Ombudsman is helping students graduate (Grand Island, Neb.)

Date: March 29, 2016

Written by Harold Reutter

Ombudsman has done a good job of not only helping students in that program graduate, but also helping raise the overall graduation rate for Grand Island Senior High.

That message was brought to Grand Island Rotary Club members on Tuesday afternoon by Grand Island Public Schools Associate Superintendent Robin Dexter; Linda Sanders, director of the Ombudsman program in Grand Island; and Alexa Vera, an Ombudsman student.

Dexter said that the Ombudsman program began because the Grand Island school board had a goal of increasing the district’s high school graduation rate.

She said the program started in the 2009-10 school year after former Superintendent Steve Joel traveled to Aurora, Colo., to see the Ombudsman program in action in that community. Ombudsman serves students in the sixth through 12th grades, with enough space to accommodate 35 students in the morning and 35 students in the afternoon.

Dexter said Ombudsman was designed to serve students who had “one foot in the juvenile justice system” and who were really struggling to fit into school and get everything together. Students are taught through a mixture of computer software programs and Ombudsman teachers.

While the program serves students starting in the sixth grade, it focuses mostly on students in the 11th and 12th grades who want to earn a high school diploma. She said the students who earn a high school diploma would not have received it if not for the Ombudsman program.

Ombudsman is one of three alternative programs for the Grand Island Public Schools.

Dexter said Success Academy serves students who perhaps cannot handle the size of Grand Island Senior High, or perhaps do not do well in a traditional classroom setting. Skills Academy serves students who have emotional and behavioral issues.

Sanders described Ombudsman as “just such a gift that was given to me.”

“I worked with the public schools here for 33 years,” she said. When she retired, “it didn’t work.” That’s when she decided to apply for the position of Ombudsman director, and she was hired.

Sanders noted that she is a city girl, who has always worked in large schools. But with Ombudsman, she said, “I work in a one-room school house. That’s what makes Ombudsman really work for me.”

Ombudsman has had as many as four teachers, she said, but it is now operating with three. That has given her an opportunity to assume more of a teaching role, which she said she enjoys.

“We all (students and teachers) work together as a family and that is what these kids would tell you,” Sanders said. “Although we don’t always agree, they know they can count on me, they know they can count on the teachers. When you say, ‘Miss Sanders, I need help,’ Miss Sanders is right there, unless I’m making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then you have to wait until I get the peanut butter on the sandwich.”

“Often, I feel like I’m ‘Lucy,’ you know, with her little 5-cent booth. Kids can sit at my desk and they just wander up, they just want 5 cents worth of counseling,” she said. “I’m not a counselor, but I listen and that’s what they need. By the time this semester is over, right at 175 kids will have graduated and have a diploma. I was thinking today about what those kids have done. Almost all of those kids are working and they’re working in this community. Many of them go on to CCC (Central Community College). Sometimes it takes them a year or two, ‘Ooh, I need a new skill,’ but they go there.”

Ombudsman is turning their lives around, Sanders said.

“They come to us associated with the court system and probation, but very few of them end up back in jail for good, which is a good thing,” she said. “They come back to you to tell you what they’re doing, to tell you about their kids, to see what you’re doing.”

Sanders said students come to school for four hours each class day. They are working to earn a Grand Island Senior High diploma, not an Ombudsman diploma. They have to meet the requirements of the high school in order to graduate.

She said students must complete all units, as well as every individual assignment in each unit.

“In my school, if one assignment is not done, you get zero credit,” Sanders said.

“I hold the kids accountable to that,” she said, noting that attendance is rewarded. That is not easy when students must provide their own transportation to the Ombudsman program, which is in the Grand Island Mall, next to Hibbett Sports.

Sanders said that Alexa Vera, who is a sophomore, decided to join Ombudsman because everyone agreed the smaller environment might be good for her, especially when she could choose and work at her own pace.

Vera said that many Ombudsman students like to work on two course subjects at a time, but she likes to work on one subject at a time, then move on to the next one. Her goal is to return to Grand Island Senior High.

She said she could probably graduate quicker if she stays at Ombudsman, but she wants some of the academic and sports opportunities that being a student at Grand Island Senior High offers.

Sanders noted that unlike Vera, most Ombudsman students stay in the program until they earn a diploma.

Students in Ombudsman are not allowed to participate in sports, band or any other Grand Island Senior High extracurricular activity. However, the Career Pathways Institue-Adams Street Campus and Ombudsman have been able to cooperate so that an Ombudsman student can be working in a CPI pathway program during the morning and then at Ombudsman in the afternoon. She said that works well because many Ombudsman students prefer technical, hands-on learning and careers, rather than strictly academic coursework.

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