity and respect no matter a student’s background.
The initial council is small, consisting of custodial members, behavior interventionists, and in-school representatives such as Dada. In the future, they plan to expand and incorporate student groups along with teachers and community envoys.
Ericka Payton is the principal at Westside High School—West Campus and a member of the WE-SIDE Community Council. She commends district leadership for its commitment and willingness to acknowledge sensitive issues and face them head-on.
“Since we weren’t in session, we couldn’t see how the George Floyd incident firsthand impacted the school,” Payton said. “We did see how it impacted the city of Omaha with the protests and things going on. It was an eye-opener for stakeholders in the district.”
As the first female Black administrator in the region, Payton has taken a special interest in the council’s initiatives. Her biggest goal for the council’s first year is for people to acknowledge and recognize their biases.
“Some may feel this work doesn’t apply to them because they have Black friends or they feel they treat everyone the same,” Payton said. “Bringing a lot of implicit biases people have to the forefront will help start doing the work to make changes.
“We can’t pretend they’re not feeling that way,” she continued. “We can’t pretend like people all over the country didn’t see a white police officer with his knee on the neck of a Black man killed in the streets of Minnesota. We can’t pretend our young ladies don’t feel like they could’ve been Breonna Taylor, in their beds sleeping and not waking up because police went into the wrong house.”
Dada thinks conversations about race and police brutality with his children will carry on to his students at school.
“It’s challenging,” he admitted, “hard to know what’s too much and what’s too little. You just explain the best that you can.”
Fortunately, the WE-SIDE council was built to help teachers and administrators in the district tackle these tough issues. The foundation of their goals will include diversifying staff to gain a variety of perspectives and making sure the curriculum is covering a range of cultures.
“The WE-SIDE Community Forums were extremely powerful events,” said Brandi Paul, director of Communications & Engagement for Westside Community Schools. “These were opportunities to hear personal experiences from the men and women we work with every day. Tola, Ericka, Gary [Gould]—they just talked, they shared stories about interactions they’ve had and things they’ve experienced being Black in America, in Omaha, and at Westside. Their candidness and vulnerability allowed us all perspective I don’t think we would’ve had otherwise. I left that meeting with new perspective that I believe and hope will help me, and all of us, better serve all of the learners and families we work with every day.”
“One thing that I think is important is more diversity in honors and advanced classes,” Dada said. “When you walk into an AP government or chemistry class you want to see representations of all backgrounds.”
Opperman applauds the efforts of every member of the council, especially his colleague, Dada.
“I greatly appreciate Tola’s ability to connect with all students,” he said. “When we started school last year, his perspective growing up as a Black man in Omaha was good for me, my team, and our school. We want great people and we want them to reflect the city of Omaha and Westside. Tola Dada does that.”
Visit westside66.org for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.