Touring Nebraska's Unified District #1: Two decades of collaboration

Touring Nebraska's Unified District #1: Two decades of collaboration

By Tyler Dahlgren

Each stop on the Unified District #1 tour comes with a sense of familiarity, though Orchard, Clearwater and Verdigre exist in their own buildings in their own charming northern Nebraska small towns.

“Though we work together on curriculum, each school has kept its own identity,” said Unified District #1 Superintendent Dale Martin, a former principal at Orchard who has been with the district from the start.

Maybe it’s the principals, and how much they share in common. Three friendly and inviting small-town Nebraskans, eager to brag about their students, the soul of a school.

“We have some really good kids,” said 12th-year Clearwater Principal Mike Sanne. “They work hard. Their parents have high expectations. They value education and they value what they learn.”

Earlier in the day, Orchard Principal Cathy Cooper said something similar about her students.

“We have teachers that are driven to offer a quality education,” Cooper said. “We have students that still very much have a respect for education and parents that want their children to be educated.”

Exceptionally similar.

“We have excellent kids,” said Verdigre Principal Chuck Kucera, a 1993 Verdigre graduate in his 10th year at his alma mater. “Rural American kids. They are respectful and they work hard.”

Cooper, Sanne and Kucera will boast about their teachers, too.

“The biggest thing I love about my staff is their willingness to collaborate,” Cooper said. “We like the small-school oriented mindset, so many of the teachers I’ve hired also went to a small school because Orchard felt like home.”

In a small school, teaching is more than a 40-hour-a-week job.

“I want a teacher that is hard-working, that cares first and foremost about kids,” Sanne said. “If they care about kids and their success, they will become great teachers. Meeting the needs of kids is hard work. It’s not an 8-4 job. It takes more than that.”

The trio of principals and Martin are in touch daily and readily rely on one another often. They hold bi-weekly meetings and wrap up every school year by decompressing over a team-building weekend-fishing and four-wheeling-at Sanne’s Niobrara River cabin.

“We have formed a unique bond because of the situation we are in,” said Kucera. “Our schools share equipment, buses, vacuum cleaners, anything you can think of.”

Sanne says efficient communication has been key to the district’s success.

“The other principals are my friends,” he said. “They’re my peers. My colleagues. We have built great relationships with each other because we work together so closely.”

Maybe the schools share a similar touch of a culture, one nearly 20 years in the making. Clearwater’s history is different than Orchard’s and Verdigre’s history is different than Clearwater’s, but the mood is the same kind of upbeat in each building.

Perhaps being on the same page for such a long period of time has rubbed off on one other. At last week’s State FFA Convention, students from Verdigre, Orchard and Clearwater roamed the capital city’s streets together, part of the same program. Without unification and distance learning, last week would have been nothing but a missed opportunity for students at Clearwater and Orchard.

“If we can’t offer a class, maybe Orchard or Verdigre can.” Sanne said. “We haven’t had Ag at Clearwater forever. We’re able to offer things we haven’t always been able to offer.”

They’re proud of their schools and the communities that sustain them. Really, the refusal to let go of a school is how this “unified” district, one of just three in the state, came to be.

“Unification is a way to keep your school in your town, rather than to force consolidation right off the bat,” Sanne said.

Prior to signing the unification documents, all three schools were stuck in the same boat.

Struggling financially, cutting programs, laying off teachers and looking to the future with the same bleak sense of uncertainty.

Cooper was a teacher at Orchard at the time. In fact, aside from a year spent teaching at Ewing, Orchard is where Cooper has been since 1989. She was involved with the teacher negotiation teams that worked to bring contracts and an agreement together.

In the past, Cooper worked toward this future, you could say.

“I’ve been in from the ground level,” said Cooper, who had spent the last five years juggling principal and teaching duties before assuming full-time administrative responsibilities at the beginning of this school year. “This isn’t unique to me. It’s just how we do things. I always find it interesting when I’m asked questions about our unique situation. We’ve done it for so long that it’s just kind of old nature to me.”

As a former teacher in the district, Cooper can vouch for the importance of collaboration between the three schools.

“When you are in a small school, you are the teacher,” she said. “I was the English teacher here. Now, there’s three English teachers. That collaboration and idea sharing is huge for teacher success.”

Orchard recently hosted anti-bullying guest speaker Omega-Man, and both Clearwater and Verdigre helped pack the gymnasium. There’s a lot of good that comes out of unification. Many friendships have blossomed because of it, too. Cooper’s daughter is getting married in June. Her daughter’s fiancé is from Clearwater.

Four years ago, there wasn’t a preschool in Orchard. Instead, kids were bused to Clearwater. Parents decided having a preschool in town would be a good thing, so a fish fry fundraiser was held with the Young Men’s Club. In one night, they raised 20 thousand dollars.

“The community basically bought our supplies for our preschool and put the items on the playground,” she said. “Their support is huge.

Orchard has one of the more interactive Facebook pages you’ll ever come across. Parents are always in the know, and it extends beyond that.

“People in the community like to see the positive things that we are doing here,” Cooper said. “Our newspaper works very well with us to publicize and promote the things we are doing.”

The smallest of the three schools, Orchard has just three seniors set to graduate in May.

“One of the areas we decided to focus on was relationships-student relationships, teacher relationships-and just the entire climate here,” Cooper said. “And because we are 63 percent free and reduced lunches, we have students that need extra attention.”

Sometimes, Cooper said, the best part of a student’s day is when they are at school. It’s a powerful way to look at things. That’s the approach in Orchard.

“We are small but mighty.”

This is the third building Verdigre High School has called home. You’d be hard-pressed to find many towns its size that have erected three separate schools over the last 130 years.

Kucera taught in Houston after earning his teaching certificate from UNL. He met his wife, and moved back to become a counselor in a town that has always been home. One year later, he became Verdigre’s principal.

“My father was employed by the district for his entire career, so I had some knowledge on how the district worked,” Kucera said. “I am thankful to be in this district. Because of unification, my father had a job and I have a job. It provides for a much more stable district.”

Verdigre is a farming community with a high rural population and a historically unfaltering devotion to its school, which fittingly sits in the center of town, which dawned on Kucera while he was looking at a photograph a pilot (who also happened to be an electrician working on the last high school construction project) had taken during a flyover.

“The building is the center of the town, both figuratively and literally,” he said. “We will open the doors to our community so that they can use what they build for us. I feel like it’s open about 23 hours a day. They passed a bond for us in 2008 to build it, so it’s literally their building.”

On this Thursday, Kucera gives a quick tour of his school before snagging a tray from the cafeteria. From there, it’s off to lunch with a group of youngsters that eclipsed a lofty reading goal. He lets them snag a Doctor Pepper out of his office, knowing his teachers will have to deal with the sugared up after-effects all afternoon.

"They love it when I let them do that," he jokes.

His school has a family feel, and though 90 percent of its high schoolers are in Lincoln at State FFA, you get that sense pretty quickly.

“We still have one of the highest per capita population of Czechs, so that culture is pretty strong,” he said. “Vedigre has a nice familial feel to it. It’s like we are one big family. That’s pretty evident in June when thousands of people come to town for our Kolache Festival. There’s still a connection to our past that we all share.”

It’s also the northernmost school in the district. By quite a few miles, too, though Kucera is quick to point out that Verdigre is no island. The school, which recently brought home the 2018 Speech D-2 state championship, co-ops in sports with neighboring Niobrara, like Orchand and Clearwater do, and belongs to the Niobrara Valley Conference and the Northern Tier of Schools.

“You can’t exist on an island as a small, rural Nebraska school,” Kucera said. “You have to reach out and you have to connect with your neighbors.”

The goal for Kucera is to maximize opportunities for his students. Folks in Verdigre are adamant about keeping their school in their town, and unification is the key to doing so.

“We want to be able to walk them to school and pick them up in the afternoon and watch them walk across the street to get home," he said. "We want to keep the school and the community vibrant.”

Sanne was familiar with the challenges of working in a unified district, having spent six years as a principal and co-superintendent at West Boyd Unified before moving to Clearwater.

“The fear with unification is the uncertainty of what it will do to your school,” he said. “Well, we have been able to stay Clearwater Schools for a long time. It has worked out so far.”

Clearwater has always gotten behind its school.

“They are each vitally important to one another,” Sanne said. “The school can’t survive without the town’s support, and vice-versa. When you’re successful and have a good team, you’ll have the gym packed full. Even when we’re not as successful, the bleachers are still full here. We have a lot of support from our community for the kids. It’s always about them.”

Like Orchard and Verdigre, Clearwater is an agricultural community. Most of its kids come from that background, Sanne said.

“Kids here know what hard work is, and we’ve built that foundation from elementary right on up to high school with the expectations of our students working hard and achieving their goals,” he continued.

In Clearwater, Sanne said everybody looks after everybody.

“It’s a village that looks after its people, and it’s a community that helps these kids grow and nurses them along the way,” he said. “It’s not just up to the parents or up to the school. It’s a combination and a variety of people that looks after our kids.”

The goal in unified districts is, coincidentally, the same as in small towns.

“We just want to provide the best possible education that we can provide to our kids.”

Martin’s job is perhaps the most interesting.

His central office is in Orchard, right next door to Cooper’s, but he spends Wednesdays in Clearwater and Fridays in Verdigre. The Beemer native can’t imagine what it’d be like working in a big school because, well, he’s never worked in a big school.

“If I was in a central office away from kids, I would not like that,” Martin said. “I like being in contact with the kids every morning. When they come in off the buses, I say hi and that gets my day off to a good start and reaffirms why we do this.”

He’s a resource to all three principals, and a conveniently close one for Cooper.

“Dale has certainly been my mentor as a principal and helped guide and direct the things we do at Orchard,” she said.

One of Martin’s primary objective is fostering the collaboration that exists between the three schools. Each school has a four-member advisory board, and there is a larger, six-member district board with two members from each community.

“Cathy, Mike and Chuck are pretty important people at their schools,” he said. “Any time we make decisions it is a team approach. We meet biweekly to talk among ourselves and plan. Teamwork has really been vital.”

There’s no guidebook on how a unified district should function. The four administrators are constantly learning as time passes.

Clearwater, Orchard and Verdigre came together with financial security as the original primary motive, and it’s still an incentive, but the partnership has grown into something more than dollars and cents.

Bells ring each morning in Orchard, and they're echoed by Clearwater to the south and Verdigre to the north.

Music to the ears of three rural Nebraska communities.

“I’m sure when they did this 19 years ago, they weren’t sure how long it was going to last, but here we are, still going,” Sanne said.

Three very small schools stand tall for one another.

This way, each can stand on its own.