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Equity and Diversity: Winter Newsletter

Direction-A Letter from the Director

Equity and Diversity Community,

We are now in the full grips of a new season that will present us with new challenges and opportunities. The winter provides us with an opportunity to slow down and focus inward as we reflect on our roles and contributions to our fellow being and the planet. How do you plan on practicing self-care in this new season? What ways could you serve as a better ally? What power do you have to make your work and learning environment more inclusive? The new year and new decade allows us to be thoughtful of our growth from the past and get excited in anticipating the future. And there is much to be excited about as our district is developing our Strategic Plan of Action: Powered by Foresight. 

In the group discussion leading up to the development of the Strategic Plan of Action, our district stakeholders identified the following five values: leadership, results matter, joy, accountability, and equity. Equity is the inclusion of unique and intersecting identities of all students and staff through practices, policies, academic support, curriculum, language, school resources, school culture, and district climate support. The characteristics of equity builds relationships, creates depths of understanding, and embraces opportunities and resources, particularly for historically marginalized populations. The Strategic Plan aspires to incorporate equity by centering our efforts around Access and Opportunity, Pursuing Diversity, Building Efficacy, and Social Responsibility.

There will be much more conversation about these concepts and Equity in general as our work continues so stay tuned and look for wonderful opportunities that will be provided by the district and our supportive community. 

You are just what we have been waiting for!

Reflecting our Students

Schools Only Holidays Are Christian Holy Days 

By Jeremiah Booth, North High Magnet School


In most public schools, Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday are days that are recognized as holidays and are usually days off, but school districts tend to forget about non-Christian holidays. 

For example, according to the Millard Public Schools calendar, they classify their “winter break” as “Christmas Break,” which could be seen as a problem because it doesn’t allow religious diversity. In another district, Omaha Public Schools, their calendar gives students two weeks off to celebrate Christmas, but it’s identified as “Winter Recess.” The week leading up to Easter used to be given off but was changed due to “Seat Time, which is the amount of days public schools must stay open”, according to Barry Thomas, Director of Equity and Diversity for OPS. 

Some schools in Millard used to get Good Friday and Easter Monday off, but they no longer do that due to how it made them look. Parents were complaining about their students having homework on Wednesday nights because their kids had youth groups and other activities. Because of this, Millard Public Schools made a rule that no students could get homework on Wednesdays or have any tests on Thursdays, and they call it “family time,” but parents and some teachers speculate that it’s just so students can go to their youth groups, “That’s the reason I believe they give those days off,” Kamryn Lewin, a senior at Millard South. 

“School breaks are geared toward Christian holidays all the way. No one accidentally calls winter break Hanukkah break, yet I constantly hear people Christmas break. We don’t get any important Jewish holidays off,” Isaac Dennison, 10. 

Over 65 percent of the United States population is Christian and celebrate holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday. There are also people who aren’t Christian celebrate Christmas but people that practice other religions such as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and more don’t receive time off to practice their Holy days. “I believe that it’s inequitable that students are not given the advantage of having their high holidays off of school compared to others that do,” Barry Thomas, Director of Equity and Diversity for OPS. 

“I have some students that are practicing Muslims. During Ramadan I know that they don’t have as much sleep and since they are fasting it is more difficult for them to focus in class, so I see some drawbacks for them having to be in school for most of it,” Colin Riggins, Omaha North High Spanish teacher. 

Not cancelling school for holidays involving other religions than Christianity poses a problem for students and their families, “We only get Christian and national holidays off and it upsets me that my family has to choose between our religion and my education,” Isaac Dennison, 10. 

According to MeteaMedia, a newspaper at Metea Valley High School, a school in Illinois, schools in New York close for major Jewish holidays, and as of 2015, two days are given for Muslims to observe Eid. Their main reasoning for this was “over 1.1 million of their students being Muslim and numbers continuing to grow with other religions too.” 

The Change in Our Schools

On December 4th, McMillan Magnet Center hosted their Title I Literacy Night with the theme of Diversity in Literacy.  Families arrived to participate in activities built off the diverse kinds of readers and writers we have at McMillan and in our community.  Two local YA literature authors, Dr. Lydia Kang and Tonya Kuper signed and gave away copies of their young adult novels.  Felicia Webster from the Nebraska Arts Council performed and provided a Poetry Slam writing workshop, and service dogs from Healing Hands were at the ready to listen to readers of all ages read out loud.  Students of all ages played games related to literacy like the Book Walk game for the younger attendees.  Local company, The Power of Words, gave away many, many books!  All students attending were able to enter drawings for new Amazon Fire Tablets, Echos, Reader and Writer Toolkits.  The night was a great success as each family left with many diverse books won as prizes from the games or drawings!  Stay tuned for our STEM Title I Night on April 23rd from 4:30-6:00.

McMillan Title I Literacy Night

Minnesota Humanities

Dr. Tommy Watson who is an author, speaker, and business coach is considered one of the leading authorities on resilience, change, motivation and leadership.  He is a blessing to the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Omaha Public Schools, with his innovative ideas, and love for children.

His latest program the RISE Initiative, (Resilient Individuals Seeking Excellence) is a program he implemented as a principal in an elementary school in Minnesota. The program was designed to reduce suspensions and repeat disruptive behaviors from students.

Watson said, “The premise was based upon the fact that when we have students who struggle with math and reading, we don’t suspend from school and hope they go home and figure things out. We create ongoing academic support and tutoring programs for those who are not reaching academic standards. The same support needs to be Implemented when it comes to behavior.”

Watson further commented that research shows repeatedly that children suspended from school doesn’t change the behavior. He implemented a program that was similar to Rise, which took students that were severe behavioral offenders, such as getting into fights, and they were not entitled to having recess indefinitely.

Instead of recess, the students who were behavioral offenders were assigned 2-3 younger students having behavior problems. This was called the behavioral tutoring program and the older students would teach younger students every day appropriate behavioral lessons predetermined by staff. Lessons such as how to handle conflict, raising hands, healthy peer interactions, etc. were taught.

Watson said, “I had a group of six boys who early in the school year were involved outside the school setting in an incident that involved police officers. They were placed in the program and remained the entire year. By the end of the school year their self-esteem had increased, academics improved, and they wanted to become educators when they grew up. My Title 1 building of 700 students had one suspension the entire school year!”

Watson is working with Edison Elementary School this year and several other OPS schools are expressing interest. RISE aligns with district and national efforts and goals to reduce suspensions with a meaningful way of teaching more desirable school behavior. It also lines up perfectly with goals of the OPS MTSSB (Multi-tiered System of Support for Behavior) district department.

RISE benefits both students and parents. The students realize that they may not have recess for a long time while they are working on their behaviors.  This gives them an opportunity to be serious about working on their behaviors and striving to get back to their recess time with their peers. Parents are usually happy that they are not missing academic time.

“I must admit it can be difficult for many educators to embrace this concept as suspension of a disruptive child can be beneficial to an educator. However, long term, many adults begin to see and embrace the changes in the behavior of a disruptive child. This benefits the child and the educator!” said Watson.

Equity in the Community

In Middle America, Nebraskans Struggle with a Changing Cultural Landscape

Amid demographic and cultural shifts that are changing communities in Nebraska and the country, a wide-ranging new survey from PRRI explores the fault lines resulting from these changes and the bridges being built across the divides. The survey of over 1,300 Nebraskans shows a state in transition: Nebraskans are more likely than Americans overall to be born in the U.S. and to live in the community in which they grew up, but they are simultaneously more likely than Americans overall to report that they live in a community with many new immigrants. And like Americans overall, Nebraskans are deeply divided along political, racial, and religious lines about the desirability of these changes and what they mean for the future of Nebraska communities and the nation. The survey compares Nebraskans’ attitudes to the country as a whole and examines unique local dynamics, such as the reach and influence of the meatpacking industry in the state. The survey shows that despite these challenges, Nebraskans remain optimistic about their ability to work together across racial and religious lines, even if partisan divides remain daunting.

Inclusion Committee and Advisory Board

For the month of January the Inclusion Committee was engaged in and focused on two of the key components of the Strategic Framework for Equity: Building Efficacy and Pursuing Diversity. To build efficacy, groups must share the belief in each individuals’ values and agency. To move ourselves forward we must embrace how our true self and identify ourselves in our work. This is true for student success as well as district staff. To practice this Committee members discussed their values, talked about how there values match up with the work that they do, and finally how their values aligned with the district.

The next conversation focused on what should we our committee be doing to Change the Narrative about diversity. To pursue diversity is to decide work towards the creation of an accepting and nurturing school/work environment where similarities and differences are respected, supported, and valued. Diversity recognizes the uniqueness of individuals, populations, groups, and their perspectives, power dynamics and experiences.Be on the look out for some exciting activities to support celebrating and embracing the wonderful diversity found in OPS!

January Inclusion Committee

Reflecting our Students


In partnership with the ACLU of Nebraska, Coalition for a Strong Nebraska, Women’s Fund, Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, and the Urban League of Nebraska Young Professionals invite you to Black & Brown Legislative Day! The goal of this day is to help empower communities of color to bring their concerns about legislation that affects them to Nebraska Senators. This February a phenomenal group of high school students, allies, and advocates from Omaha and OPS will come by bus to Lincoln to learn about the Unicameral, meet senators, sit in on floor debate and committee hearings. Many students attending will gain valuable insight into the legislative process. Some students will even able to have one-on-one discussions on bills that they are interested in. If you are interested in getting your high school students involved for next year please contact Barry Thomas with the Office of Equity and Diversity. 

A District of Inclusion

The Black Votes Matter Institute of Community Engagement conducts the 3rd Annual Face-to-Face with Black History Tour, June 21-28, 2020. The tour prepares youth and adults to gain a greater appreciation of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights historical narrative by traveling from Omaha through seven cities: Memphis, Jackson, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Tuskegee, and Atlanta. The youth and adults enjoy “action-oriented” or “hands-on” learning experiences throughout the trip. The overall learning outcome for the Tour 2020 is to teach participants history, connect their story to black history, so they are inspired to make history. Youth further benefit a unique culture enrichment and immersion experience that promotes growth, confidence, and self-esteem. Adults, including school administrators, benefit in building a rapport with African American and economically disadvantaged youth while gaining insights on what truly matters to youth as they engage in this life-changing experience.


If you are a school principal or program director and have an interest in participating in the tour please reach out to Barry Thomas

Where Professional Development is Personal

Image result for tri faith initiativeThe Tri-Faith Initiative is a unique and ambitious project in the field of interfaith relations in design, scale, and scope. It brings together into permanent residency a synagogue, church, mosque, and interfaith center on one 38-acre campus in the middle of America’s heartland. By its very model it challenges people of faith and goodwill to be conscious and proactive about the assets of faith in civil life in a religiously pluralistic society. The Tri-Faith Initiative aims to create a more inclusive culture in which religious pluralism is socially normative. The Tri-Faith Initiative is made up of three Abrahamic faith groups who have chosen to be in relationship together as neighbors on one campus, committed to practicing respect, acceptance and trust. Our three members are of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths: Temple Israel, Countryside Community Church (UCC), and The American Muslim Institute.

Title IX

In this webinar concepts related to identity, positionality, and intersectionality are defined and unpacked. Extending these constructs, the webinar addresses how intersecting oppressions play out for various student groups, and provides strategies for engaging in conversations about race, class, and sex without erasing or privileging one identity over another. 


Quick Insights (Short Media to Provoke Thought)

Non-Closure (Text That Will Stretch You)

Omaha Public Schools does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, age, genetic information, citizenship status, or economic status in its programs, activities and employment and provides equal access to the Boy Scouts and other designated youth groups. The following individual has been designated to address inquiries regarding the non-discrimination policies: Superintendent of Schools, 3215 Cuming Street, Omaha, NE 68131 (531-299-9822).

Las Escuelas Públicas de Omaha no discriminan basados en la raza, color, origen nacional, religión, sexo, estado civil, orientación sexual, discapacidad , edad, información genética, estado de ciudadanía, o estado económico, en sus programas, actividades y empleo, y provee acceso equitativo a los “Boy Scouts” y a otros grupos juveniles designados. La siguiente persona ha sido designada para atender estas inquietudes referentes a las pólizas de no discriminación: El Superintendente de las Escuelas, 3215 Cuming Street, Omaha, NE 68131 (531-299-9822).