THE LOW DOWN: It takes a village to raise a child. At Liberty Elementary School in Omaha, teachers and administrators have created a unique sense of community that results in empowered students, involved families, and an incredible array of resources for both. How are they doing it? With a focus on communication that shatters socio-economic, cultural and language barriers.
THE CHALLENGE: With 95 percent of Liberty students coming from homes living under the poverty line, educators have had to get creative to provide the resources the children need to succeed. From study skills programs, to an on-campus health clinic, to English classes for parents, Liberty is proving that with the right opportunities any child can achieve great things. It’s not a hand out, it’s a hand up, and it’s being provided not just by committed educators and community partners, but also by parents who are being empowered to help their children succeed.
THE CHAMPIONS: Principal Ilka Oberst, School Counselor Cecilia Di Masi, 2012 Nebraska Teacher of the Year Luisa Palomo, and a host of dedicated teachers, parents and community partners.
THE SOLUTION: Communication, accountability and involvement are three secrets to success at Liberty, not to mention the “real world.” Liberty Elementary educators believe that instilling a strong sense of responsibility in their students is a valuable lesson that will serve them well throughout their lives. That’s why every student and teacher (and most parents) can recite the Liberty keys to success:
- Come to school every day on time.
- Do all your work.
- Turn all the work into the (teacher) boss.
- Follow Liberty rules.
- Just do it! (Doing it right the first time is "major green"!)
Students understand what’s expected of them in the classroom thanks to a stoplight discipline system: red, yellow and green, with green being what every student should strive for. To keep them on task, each student (staring from pre-school on) is responsible for bringing home a green assignment book. Parents are required to sign off on the book each night, helping them stay in tune with what their child is learning in school and how they’re performing. The notebook helps make it easier for parents to understand how they can help their kids succeed in the classroom and provides them an easy way to stay involved in their child’s education.
It’s the student’s responsibility to make sure their parents sign the book, and as added incentive, students who achieve a “green level” of performance get to participate in a monthly “Green Party.” Those who don’t achieve green status will work with their teachers (and sometimes their parents) to ensure their behavior or performance improves so they can attend next month’s festivities.
The techniques employed at Liberty can help any student succeed, but they’re especially beneficial for the school’s low-income community which makes up about 90 percent of the student body. Poverty creates unique stressors for children and their families, including a lack of access to transportation, nutritious (or enough) food, health care, and other necessities that many people take for granted. The school provides families with myriad services designed to alleviate some of those stressors, making it easier for kids to come to school and learn.
Leveraging partnerships with a variety of organizations - including Building Bright Futures, the YMCA, the Omaha Mayor’s office, Omaha Public Library and more - the school can provide opportunities that may otherwise be out of reach for many of its students. A School Based Health Center (funded by Building Bright Futures) provides access to quality medical care for children. A clothing pantry is available for children and their families, and students get to attend every production at The Rose Theater and are frequent visitors to nearby museums.
To encourage parental involvement the school hosts monthly family nights, holiday food giveaways, healthy cooking classes provided by the Visiting Nurse Association, English classes for parents, and even tax preparation services. These services are designed to empower parents to help their children succeed.
THE RESULTS: By teaching students that school is their job, teachers are the boss, and parents are “the big boss,” children learn focus and responsibility that will benefit them in the future. The green notebook method and an emphasis on study skills helps prepare elementary students for middle school by teaching organization and self sufficiency.
The school has become a true haven for students and parents alike, and parents are responding by participating in their child’s education in a variety of ways, including volunteering at the school.
Because many of its students participate in school’s Completely KIDS before- and after-school programs, the school has worked hard to ensure that daily lessons are incorporated into this secondary curriculum in fun and hands-on ways.
It takes a village: Liberty counts on community support to provide opportunities and services for their students. Administrators have worked to build relationships with local businesses and organizations that have a vested interest in the success of the community around them.
Empowered kids turn into empowered adults: By keeping the message positive and providing frequent reminders of what it takes to succeed, all kids at Liberty have a clear understand of what they need to achieve and how it translates to life after elementary school.
Teach a man to fish: By providing parents with easy ways to stay on top of and involved in their children’s studies, Liberty has proved that engaged parents equal engaged kids.