Linda Sanders loves working with kids (Grand Island, Neb.)

Date: May 1, 2016

Written by Harold Reutter

“My friends say that I don’t sit well. They all say I don’t sit well,” says Linda Sanders, director of the Ombudsman alternative high school program, which helps students from Grand Island Senior High earn a high school school diploma.

That is perhaps the best explanation for why Sanders is directing the program after a 33-year career in the Grand Island Public Schools, all of them at Barr School, including when Barr was a 7-9 junior high school and continuing right through the transition to a 6-8 middle school.

As a mid-term graduate of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Sanders’ only other teaching experience was for one semester in the Bayard school district.

“I just felt at home here,” she said about her time at Barr. “I’m not from Nebraska. I had a couple of college friends who lived here in Grand Island, but I’d never lived here before. I’m an Air Force brat, so I was born in Texas, and I lived most of my life in Texas and Michigan.”

She said her dad retired from the Air Force at the end of her junior year in high school and bought into a gun and locksmith shop in North Platte.

“I was like, ‘I’ve never even heard of Nebraska — where are you taking me?’ But I’ve lived in Nebraska longer than anywhere my entire life,” Sanders said. “I do like it here. I’ve never had the urge to move. I was happy with my job at Barr and enjoyed the community and didn’t see a need to try to travel anywhere else.

“People always wondered why I taught middle school and I said, ‘Because I love it.’ And they’d say, ‘Those kids, they’re so squirrely.’ And I’m like, I must be, too, because I really like it,” Sanders said.

When she retired from Barr, she did substitute teaching for two years.

“I never felt like I wanted to work with high school kids and then when I subbed, I mostly subbed at the high school and I loved it,” Sanders said. “Those are great kids and I thought to myself, ‘I wonder what made me miss these kids all these 33 years?’ But by the second year of subbing, there was no challenge in it anymore. I just missed that and was just looking for something that would be more challenging. I knew that I needed to get back to work full time somehow or another.”

Because she had so many years of experience and so many graduate credit hours, Sanders said, she was too expensive to hire as a regular classroom teacher. Her solution was to work as a paraeducator in the in-school suspension room at Barr Middle School.

She noted that while she was at Barr, she and a fellow teacher developed a school-within-a-school that created a classroom for at-risk students who were struggling because of behavioral or other problems. She taught in that classroom for several years.

“I like working with at-risk kids,” said Sanders, who noted she raised 10 foster care kids in addition to her own children.

She said she only quit that after she was diagnosed with cancer and had to go through treatments.

Sanders also has enjoyed working with kids who may struggle to succeed academically.

“Twenty-five of my years at Barr, I was a resource room teacher,” she said.

Just before she was to be hired as a Barr paraeducator, Grand Island Senior High Principal Jeff Gilbertson, who was still the Barr principal, suggested she might like working in the brand new Ombudsman program.

Sanders said she did not really know what Ombudsman was. She looked at the Ombudsman website and discovered an Ombudsman program had just contracted with the Millard school district, the company’s first foray into Nebraska.

“We came in here, we had training, we really didn’t know what it was going to be,” she said. “It was kind of interesting, because we were very new and not sure what we were doing.”

Kids who had been dragged back from the precipice of dropping out of school were not happy about being in a brand-new education program they didn’t understand, either.

Sanders said the first director, whom she described as a very caring person, just did not quite fit into the Ombudsman model. So she was asked to move from teacher to director.

“I saw this as an opportunity for kids. If we could do it, this was an opportunity for kids that would never finish school and we could help kids finish school — legitimately,” she said.

So she just buckled down in her initial years as director “because I was determined we would succeed.”

“We have given tons of kids the opportunity to earn a diploma,” Sanders said. She noted that students do earn their diplomas. They aren’t just given to them.

“One thing I do is that I put up a lot of things where kids can see their hard work,” said Sanders, pointing out apples posted on the wall that each represent a class a students have completed.

Other traditions have also developed. Sanders said that when Ombudsman first opened in Grand Island, its students were not eligible for the federal school lunch program. So she started making peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches because she knew the students would learn better if they weren’t hungry. However, kids who were not necessarily too hungry to do school work also wanted the sandwiches.

“Just like in real life, when you do work, you get paid,” she said. “When kids do five assignments, they get a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. They do seven, they get some chips to go with it. That was a real motivator for kids. That seemed to get kids to do more work.”

Each day, the students have to turn in their cellphones when they get to Ombudsman. Sanders said that in addition to getting their sandwiches, they will also get their phones back after completing five assignments. About a year ago, GIPS did begin serving school lunches to Ombudsman students. But she said the students still want their PBJ sandwiches. She noted that’s not so surprising.

“When I was in middle school, it was amazing to me what students would do for a Jolly Rancher,” Sanders said. “You just had Jolly Ranchers in your desk and you had something hard you wanted them to do and the students were all moaning. If you just said, ‘When you get done you can come over and have a Jolly Rancher.’ They’d go right for it. All of us are kind of like that. It makes a difference if you’re working for something.”

“We can have 70 students, so when we have 70 classes done, we always have a pizza or a nacho party,” she added. “Everybody gets to be part of it. Not everybody has an apple up there that says they got a class done. My only thing always is, I announce when the pizza party will come and you have to be on time for it.”

Likewise, kids get awards each Monday if they’ve hit a designated attendance mark over three weeks time. But the rule is you must be present to get the reward and Sanders said no one knows if they’ve made the attendance mark until they show up on Monday to hear the announcements.

“One thing I’ve always said is that I’ve truly been blessed, because I’ve never had a job I didn’t love. I’ve always worked at something I loved,” Sanders said.

Categories: Alternative Education, News
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