LINCOLN — A state plan to intervene in low-performing schools faces stiff opposition in Schuyler, Nebraska, a community it aims to help.
Officials from the Schuyler Public Schools made it clear Friday that they are not happy with the state designating their high school a low-performing school in need of intervention.
Officials from the district 30 miles west of Fremont aired their criticism, in blunt words, at Friday’s meeting of the Nebraska State Board of Education.
Appearing before the state board, Rich Brabec, president of the Schuyler school board, asked board members to reconsider their designation of Schuyler Central High School as a “priority school.”
State board members showed no sign of reversing course.
Under a 2014 law, the state can designate three struggling schools as priorities in need of assistance. The designation clears the way for state officials to diagnose and try to fix issues hindering academic achievement.
Brabec called the designation a “scarlet letter.”
He specifically took issue with state officials referring to Schuyler Central as a “demographically shifting” community, which he said was perceived in the community as a racially motivated label against immigrants.
The school has a nearly 90 percent immigrant enrollment.
“The recent designation of demographically changing community is a target on our immigrant population, and at a time when our students and families are fighting for their existence in this country,” Brabec said.
“Our students face the reality of deportation, denigration, threats, racial slurs, chants by opposing schools — ‘Go home,’ ‘Build a wall.’ This scarlet letter of the priority designation has jeopardized the trust of our community.”
The Class B school enrolls 575 students, 87 percent Hispanic, 10 percent white and 3 percent black.
Brabec challenged some of the data the state used to designate the school, saying student performance actually holds up well against similar schools.
He said officials have already launched their own reforms and would like time for those interventions to work. They removed principals from the middle school and high school. The high school is in the second year of a five-year improvement plan funded by a federal School Improvement Grant.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said he understands how the local officials could feel like the state’s “piling on.”
Blomstedt said there was no racial intent with the designation, other than to look for ways to help Nebraska schools coping with an influx of immigrants.
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.
“We identified a set of schools that fall into that category, not based on thinking about race but thinking about the types of supports and services that schools need,” Blomstedt said.
He said he understands the concerns from Schuyler officials because of the challenges they face.
“They probably do feel it’s piling on,” Blomstedt said. “That was never our intention. Instead, our intention is to start to think about how the state of Nebraska and the education system addresses those types of challenges.”
He said he feels morally obligated to address issues like poverty and racial discrimination.
John Witzel, president of the state board, said the board would review the concerns raised by the Schuyler officials. But he said he doubted that the board would reverse its 8-0 vote.
“In good faith, we’ll review the documents, but at first blush, it would have to be a major faux pas to reverse our decision,” he said.
Asked if there was any racial intent to the designation, Witzel said: “Heavens, no.”
A bill in the Legislature would allow, but not require, the board to designate more than three priority schools at a time.
LB 1081 would also require the board to re-evaluate a priority school’s progress after three years instead of the current five to determine if the plan should be revised or whether an alternative administrative structure is warranted.