Leveling Inequality

Learning community offers student resources for success

Staring at the strawberry Smucker’s Uncrustable in his hand, Ademar Sanderson wondered where his next dinner would come from.

At 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday, Sanderson sat at his kitchen table, holding his Smucker’s and glancing anxiously at the hanging lamp above him as he waited for the nurse to call from the hospital so he could speak to his mom. At the age of 13, Sanderson wasn’t looking forward to finishing his homework or March Madness. Instead, he was counting down the days until his 14th birthday—when he’d finally be able to apply for a job and provide an income for his family.

Two years later, Sanderson transferred into MN as a sophomore, his average Saturday night dinner came from the Millard food pantry, and when his mother’s hospital bills began accumulating, his family was able to find a source of relief through Millard.

In the last decade, MN’s socioeconomically-challenged enrollment has nearly tripled, with 17% of total students qualifying for free-and-reduced lunch. To support this increase, Millard has adopted programs, such as the Family Fund, that assist low-income families.

“There was this two-week period where I thought we would have to choose between paying for [my mom’s] treatment and paying to keep water or electricity running. I’ve never been so scared in my life,” Sanderson said. “When we got that help from the school to pay the water bill, I thought I would cry from relief.”

Although the MPS Family Fund evaluates each family’s situation individually, funds are primarily allotted for rent and utility emergencies.

“If there are barriers, MN promotes an open community so people feel comfortable addressing them. Everybody has a backstory. Whether it’s because of socioeconomic status or past trauma, everybody has a story,” Community counselor Rachel Vacek said. 

However, this environment of unified diversity has not always persisted throughout Omaha. Fifteen years prior, Omaha was fractured over how to best prevent academic inequality.

In the early 2000s, Omaha had the nation’s highest disparity between its poor and rich school districts, according to UNO College of Communication, Fine Arts, and Media professor Mark Hoeger. The journey to a more unified educational community began with the “One City, One School District” movement. Announced in June 2005 by then-OPS Superintendent John Mackiel, the movement included a plan for OPS to absorb 25 school districts–including Millard.

“Multiple school districts in Omaha stratify our community,” Mackiel said in a 2005 interview. “They create inequity, and they compromise the opportunity for a genuine sense of community.”

The plan was met with contention. Opponents argued that the annexation would limit the efficiency of schools and flexibility for families. Supporters claimed that a singular school district would ensure academic equity. These debates, coupled with former Senator Ernie Chambers’ legislative plan to promote budget equity by dividing OPS into three racial districts–black, white and Hispanic–and the subsequent national outcry, prompted the formation of the Learning Community.

At the time, the Learning Community’s primary goal was to promote socioeconomic diversity through programs such as open enrollment, which provided busing to students wishing to opt-in to a school outside their district limits–given that the student would increase the socioeconomic diversity of that specific school.

“At the time, people were thinking: ‘we need to come together. We have to break this division between the rich and the poor,’” Chair of Learning Community’s Coordinating Council Susan Kelley said. “But it was expensive and that money came from the districts. Everyone was fighting. Everyone had their hand out or they were saying: ‘we’re paying you guys a lot of money, and it’s all going to OPS.’ And then everyone hated the Learning Community. It wasn’t working.”

Since then, the Learning Community’s mission has evolved to focus primarily on bringing resources to students and families through programs such as Intensive Early Childhood Education and Parent University. In the last school year, the Learning Community aided more than 16,000 children, parents, and teachers-in-training.

“The focus is on looking at the bigger picture. They used to try to make everybody the same, and now we know that’s not going to happen. So we put the money in early childhood development to prevent that achievement gap from ever happening,” Kelley said.

In addition to the Learning Community’s programs and the Millard Family Fund, MN offers several resources to students. For instance, in place of the open enrollment busing system, MN partners with Chariots4Hope to donate restored cars to low-income families in need of transportation.

“These programs come into play to try and help students feel comfortable at school,” Vacek said. “We want everyone to come to school ready to learn.”

In the future, these resources will continue to evolve.

“We’ll work together, and we’ll work hard so that all the students at Millard North and other schools can be the best that they can be and learn the best that they can,” Kelley said. “They have to have a solid foundation, and it’s only going to continue to grow.”

For now, however, the path to academic diversity is exemplified through the lives and hopes of students like Sanderson. 

“I know a lot of families out there are like mine, but they haven’t been as lucky. I’m grateful for what we’ve been given,” Sanderson said. “Maybe one day, the luck I’ve had can be the norm and not the exception.”