Greatness on the Horizon: An emergence of hope at Wakonda Elementary

Greatness on the Horizon: An emergence of hope at Wakonda Elementary


NCSA Communications Specialist

It is early afternoon on a rather balmy November Wednesday in North Omaha, the point in the school day where students start to let their concentration slip and the point in the school year where teachers begin to dream of a much-needed holiday break.

At Wakonda Elementary, a school that has long faced an array of obstacles and a construed perception that predetermined dysfunction, the giggles from children inside classrooms once void of much hope at all pour into the school’s hallways.

Smiles radiate on the faces of students that have learned to trust a group of educators brought in to reestablish that very hope. Education at Wakonda is a total group effort, for the first time in many years.

Gathered around a circle table inside Room #23 at Wakonda are second-year Principal Ebony Harvey, School Improvement Project Manager Danita Webb and Instructional Technology Coach Rebecca Chambers. The three were part of the Wakonda Elementary overhaul, which included being selected as Nebraska’s first “Turnaround School” in 2015-16. The school is the first in Omaha to accept School Improvement Funds (SIGs), though others in the state have done so previously.

Wakonda, located at 4845 Curtis Avenue, gets its name from a Native American word which refers to the “Great Spirit” who was the provider of all things needed for a happy life.

The word is fitting for Harvey, Webb and Chambers, three educators that beam with pride when talking about their students, a collection of kids that are yearning to learn and succeed. A collection of kids that, with a group of passionate educators in their corner, now have a better chance than ever to defeat the odds.

"There's high expectations for students and teachers that are certain about their instructional methods," said Matt Blomstedt, the Commissioner of Education in the state of Nebraska, when asked about the rising test scores at Wakonda post-turnaround. "When you tie that together in a positive environment, I think that lends to be successful."

The turnaround included nine different action items, including hiring Webb and several new teachers, and implementing an instruction model that uses new tech to better serve students’ needs. For the first year, the challenge was breaking through barriers with parents and students with so many new faces.

Now, the staff at Wakonda is equipped with advanced resources and a burning desire to introduce aspirations and goals into the lives of their students. This fall, they picked right up where they left off, with more buy in.

“It was a very hard transition, for the students and parents, because we did come in and do some very different things with this process,” Harvey said. “It wasn’t hard from a standpoint of what we were putting into place wasn’t the right thing, it was just different and we were all new. It was about building those relationships and it took some time.”

Over the course of that school year, as students saw the same faces each day, trust blossomed. Parents became more involved, and pre-existing partnerships within the community only got stronger.

“One question we asked ourselves is ‘What can we do to get resources to our buildings and to make sure we are providing the best environment to our kids?’,” Webb said. “We were able to come together and figure out some innovative ways to lead to some school improvement strategies, and since then we have been hitting the ground running making sure those initiatives are implemented. We want to make sure we are providing holistic care to the students and the community.”

Wakonda lost just two teachers over the summer, both of whom moved out of state to be with spouses. The low turnover was a testament to the success of Harvey’s hiring process, which was designed to recruit educators that were suited to deal with the challenges of teaching at Wakonda.

“My big thing was finding teachers that really have a heart that wants to help the kids,” Harvey said. “Anybody can go into a classroom and be a teacher, but the ability to see the whole child was important to me. That’s probably why it took us as long as it did, we wanted to make sure people were in it for the right reasons.”

The new teachers at Wakonda have assimilated quickly.

“It’s been a really neat change to see teachers using that acquired data and new technology to drive their instruction,” Chambers said. “We are now using technology, that we didn’t have before, to drive our instruction methods and change what learning looks like in the classroom for kids, which meets their needs better. That’s been cool to watch.”

That shift into a more modern way of schooling has benefitted not just the students, but also the instructors at Wakonda. New technology has made their jobs easier. There was an adjustment period, because, as Harvey points out, the new group of teachers were “taking everything away from the kids that they knew and turning their worlds upside down, and it was hard for them to trust us.”

“Our kids are so relationship-oriented,” Harvey said. “When they develop relationships and then have them taken away, it’s a traumatic experience for them.”

But these new teachers don’t plan on going anywhere. Not with the sense of purpose that Wakonda has provided them.

“We have had surveys where our teachers have expressed that they feel like they are making a difference in the kids’ lives, and that’s enough gratification for them,” Webb said. “That speaks to their compassion and what drives them every day.”

The energy is contagious, just ask the students and parents of Wakonda. There’s opportunities around every corner, including career days, after-school programs, and a unique partnership with 100 Black Men of Omaha, INC. that led to the Hanging onto Positive Expectations (HOPE) program, where fourth and fifth grade boys participate in a twice-a-month group mentoring session with successful men in the community.

“One of our core values is greatness, and we constantly talk about how each of our students has greatness inside of them,” Harvey said. “Each of our teachers is doing a great job at seeing the potential inside of every kid.”

Another of the points of emphasis was developing a transparent method of relaying progress to parents. Barbara Williams was hired as the school’s parent liaison, and Webb said she has worked tirelessly to make sure parents are as involved and informed as possible. Last year, Wakonda was lucky to get one or two parents at workshops. This year, they are showing up in droves.

“Parents are so excited about the innovative things that their kids are being exposed to,” Webb said. “It’s been a learning experience for them, too, and they are understanding more and more how this benefits their child.”

Excitement may have run in short supply in years past at Wakonda, but that’s no longer the case.

Now, students and staff eagerly look to the future.

“Every kid is important and every kid has greatness inside of them,” Harvey said. “It is our jobs to pull that out.”

Tomorrow is a new day at Wakonda Elementary, and the possibilities are endless.