State education officials are moving forward with plans to intervene in a high school west of Fremont, despite pushback from district leaders.
The Nebraska Department of Education is drawing up an intervention plan for Schuyler Central High School.
The Schuyler Community Schools superintendent and school board president had pleaded with the Nebraska State Board of Education to reverse the designation of Schuyler as a priority school, a label they compared to a “scarlet letter.”
The designation, which identified the school as “demographically shifting” and low achieving, paves the way for state officials to intervene, diagnose problems and try to fix them.
On Thursday, state officials said there will be no reversing the designation.
Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt said state intervention in struggling schools is still a newer concept for Nebraska, and schools have initially pushed back.
Before state lawmakers established the priority school system in 2014, schools typically had to be enticed to make changes with federal grants, he said.
“We’re using our Nebraska statutory authority to name priority schools and go in and work,” Blomstedt said. “It’s a little less comfortable of a situation, not just for those schools but also for the department. That’s not how we’ve done things in the past.”
Schuyler officials took issue with state officials referring to the high school as a “demographically shifting” community. They said some in the community viewed it as a racially motivated label against immigrants.
The Class B school enrolls 575 students, 87 percent Hispanic, 10 percent white and 3 percent black.
State officials denied it was intended that way, pointing to statistics that show the racial makeup of Schuyler has shifted over time from predominately white to a community with substantial immigration.
The state board has designated a total of four priority schools so far — Schuyler was designated in February after Druid Hill Elementary in Omaha came off the list. Each school was selected because it represented a general category of concern to state officials: urban schools, Native American schools, small community schools and demographically shifting schools.
By helping Schuyler, state officials said, they could help other demographically shifting districts like Lexington, Madison and Wakefield.
Blomstedt said initial meetings with the Schuyler school board and administration have been “cordial” and his intervention team has gotten “a very warm welcome.”
Superintendent Dan Hoesing said last week: “We’re accepting that we’re the school.”
Hoesing said, however, he’s still unsure about what help the state can offer that local officials are not already doing.
He said he told Blomstedt that local officials would cooperate if it makes the school better, but they don’t want to be held up as the state’s “poster child.”
“I said, we aren’t going to fight this. The damage has been done. If there’s a way for us to make our school better, we’ll cooperate, and we’ll do the things necessary,” Hoesing said. “If our kids benefit, great.”
In August, the state board will consider approving a formal intervention plan, but Hoesing said he’s already initiated some changes.
“They wanted my principals to be in the classrooms more, so in the last month, I’ve reshaped some of my principals’ jobs, taken away some of the stuff so they can be in the classrooms more,” he said.
Remaining on the priority school list for another year are Santee Middle in Niobrara, representing Native American schools, and Loup County Elementary in Taylor, representing small rural schools. Blomstedt said the state is still monitoring Druid Hill.