The Next Step: A Key Piece to School Culture, O'Neill's Center for Teaching and Learning Celebrates Student Triumphs

The Next Step: A Key Piece to School Culture, O'Neill's Center for Teaching and Learning Celebrates Student Triumphs

By Tyler Dahlgren

Eme Aufdenkamp cooks her meatballs in oil as the sizzling from the stovetop blends comfortably into the buffet of sounds coming from the kitchen inside O’Neill’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Ashley Butler browns ground beef and then stirs the meat sauce while Franklin Sorrels maneuvers around his peers and slides a tray of garlic bread into the oven. Their classmates hustle and bustle throughout the space, teaming together to put together a warm, nutritious and objectively delicious lunch.

When the noodles are boiled and the  bread is baked, the students sit and enjoy. I pile the pasta on my plate and look for an open spot. If this extremely special place could be summed up by one word, welcoming would get the nod.

“You can sit right here, right by us,” says Eme, O’Neill’s 2017 Homecoming Queen and, according to her teachers, an all-around rockstar.

Lunch in the CTL is a well-oiled operation, starting with a group trip to the grocery store each Monday and ending with dishes and clean-up. Things weren’t always this smooth, CTL teacher Jill Langan assures me, but it’s amazing to see how far her class has come since the beginning of the school year. Throughout the meal, and the entire morning, really, the crew laughs and jokes with one another. The meal has a Sunday family dinner feel. There is hardly a dull moment.

“We call it our CTL family, because we probably spend more time together than we do with our own families,” said Langan, who travelled a non-traditional career path to O’Neill’s CTL program. “It’s super important for us to have a trusting, caring relationship with each other because we do spend so much time together. We want the students to know that each and every one of us has their best interest at heart too.”

Langan spent 13 years in graphic design and advertising before ditching the deadlines for more school, a job as a para-educator, and, eventually, a Master’s Degree. After a couple of hours in O’Neill, it’s obvious she landed right where she needed to be.

The district’s innovative Center for Teaching and Learning came to be in 2013 and is designed for students whose needs may extend beyond the general education classroom. Prior to its implementation, Langan said the district was transporting four students 65 miles to Norfolk every single day for school.

“When we first started, we were winging it, to say the least,” said Langan. “We dug in and got ourselves educated. We went to lots of workshops and conferences and found that we could really manage behavior by addressing sensory issues.”

The sparkling new space, with its full-sized kitchen and laundry flanked by two classrooms, has allowed Langan and her all-star team of paras to actualize their vision. In no time at all, the program has become an important part of O’Neill Public Schools.

“It’s important to the overall culture, because every student is important,” said Shannon Stelling, the district’s Special Education Administrator. “Whether you’re talking regular education, special education, gifted and talented, everybody brings strengths to the table and provides to the culture of the school and of our community.”

The spaghetti hits the spot and helps to replenish energy burned off in the gymnasium earlier that morning, where Seth Kalhoff, the school’s basketball coach, led an enthusiastic game of kickball as part of a newly-adopted Adaptive P.E. class. The 30-minute block is often the best part of Kalhoff’s day, and he’s already prepping the kids for participation in Wayne’s Spring Sprints track meet later this semester.

“It gets the kids moving first thing in the morning and it gives them a chance to be together,” said Langan. “That’s one of the few times, between work study and everything else, that everybody gets to be together, and they just love it.”

While the kids in CTL rip around the bases, students sit on the stage and cheer them on. On most mornings, they trickle in to the gym to give out high-fives and offer encouragement. It's a great start to everybody's day.

“I think those regular ed kids learn just as much from the special education kids as the special education kids learn from them,” said Stelling. “It’s really awesome to see those relationships develop between different populations.”

It’s always been like that in O’Neill, but having the CTL in the school building as opposed to off-campus has really fostered a tight-knit student body. Three students from the elementary school attend CTL in the mornings, too.

“Every kid deserves to be treated like every other kid,” said Brenda Schmeichel, a one-on-one para with the district for the last 21 years. “We do that here. Kids come in all day long. They work on projects with our kids. We need this so these kids feel like they’re just like any other human being. People care about them.”

When Schmeichel’s daughter was married earlier this month, Eme was there as a personal attendant. When the Student Council organized a holiday blanket drive for Omaha’s homeless, Langan’s class was there to collect, wash, dry and fold the donated blankets. The district’s culture is built on a foundation of togetherness, and it starts at the top.

“The administration has always been behind us,” Schmeichel added. “They are so good. They send us to trainings and they get us what we need. We’re cohesive.”

The O’Neill community has fully embraced the CTL program, too. Four years ago, the kids all carried jobs, but only within the school, helping the janitorial and kitchen staffs, etc. Now, they hold jobs at 13 community businesses. And that number is going to keep growing.

“The community has been so awesome about embracing basically anybody I ask them to take in,” said Stelling. “They get a really good sense of what the students are good at and where they would fit in well for their business. Not only do the kids benefit, but they do, too.”

After Stelling makes contact with the business, the kids go through a mock interview process. Much of the CTL program is centered around life skills, and Langan’s team is always looking for innovative ways to take their students to the next step.

“These aren’t things we can get out of a textbook,” Langan said. “There isn’t a worksheet we can hand to them. It takes constant searching and learning on our part to find the next thing out there. We have a unique thing going here, and people recognize that and are proud of it.”

Stelling said the district is fortunate to have what she calls “the perfect staff” running the CTL, a group of amazing advocates for the students in the program.

“Mrs. Langan is a great leader and her staff has worked so closely with her for so many years that they’ve all just learned from her,” Stelling continued. “And the kids love being here. They’re laughing, they’re working together and they’re having a good time. They do a great job of celebrating success in here. Even what might look like a small victory to an outsider is a huge victory here.”

Those moments in time are the most rewarding for Langan and the CTL staff.

“Just seeing their faces every day,” Langan said. “They’ve faced challenges that most of us can’t imagine. When they smile, there’s nothing better. Their attitude is really inspiring to all of us.”

In here, there are no small victories. When the kids laugh, they laugh loud. When they dream, they dream big. And with an entire district and community behind them, why not?

“These kids, they’re like part of your family, like one of your own,” Schmeichel said. “Their triumphs are our triumphs, and we celebrate all of them.”

Not Pictured in the Group Photo are Angie Robertson, Roxanne Kraft, Colleen Bordovsky, Erin Williamson and Michelle McKay, who provide one-to-one support to students; Sarah Wilson and Meredith Krysl, who assist with work studies in the 18-21 program; Karen Cahoy and Regina Howard, who work with the elementary students who attend CTL in the mornings; and Dave Schramm, Special Education Bus Driver.


"All of our amazing paras work in multiple capacities-both within CTL and in other parts of the district. They are truly a hard-working bunch!"-Langan

"The administrational support is incredible. Just looking at this facility we have. We started downtown in an office building with no gym, no outdoor space, no kitchen, no anything. We've had their support since day one."-Langan

"If we can't be flexible, then we might as well not be here."-Langan

"They're (the staff) doing all they can to get them ready to graduate either at 18 or 21 and be productive in their own way in the community and to have a meaningful life."-Stelling

"Our district is very good about allowing people to go where they need to go to learn what they need to learn to best do their job. I'm grateful for Mrs. (Amy) Shane, our superintendent, and our school board for allowing our staff to have these opportunities."-Stelling

"It means a lot when the community thinks of our kids."-Langan

"I genuinely love what I do, so that's why I do it."-Schmeichel