From the Storytelling Trail: Five memorable second semester stories and a Q&A with the NCSA Ambassadors

From the Storytelling Trail: Five memorable second semester stories and a Q&A with the NCSA Ambassadors

By Tyler Dahlgren

Though nobody was quite sure what the 2020-2021 school year was going to look like, I knew one thing for certain back in August.

I needed to have my computer ready. Because no matter the circumstances, I’ve learned over the last five years, Nebraska’s public schools were not only going to persevere, they were going to shine while doing so.

From an undeniably memorable school year came some of the most moving, energizing and powerful stories NPSA has ever had the chance to tell.

Here are five that will stick with us for a long time to come!

5.) Celebrating Kindness: Falls City Middle School awards students for acts of empathy

“Kindness is connected to empathy,” Bangert said. “I really don’t care if my kids have great manners. That just makes their parents feel good about themselves. I’m more interested in whether or not they’re empathetic. Those are the skills that are really lacking in our society.”

4.) The Hope Squad: Chadron Middle School's 31 keepers of kindness

“There were notes of kindness left on lockers that said ‘Have a great day!’ and different things like that,” said sixth-grader Tobin Landon, a member of the Hope Squad. “Just simple messages of encouragement like that can meet a lot to somebody.”

3.) Track Town: Rooted in tradition, Bertrand program is the cornerstone where district and fiercely supportive community meet

“We’ve been blessed by the kids so much more than the other way around,” Martha said. “It’s a family. We’re a part of that family, and that’s special.”

2.) Grand Island's Airfield of Dreams: Students take aviation pathway to the sky

“If we’re serious about helping kids learn, giving them an airplane ride is phenomenal, but giving them flying lessons or providing the mechanism to do that makes the program an actual program,” said Norris. “It’s a phenomenal experience for our students, an opportunity to shake the stick, to look outside and see the city of Grand Island from a thousand feet.”

1.) Candy Bars, Cold Sodas and 103 Streams: Milford's Striv broadcast crew pulls double shifts to keep community connected

“It’s not without reward, because it’s really a fun experience,” Yoder said. “Every night is something new with something different happening. You never know what’s going to hit you in the game and what you’re going to have to adapt to and overcome.”


*Enjoy the Q&A with the three NCSA Ambassadors below. Dr. Cinde Wendell, Kyle McGowan and Dr. Keith Rohwer are three retired school superintendents who advocate for Nebraska’s public schools and the impactful films from the team at I Love Public Schools. Hear their thoughts on how schools admirably navigated an unprecedented pandemic.

What impressed you the most about what our schools were able to pull together and accomplish to get us over the finish line over the last year?

Kyle: Well, I'll start it out. I would say the will to keep schools going. Collectively, that’s what was really impressive. I think they decided on all levels-superintendents, NDE, teachers-that they wanted kids in school and then figured out a way to do it together, in a collaborative manner.

Keith: What schools start with is what's best for their kids and their people. That’s Nebraska common sense. And then they started solving problems from there, because everybody wanted their kids in school. So was it possible? And the different paths that those school boards and administrators chose for their communities in their situation…A lot of tough decisions were made on the local level and at the end of the day, I think Nebraska can be very proud of what they did during this time.

Do you think that the last year illustrated, or reinforced, the need for advocacy? The importance of promotion and shouting those successes from the rooftops?

Keith: I don't think there's any question. For us, it was one more example of how folks really don't have a true understanding of what takes place in schools and in classrooms, just like we talked about earlier. And it's not necessarily their fault. The ownership is on us to help them understand what's happening so they can see what's going on in school day-to-day. So I think the last year did reinforce the need for advocacy.

Kyle: Well, and you've said it so many times, Keith, that Nebraska educators don’t make a big deal of it because that’s just what they do right every day, right? They put in the hard work and focus on kids. So what they do every day would be unusual in other states. And I'm talking from teachers to bus drivers to principals. The issue is since they do it every day, they don't feel a need to talk a lot about it. So the general public doesn't get it. They're already doing these things that California, New York, and other places wish they could.

Cinde: And they don't think what they do is special. It's just what they do. But it is special.

Keith: I think collaboration has always been a key to what we do. I think we saw collaboration go to a higher level for this reason. Look at the collaboration with district health officials, for example. I mean, every Zoom we were on, those health officials were there, and they were sharing with them. I don't really want to know any more about contact tracing, but the things that those folks had to learn and adjust to in the schools to understand ‘How do we keep our arms around this? How do we keep it moving? How do we follow the law, while at the same time serving our kids?’ And that was a whole new area. And again, we've collaborated before, but this was a whole new way of collaboration.

Cinde: It was phenomenal.

Kyle: And the collaboration that Cindy was talking about, even between the Governor and the Department of Education, creating flexibility for schools to make local decisions that've still kept within the laws, but required some flexibility to do certain things.

Cinde: And finding substitute teachers when their teachers were out, so they could keep school going.

Keith: I think service units need to be mentioned, again. They played a huge role in moving this forward across the state. On a sidebar, we continue to hear people wonder and ask what service units do. To answer their own question, all they needed to do was watch and pay attention to this year. They played a huge role in keeping Nebraska moving forward.

Speaking of Zoom, your advocacy work looked a lot different over the last year, but now things are thankfully returning to normal. What are you most excited about for the new school year and did being grounded for so long end up being reinvigorating?

Cinde: We were always passionate about advocating for schools, but seeing what they did over the pandemic was just phenomenal. They make it easy for us in Nebraska, our educators, the communities, and everything about our educational system, because there's so much to advocate for.

Kyle: When you're in education, you know people personally, so you really enjoy it. And look what's happening here (points to two superintendents having a conversation in the NCSA breakroom). These guys are talking about situations in their school right now, and you cannot do that on a Zoom. You can't substitute the interaction that takes place when groups of people are face-to-face.

Keith: And on that same note, it gives us an opportunity as a group to advocate for what has happened and to help people understand the great work that did take place. This gives us a chance to go out and talk about that and to share that with people, to help them see and to once again reinforce the importance of that school in that community and everything they did. I mean, we can make a list a mile long with the things that they did for community. But it’s better to show them. And that’s the goal of our program.