Omaha & Millard Public Schools

This is the first in our series of responses to the questionnaires that school board candidates across the state have returned to us. These posts do not constitute endorsements.

The intention is to inform and educate readers about the candidates in their school district and, even more importantly, to encourage further research. If you are seeking endorsements of candidates who support public schools, students, and educators, visit Nebraskans for Educational Excellence. They are a nonpartisan organization who advocate for and support our public schools.

Please take the time to learn about your local candidates, whether they have answered our questionnaires or not. Look at any endorsements they may have received and reach out to them directly to ask your own specific questions.

We heard back from two candidates for school boards in Douglas County that we will share today. They are Andrew Finch for Omaha Public Schools and Allison Kinney-Walker for Millard Public Schools.

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Andrew: I am running for the school board because I have a passion for education. Without a solid education system, our society suffers tremendously. We need a school board that focuses on our students, is teacher centered, and data driven. As a professional and community leader, community representatives must play a crucial role in shaping education policy and decision-making. In our school district, we have many students that are marginalized or underserved that are being left behind and we must work to bring equity to all our students, so they are prepared for post-secondary success.

Allison: I decided to run for school board because I believe I have an important voice and perspective to bring to our community.  I see serving on the School Board as a continuation of my service to our community and my passion to work towards a high quality, equitable education for every student in Millard.  I am running, not just because I want to ensure an excellent education for my kids, but because I want to ensure an excellent education for every child in our community.

What do you hope to accomplish if elected?

Andrew: If elected, my priorities are to address the teacher shortage, address Post-Secondary Preparedness, and Community Involvement in the School Board governance.

Allison: My hope is that Millard can be a model to other similar suburban school districts.  Millard is a district with changing demographics and my hope is that we embrace our diversity as a strength and work to create an educational learning environment where all can succeed.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing your local public schools?

Andrew: Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has had pervasive effects on the mental, social, and academic well-being of this community’s greatest resource – our youth. For example, chronic absenteeism, which affected 1 out of 6 students prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, has tripled! During the 2019-2020 school year, 33,000 Nebraska students (roughly 10% of students) were chronically absent. In 2021-22, the number of chronically absent students in Nebraska reached over 70,000. Chronic absenteeism is directly connected to our student’s learning outcomes, school connectedness, and academic acuity.

In order to address student learning and well-being deficits such as this, I think it is imperative to take a multi-faceted and compassionate approach that provides support and resources for not only the students themselves, but their entire family. One opportunity to address these challenges is to employ in-school and community-based mentoring efforts that have been proven to counteract chronic absenteeism and bolster student learning by increasing student’s sense of belonging.

Allison: The biggest issues facing our community are the teacher/staff shortage and the changing demographics of our community.  Our schools are only as good as the staff we can recruit and retain.  With a smaller pipeline of teachers, recruiting and retaining staff is a top priority.  In addition, Millard is a district with changing demographics.  We are seeing an increase in our English Language Learner programs, our refugee student population, and our low-income student population.  The diversity of our community is a strength, but it also means we have to make sure we are providing the necessary resources and supports to our students, teachers, and staff to serve these populations.

How will you ensure inclusiveness for all students?

Andrew: Ensuring inclusiveness for all students is a fundamental aspect of creating a supportive and equitable learning environment. Strategies must be implemented to promote inclusiveness in schools. To do this, we must ensure that curriculum materials, textbooks, classroom resources, and teaching practices reflect the diversity of students’ backgrounds, cultures, identities, and experiences. We must Incorporate diverse perspectives and voices into lessons and classroom discussions to promote understanding, empathy, and respect for all.

Omaha Public School District must create a safe, welcoming, and inclusive school climate where all students feel valued, respected, and supported. The district must implement anti-bullying and harassment policies, provide training for staff on creating inclusive spaces, and establish student support services to address the diverse needs of students. We must provide equitable access to educational opportunities, resources, and support services for all students, regardless of their background, abilities, or identities. This may include offering enrichment programs, advanced coursework, extracurricular activities, and support for English language learners, students with disabilities, and other underserved populations.

We must train educators in culturally responsive teaching practices that recognize and affirm students’ cultural identities, backgrounds, and experiences. Encourage teachers to incorporate culturally relevant content, teaching methods, and instructional materials into their lessons to engage students and enhance learning outcomes. We must celebrate diversity and promote inclusion through school-wide events, cultural celebrations, diversity workshops, and awareness campaigns. The need to create opportunities for students to learn about and appreciate different cultures, traditions, and perspectives, fostering a sense of belonging and mutual respect among all members of the school community.

By implementing strategies and fostering a culture of inclusiveness and equity within schools, educators and school leaders can create an environment where all students feel valued, respected, and empowered to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally.

Allison: Schools must be safe places for students.  Students can not learn if their most basic need of safety and a feeling of belonging is not first established.  As a School Board member, I will look at our policies and our curriculum through the lens of inclusion; how will this policy/curriculum help students feel safe, seen, celebrated, and included?

Do you advocate for traditional learning vs accommodating learning?

Andrew: I believe in a balanced approach that combines elements of both traditional and accommodating learning to create a dynamic and inclusive educational experience that meets the diverse needs of students.

Allison: I believe in differentiated learning and meeting students where they are at.  Education has to remain flexible and adaptable to meet the varying needs of our students.  And in order to be able to do that, teachers and staff must have the support, resources, and time they need to adjust learning activities for students.

  1. How do you feel about classroom sizes? What and how would you change this?

Andrew: Research studies show that optimal classroom sizes should be around 15-19 students, yet many classes are larger than that in our school district.  Knowing that the data points us that smaller classrooms are the optimal environment for students to have the best learning environment, it makes sense that we should mirror that optimal classroom size if we want to create the best learning environment for our students to succeed.  To do that, we must redesign instruction and implement instructional strategies that facilitate differentiation and student collaboration that can help teachers effectively manage larger class sizes. We must lean into utilizing Technology and integrating technology tools and online resources can supplement instruction and provide students with opportunities for independent learning and practice. I also think we must build community partnerships and begin collaborating with community organizations, volunteers, and mentors who can provide additional support and resources to address the needs of students in larger classes.

Allison: In my research for my doctorate in Educational Leadership, there were mixed results in the literature regarding class sizes.  I believe class sizes should be manageable for the teacher, but I think even more important than class size is the ways in which we are supporting, resourcing, and prioritizing teacher’s planning and instructional time.  Additionally, it is not a one-size fits all approach.  Depending on the needs of the students, some classes will need to have different ratios.  As a School Board member, I would want to make sure our administrators are working closely with teachers and staff on the front lines to find out what class sizes are optimal for the population they are working with and work towards meeting those needs.

  1. How do you feel about standardized tests? Do you feel there is a better way to assess what the students learned?

Andrew: I am not a fan of standardized test models. The standardized test creates a narrow curriculum model that creates education to pass the test rather than application and deep understanding.  Standardized testing is filled with bias and inequality and causes inequity among students who aren’t “normal” by the test models. Standardized testing limits achievement and skill-building among students.  Knowing that this way of testing model has deficiencies, I feel a better way to assess what students learned is through a Performance Based Assessment, Authentic Assessment, or Formative Assessment models.

Allison: Standardized tests are one type of assessment point; one piece of data that should be looked at alongside lots of other types of data.  I do think there are a number of ways to assess student learning and we should incorporate as many different types of assessments in order to get the fullest picture of a student.  As a School Board member, I would advocate for utilizing multiple assessments and data points and not to overemphasize any one standardized test.

  1. What do you think a school board member’s job is?

Andrew: School board members are responsible for establishing policies that govern the operation of the school district. This includes setting academic standards, curriculum guidelines, budgetary priorities, and rules and regulations for school operations. School board members oversee the financial management of the school district, including approving budgets, monitoring expenditures, and ensuring fiscal accountability. School board members hire and evaluate the superintendent, who serves as the chief executive officer of the school district. They may also be involved in the selection and evaluation of other administrative personnel. School board members serve as representatives of the community and advocate for the interests and needs of students, families, and taxpayers. They often engage with stakeholders, attend community events, and solicit feedback to inform decision-making. School board members hold the superintendent and administration accountable for achieving the goals and objectives set by the board, ensuring transparency, and upholding the district’s values and mission.

Allison: I believe the role of a School Board member is to work collaboratively with the other Board members, the administrative team, the teachers/staff, students, and families in order to set the direction and priorities of the school district.  In addition, the School Board should ensure accountability and promote the success and well-being of all students.

  1. How do you feel about the arts? Sports?

Andrew: While the priority of the school board and the school district is education, the arts and sports play crucial roles in a well-rounded education, offering students valuable opportunities for creativity, self-expression, skill development, and physical fitness. The arts offer avenues for creativity and self-expression: It also encourages the student to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. We also find a sense of cultural understanding and appreciation within the students. Research shows that students in the arts have an increased emotional and social development.

For those who participate in sports, students are given avenues toward overall physical health and fitness. Students in sports learn the valuable lessons of teamwork and leadership. Those same students build character traits of resilience, perseverance, discipline, and sportsmanship, which are valuable for personal growth and success in life. We also create social connections and community engagement by offering opportunities for students to build social connections, forge friendships, and develop a sense of belonging within their school and community.

Allison: I believe the arts, music, drama, clubs/activities, and athletics are all important parts of the educational experience for young people.  Millard Public Schools provides many opportunities for students to shine in a multitude of ways and the learning, growth, friendship, and leadership development that happens in these extracurricular activities is an essential part of the K-12 experience.  As a School Board member, I would support our students’ pursuits in all these areas.

  1. What do you feel should be the focus of your school?

Andrew: Student Focused, Teacher Centered, and Data Driven.

Allison: The focus of a school district should be on the educational attainment of every student in the community from birth until a student graduates from one of our programs.  However, in order to attain these educational outcomes, we must first ensure student’s basic needs are met so they are set up for success.  Thus, our focus should be collaborating with families and community resources to make sure students are set up for success- which means students have access to safe housing, food, transportation, healthcare, clothing, school supplies, hygiene products, and more.  We can’t focus on educational attainment without also addressing these basic needs.

  1. What do you feel your local public school is doing well?

Andrew: I believe our school district does well in working with immigrant and refugee populations and ensuring the transition into the school district runs well.  The district functions as one of the elite school districts nationwide that has programs and available resources to ensure families of diverse backgrounds are assimilated into the school system.

Allison: Public schools, in general, excel in providing a quality education to every student in their community.  Specifically, in Millard, in addition to providing a quality education, I believe we are providing additional opportunities for students to learn, grow, and explore so that they are ready for the next phase of their life, whatever they might be.

  1. What do you feel your public school should improve? Any ideas on how?

Andrew: There are a few items that come to mind when answering this question.  This list of items is by no ways exhaustive or in order of importance.  I feel that Omaha Public School District needs to improve in academic achievement within minority students.  I feel that improvement on a consistent level of academic rigor across the school locations. I also feel that the district needs to improve in the area of creating community partnership in order to achieve their missions and goals.  In all of the areas I stated, I believe that we can gain some traction in these areas if we became better in partnering with parents, community, and other non-profit groups. The work of the school district is such a difficult and enormous task and we must stop the thinking that its just on the board to solve the areas of deficiencies alone.  The work of education is so important, that it truly will take engaging parents and the community to join with the school district to make the district function with excellence.

Allison: I believe our school district can improve upon the academic achievement gaps we see for different populations of students.  Although we are providing a quality education to every student, there are some student populations that are not experiencing the same educational attainment and I believe we should focus on narrowing the achievement gaps by providing additional resources and supports to our most vulnerable students.

  1. Do you think religion should be in your school?

Andrew: No.

Allison: I believe students should be able to express their personal religious beliefs in school (for example, if a student wants to pray before lunch or a student wants to read from the Quran during free reading, students should have the ability to do so).  However, I do not believe teachers/staff should be encouraging, leading, or requiring participation in any religious activity at school.  Furthermore, I do not believe religious leaders should serve as counselors/chaplins in our public schools.  Public schools should remain separate from religious education.

Do you think your beliefs should be leading your local school?

Andrew: Maintaining Student focus, remaining teacher centered, and being guided by the data should be what is leading the school district.

Allison: I do not believe a School Board member should impose their religious beliefs on the school district, staff, or students.

  1. How do you handle differences of opinions/beliefs on a subject?

Andrew: As a professional and community leader, I constantly deal with handling differences of opinions/beliefs.  The best way I handle those situations is by relying on effective communication skills, respect for diverse perspectives, and a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue.

Allison: I believe diversity of opinions and beliefs make for a stronger community.  I believe that by including people with different opinions and beliefs will lead to better decisions and better outcomes.  However, in order for this to be productive, I believe we need to handle differences of opinions and beliefs with civility, with openness, and with a desire to understand one another.  As a School Board member, I would work hard to remain open to different ideas, perspectives, worldviews, and opinions of the members of my community and collaborate with others to come to the best decisions and solutions on any given issue.

  1. Do you have kids in school? Do they attend the school district of the board you are running for?

Andrew: I currently do not have any kids in Omaha Public Schools. My only son is currently a Senior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha majoring in a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with a Concentration in Inequality and Social Justice with a Double Minor in African American Studies and Latino/Chicano Studies.

Allison: Yes, I have four children in the school district. They currently attend one of the elementary schools in our district and next year, one of my children will be attending one of the middle schools.

More about Nico Emerson

Nicolette "Nico" L. Emerson is an observer of politics in small town Nebraska, especially as it pertains to education, school boards, and adults who want to decide the direction of the next generation.