A New School – and a Bit of Luck – Will Be Keys to Success in Omaha’s Highlander Neighborhood

In 2011, Willie Barney and Michael Maroney, two Omaha business and civic leaders who were helping to address economic disadvantage in the northern part of the city, traveled to Atlanta to learn what was happening in that city’s East Lake neighborhood. Accompanying them was Kristin Williams of Omaha’s Sherwood Foundation. The trio had heard about the East Lake Foundation’s work to overcome intergenerational poverty in Atlanta and wanted to learn more.

After that visit, Barney, Maroney and Williams interested others in the model that was being used in Atlanta, and a new organization, Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp., was formed to bring the same ideas to Omaha. The organization has become a member of the Purpose Built Network, and it has racked up significant accomplishments in a very short time. As of late 2017, some 101 new multi-family housing units have been built, two-thirds of which are occupied by residents whose income is 60 percent or less of Area Median Income (AMI). The Howard Kennedy School, which has been renovated to serve Pre-K through 5th grade students in the Highlander neighborhood, is beginning its second year following the Drew Charter School model. Though there is as yet no hard data about how student performance may have changed, there is every indication that students are responding positively to the new environment and new curriculum.

According to Othello Meadows, executive director of Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp., the organization’s success stems from a strong board, a lot of perseverance and a healthy dose of luck. The Omaha Housing Authority had closed and razed Pleasantview Homes, a 300-unit public housing project in 2009. Serendipitously, when Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. presented its offer to buy the 23-acre site to build a mixed-income housing development to anchor the neighborhood, the authority was receptive to the offer. The organization was later able to purchase 13 more acres and an additional 55 lots surrounding the former Pleasantview site.

The Highlander neighborhood, as the area is called, will ultimately comprise 250-300 new homes. It will include new single-family homes and more apartments. Demand for the new housing is brisk, with waiting lists for the apartments before construction even began. Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. is waiting for approval of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to begin construction of a three-story apartment building for seniors. Meadows hopes construction will begin in early 2018. Like most mixed-income housing throughout the country, financing has been a challenge. Funding comes from complex instruments. Low-Income Tax Credits, debt equity and tax-exempt bonds provided the bulk of the funding. Those dollars have been bolstered by the Sherwood Foundation, an Omaha philanthropy that supports social equity through public schools, early childhood education and community partnerships.

The jewel that will give residents of the Highlander neighborhood the opportunity to truly thrive is the Howard Kennedy Elementary School. Built in 1916 and looking much the same as it did 100 years ago, the building has been completely renovated on the inside. Although not a charter school (Nebraska law does not permit public charter schools), Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. and other community organizations have developed a partnership with Omaha Public Schools (OPS) that allows for greater flexibility and more innovation, based on the Drew Charter School model.

The agreement, approved unanimously by the OPS board in 2015, has resulted in the appointment of a new principal and new staff positions, a longer school day and year and a curriculum focused on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math). These changes are built on the project-based learning model and curriculum that have transformed Atlanta’s Drew Charter School into one of that city’s top-performing schools. Under the agreement, OPS has increased its budget for Kennedy to pay for increased costs. Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. is contributing $1.75 million annually. Federal funding is making up the difference. Over time, Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp.’s contribution will decrease as OPS takes on greater responsibility for funding Kennedy’s innovative approach to elementary education.

Tony Gunter, now in his second year as principal at Kennedy, is working to provide a collaborative environment that encompasses teachers, staff, parents and community to create the experience children need to compete in a global society. He, along with a representative from the OPS central office, received a fellowship from Purpose Built Schools in Atlanta to spend one week a month during the 2015-2016 school year traveling to Drew Charter School to see how they approach elementary education and what lessons they can apply at Kennedy.

Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp.’s Othello Meadows reports that Gunter has done a phenomenal job transforming the culture at Kennedy in a very short time. “Before Tony came to Kennedy, many people did not believe that the kids at Kennedy could succeed,” Meadows said. “Today that attitude is gone.” Meadows continued, “That kind of culture change has to happen before you see improvement in test scores.” Meadows believes that Gunter’s “sweet spot” is building relationships, creating trust among parents, some of whom were very skeptical and originally favored the previous school leadership. “It took a lot of perseverance to forge the partnership with OPS,” Meadows said.

Meadows is proudest of Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp.’s ability to keep funders, community leaders, local officials and others engaged over the years since Barney and Maroney dropped in on the East Lake Foundation and Purpose Built in 2011. He believes that faith, perseverance, patience and flexibility are essential elements in weathering the setbacks and disappointments that are inevitable in overcoming decades of entrenched poverty and transforming a neighborhood.