Oxford AASC: Guest Scholar

Guest Scholar

In 1968, Omaha Central High School became embroiled in the battle against segregation. In this guest editorial, journalist Steve Marantz discusses how that struggle continues in a different form today, as the community's educators and students take a stand against the institutionalized inequality of the American school system.


The Legacy of the Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central

Akoy Agau was a Lost Boy of Sudan. Now he is one of the faces of Omaha Central High School in 2011. Almost 17, Agau starts for the basketball team. As befits someone who stands 6-7, he has a big personality.

"There is nothing shy about him," says his coach, Eric Behrens.

With Agau in the paint, wearing purple and white, the Eagles have won the large-school state championship each of the last two seasons. Under Behrens, the team has won five of the last six state championships.

Omaha's oldest high school went from 1912 to 1974 without a title, and then from 1975 to 2006. As a Central High alum who graduated in 1969, and who watched us lose in the finals three consecutive years, I view the Behrens/Agau era with pride and wistfulness.

But basketball is just the tip of their story, as it was in 1968, when Agau's counterpart was an 18-year-old named Dwaine Dillard. Like Agau, he was tall, extroverted and black. Dillard was the best high school basketball player in Nebraska, and Central the best team, bound for glory.

Then fate intervened in the person of former Alabama governor George Wallace, who brought his third-party presidential campaign to Omaha. The leering face of Deep South racism and segregation, Wallace incited a race riot in North Omaha. Buildings and vehicles burned, and among those arrested, two days before the state high school basketball tournament, was Dillard.

What happened next is the basis for The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball at the '68 Racial Divide, my book published this year by University of Nebraska Press.

My research took me on a journey back in time, to see those events through adult eyes. The journey brought me home, to Omaha and Central, and to what it is today, from Dillard to Agau.

It also brought me to something that reflects the deep divisions over public education in America, and stopped me cold.

That would be Central's designation as a "persistently lowest-achieving school" by the Nebraska Department of Education. The PLAS label stems from the accountability requirements in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In Nebraska, a high school with a graduation rate of less than 75 percent gets the label. Central's graduation rate, averaged over three years from 2007 to 2010, as defined by the state, was 74.2 percent.

The PLAS label is a scarlet letter. "It doesn't bode well for the school's publicity," said Diane Stuehmer, of the Department of Education. "The community is looking at that and saying, 'I don't want my kids to go to that school.'"

In my era Omaha Central had a national reputation of excellence—Newsweek magazine named it one of the ten best American high schools in 1957, and University of Chicago named it one of the twelve best in 1964. In 1968, the year of The Rhythm Boys, Central produced ten National Merit semifinalists and two winners, and sent dozens of graduates to top-ranked colleges and universities. Located at the site of the old territorial capital, on a hill perched above downtown, its building a classic of Renaissance Revival, Central was the gemstone of Omaha Public Schools (OPS).

So what happened? How did Central go from elite status to a PLAS designation? How fair or unfair is it? And what kind of education is Central delivering today?

Those are big questions—take a deep breath—and they pick up where Wallace left off in 1968, with the issue of school integration. Central was integrated as far back as 1876. By 1912, when its Afro-American Alumni society was founded, it had produced 43 graduates of color. When the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in 1954, Central was about 10 percent African-American. In 1969, when I graduated, Central was 83 percent white and 17 percent African-American, among 1,910 students.

In 1976 court-ordered busing began—which Wallace had intended to block—and so did "white flight" in Omaha. In one year Central's enrollment dropped from 2,201 to 1,674. By 1980 Central's student body was 30 percent minority, and enrollment in OPS had dropped in four years from 53,825 to 38,000.

White flight had socio-economic consequences for OPS, writes Sharon Lerner in The American Prospect:

While many Omaha residents headed westward from the inner city, others dodged integration without moving. Five separate school districts lie at least partially within the city lines. One of those, known as Westside, sits, like Vatican City inside Rome, entirely within the bounds of Omaha and OPS. Westside, which has some of the city's most expensive homes, became a distinct district just before Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As in many other high-income communities, Westside's schools are a selling point....The area's healthy home prices allow for the taxes that keep its schools well funded.

Unfortunately, the self-perpetuating real-estate value/school-quality feedback loop works in the other direction as well: Poor schools lower real-estate value and diminish the taxes available to improve or just operate them, in turn depressing home prices. The property value per student in OPS is nearly a third of that in some of the wealthier districts....As a result, OPS is left with both more impoverished children, who are more expensive to educate, and far less money with which to do it.

The academic gulf between these poorer students and their peers a few miles west is apparent at an early age. By third grade, only 54 percent of students in OPS meet or exceed state reading standards. In Elkhorn Public Schools, by contrast, where just 9 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 83 percent of third-graders meet or exceed those standards. By 11th grade, that vast chasm has broadened even further, with 84 percent of Elkhorn kids meeting or exceeding reading standards, as opposed to 48 percent in Omaha schools.

In 1983 a federal report called "A Nation At Risk" warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in America's public high schools. Prepared by a group appointed by President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Education, the report portrayed America as falling behind in the classroom race with other countries. While it did not specifically address issues of race and class, it stated that America risked losing the promise that "all, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost." It recommended stronger high school graduation requirements, higher standards for academic performance and student conduct, and more time devoted to instruction and homework. The report shocked the American public.

"A Nation At Risk" was the precursor to the standards movement in the early 1990s, which sought to strengthen curricula and develop voluntary national standards in history, English language arts, science, civics, economics, the arts, foreign languages, geography and physical education. But it fell apart when political conservatives alleged that the history standards had a liberal bias. Another outgrowth of "A Nation At Risk" was the choice movement, which held that the private marketplace could be more efficient in meeting consumer education demands than government, and which spawned charter schools in the 1990s.

The standards movement pointed the way to the test-based accountability movement embodied by No Child Left Behind. Under President George W. Bush, testing and accountability became our national education strategy after 2001. As education historian Diane Ravitch writes, "the rise or fall of test scores in reading and mathematics became the critical variable in judging students, teachers, principals, and schools."

Early in 2005 Bush chose then-Nebraska governor Mike Johanns as his Secretary of Agriculture. Lt. Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, inherited the office of governor.

At that time OPS officials undertook, as Lerner wrote,

an experiment in educational reform more far-reaching than any other in the country...Omaha and 10 nearby school districts formed what's called the Learning Community, a groundbreaking arrangement that links the districts financially and encourages students to enroll in a school in another district within the community if their presence helps make the school more economically diverse.

The Learning Community—enabled by an obscure 1891 state law—was approved by the Nebraska Legislature in 2006 after bitterly resistant suburban districts compromised when confronted with total loss of independence. The legislation provided a mechanism to move real estate tax collections from the wealthier suburban districts to the OPS district.

Heineman won the 2006 gubernatorial election, with Republican support in the affluent suburbs and rural towns more than a match for Omaha's Democratic votes. He was elected, Lerner wrote, "after taking the position that suburban schools shouldn't be responsible for the inner city's educational problems."

In 2009, No Child Left Behind embraced the standard of "persistently lowest-achieving schools" as defined by the stimulus bill, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which set the federal standard for high school graduation rate at 60 percent. Now it was a Democratic president, Barack Obama, who supported rigid accountability rules.

It was then that Heineman urged the Nebraska Board of Education to change the state standard from 60 percent to 75 percent, and in 2010 Central was snared as PLAS. Three Omaha magnet high schools, Benson, North and South, also were tagged as PLAS.

That same year, OPS got an extra $32 million from the suburban districts through the Learning Community tax arrangement. The two events were not coincidental, some concluded.

Why did the governor support the raising of Nebraska's threshold? Certainly higher graduation rates are more desirable than lower—all educators agree on that much. The availability of additional federal funds for PLAS was an incentive. But Central's principal, Dr. Keith Bigsby, suggests a political motivation.

"Central is not persistently low-achieving," says Bigsby. "This is an attempt by the governor of Nebraska to take down the Omaha public schools. Central is the one school you've got to get if you're going to bring down OPS."

Bigbsy does not spell out what he means by "take down the Omaha public schools". Typically, it means weakening of the teachers' union, and privatization of school management in the form of charter schools, which have yet to establish a foothold in Omaha.

But in Nebraska it could mean obliteration of the Learning Community. How so? Nebraska Democrats fault Heineman for reducing state aid to education and point out that Nebraska ranks 50th—dead last—in the percent of state dollars allocated for education, according to a 2008 U.S. Census Bureau report. This, in turn, has added to the property tax burden at the local level, and fueled a lawsuit currently working its way to the Nebraska Supreme Court. A district judge ruled on Sept. 23, 2011 that the Learning Community was unconstitutional.

"The ongoing failure of the state to fully fund the district is behind this," Bigsby said.

Heineman's office declined to comment, and referred me to the Department of Education. A DoE spokesperson said it "would be inappropriate" to address Bigsby's allegations and responded with this e-mail:

By going to a 75 percent graduation rate, some Nebraska school districts qualified for federal school improvement funds to benefit the education of their students. Nebraska has high expectations for its students and expects school districts to graduate a high percentage of their students. The state's graduation rate goal is 90 percent.

While it is true that additional federal funds were available to a PLAS, those funds came with strings, such as a requirement to replace the principal and half of the faculty, or close the school and re-open as a charter. Central chose not to apply. Going forward, the issue will be moot because the funds have dried up.

Meanwhile, Bigsby and OPS officials voice contempt for the PLAS label. The problem, they say, goes beyond the state overriding the national standard of 60 percent, below which Central never has fallen. More problematic is the four-year cohort—a 48-month start-to-finish time frame—used by the state to measure graduation rates. Four years may be enough for middle class students, but low-income students face situations—pregnancy, eviction, domestic violence —that delay their graduation. About 56 percent of Central's 2,322 students in 2010-11 received free and reduced lunches—the key marker of a school's economic makeup.

When students transfer to another district, they are not counted a dropout if they inform OPS of their new school. But a family—struggling with debt, or the law—might not want its new address disclosed. Those unreported transfers are recorded as dropouts.

"Those are real-life experiences some families find themselves in," said OPS Supt. John Mackiel. "We are trying to pretend that schools are separate from the society they are serving."

Four years also penalizes schools with English language learners, who count for about one-fourth of the 50,000 students in OPS, not to mention schools with Special Ed students, who count for 12 percent.

A more forgiving method—which measured the percentage of students who started the 11th grade and graduated on time with their class—was used prior to 2002, before No Child Left Behind. Under that method, Central's graduation rate was 86.9 percent in 1969 when I got out. It dipped below 75 percent just once, in 1976-77, when busing began. Since 1988-89 it has never been below 80 percent. In the three years before Nebraska slapped on the PLAS label, Central's graduation rate was 90.1, 92.5, and 89.3, under the old method.

The PLAS label also ignores the fact that Central, and OPS, have a more rigorous curriculum. OPS require 245 credit hours—at five credit hours per class—for graduation. Nebraska requires 200 credit hours—nine classes fewer than OPS. The affluent Westside district requires only 210 credit hours, and another affluent district, Millard, requires only 225 credit hours.

""If you use my requirements then nobody from Westside or Millard graduated," says Bigsby.

Need more? All 11th graders in Nebraska take a standardized writing assessment test. In 2008, the first year statewide figures were available, 94.3 percent met or exceeded standards. Central's figure was 95 percent. The next year, 94 percent of Nebraska's 11th graders met or exceeded standards. Central's figure was 95.2 percent.

More than three out of four Central seniors who graduated in 2011 took the ACT tests—the exams alleged to measure college readiness. Central's ACT average score was 20.4—highest in OPS—and higher than three schools not deemed PLAS. Central's seniors in 2010 averaged 21.4, above the national average of 21.1.

In 2009 Central finished third for the third consecutive year in the state Academic Decathlon Competition, and produced eight National Merit semifinalists. Last spring Central placed 16th in a nationwide math contest and the chess team won the state title for the seventh time in nine years.

Central offered twenty-two Advanced Placement courses and a Dual Enrollment Program with the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It was on the verge of International Baccalaureate designation with the goal of offering an IB diploma by 2012-13.

The non-profit Central High Foundation raised $870,000, and gave $216,000 to teachers for classroom grants and $168,000 to graduating seniors in scholarships. One of the Foundation's directors is Susie Buffett, a 1971 graduate and the daughter of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

If Central is PLAS, why do students from across Omaha choose to make the long commute downtown? 61 percent of its current enrollment comes from outside its home attendance area—the highest such percentage among Omaha's seven high schools. They come from neighborhoods rich and poor, in various racial and ethnic identities. The student body last year was 39 percent white, 30 percent African-American, 17 percent Hispanic, 10 percent multi-racial, with the rest Asian American and Native American.

This melting pot—a stew of Eagles—includes Akoy Agau, whose journey to Central was longer than most. He was born in southern Sudan, a member of the Dinka tribe. In the 1990s Sudan was in the midst of a civil war between the Muslim government and Christian rebels in the south—the forerunner to the war in Darfur of the last decade. The earlier strife claimed his mother's father and five of her siblings.

Thousands of children driven out of the country were known as the Lost Boys—and Girls—of Sudan. Many were orphaned—and strictly defined only orphans wear the "Lost" appellation—but Agau was luckier. He was three when he rode on his mother's back to a refugee camp in Khartoum. Next came a refugee camp in Cairo, where he, three siblings and his mother were reunited with Agau's father. He was eight, in 2002, when the family, sponsored by a Christian church, came to America and settled north of Baltimore.

A couple of years later they made their way to Omaha, where they had friends in the small Sudanese community. His father, Madut Agau, works at a packing plant in Newton, Iowa, 170 miles to the east, and is away on weekdays, home on weekends. His mother, Adaw Makeir, works part-time and manages their home on the Near North Side, the historic heart of the African-American community. Their house, of recent construction, grew from a program to revive the neighborhood blighted by the riots of the late 60s—which stamped The Rhythm Boys and began a 40-year period of disinvestment and decline. Agau's younger brother, Magay, is a 9th grader at Central this year. Three siblings attend All Saints Catholic School and a three-year-old brother is at home. In time, they too may come to Central, and muse upon the "Sacred C", the marble inlay on the floor of the west foyer.

I asked Supt. Mackiel how Central students of 1968 would look at the PLAS label of 2011.

"Stealth in its approach," said Mackeil. "Its real agenda is not stated.

"Up until No Child Left Behind the goal was access for all, regardless of race or handicapping condition. Now we're returning to a more sophisticated filtering and discriminatory approach under the guise of student achievement."

Mackiel seems to be saying, in bureaucratese, that racism is the impulse underlying Central's PLAS. Central's students of 1968, he said, would get it, just as they got George Wallace.

"Their reaction would be the same," Mackiel said.

Yet race is not part of the Omaha debate—at least not openly.

"We don't talk race anymore in this district—we talk socio-economics," said Bigsby.

"But race is an important piece because we left the African-Americans behind. We broke their community and left it behind. It still hasn't gotten over the scourge of crack in the 80s. The best and brightest African-Americans don't stay in Omaha because there's no opportunity for them here."

Bigsby, 55, who grew up in Lincoln, the son of a single parent, and "ate my share of ketchup sandwiches", says he identifies with the economic struggles of his Central students. He likens the battle over the Learning Community to nothing less than "a war on democracy". If the Learning Community is dismantled, and Omaha schools suffer further cuts in funding, he says the consequences "will be ugly".

"If our kids aren't prepared this democracy goes down in flames," Bigsby says. "We'll have class warfare like you haven't seen it yet."

In a voice echoing the Sixties, he adds: "The kids in this school and this district are angry. Let this thing break down—whew!—good luck. They do have cars and they know where to go."

No Child Left Behind has "everything to do with structural changes and accountability, and nothing at all to do with the substance of learning," writes Diane Ravitch.

Central's PLAS label is indifferent to substance, and nuance. But it's there, for those who care to see. Simply walk through Central's old wooden hallways, listen to the sounds of teaching and learning, and feel the energy of adolescents coming of age. For them the future is everything, and the past something they learn in the history classes of Scott Wilson and Jay Ball.

Wilson teaches American History to ninth graders. About half of his second semester is focused on the Sixties and the civil rights movement. In the summer of 2010 Wilson spent a week in Birmingham, Alabama, on a National Endowment for Humanities grant, and studied the civil rights movement at ground zero. He met people who were clubbed at Selma by George Wallace's State Troopers, and who were children when Rosa Parks sat down at the front of a bus in Montgomery.

Wilson's classes hear those stories and anecdotes and begin to understand. They hear about the lynching of Emmett Till, and the violence against the Freedom Riders, and the Children's Crusade in Birmingham—about schoolchildren hit with fire hoses and set upon by guard dogs—and begin to understand. They learn about Reconstruction, Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine at another Central High, and the integration of state universities in Mississippi and Alabama by James Meredith and Vivian Malone, and begin to understand.

Wilson asks his students to imagine themselves in those dangerous times, in those pivotal situations.

"Put yourself in their shoes," Wilson says. "What would you have done?"

Jay Ball, a 1980 graduate of Central, and head coach of the varsity football team, teaches a course called "Omaha History." This fall his students will use The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central as a textbook.

They will learn that civil rights, and Black Power, and the 1960s, reverberate down the corridors, up the stairwells and across the glass-roofed atrium that used to be an open-air courtyard. That their black and white predecessors came of age in a time of racial transition and uncertainty. That Central's first all-black starting five brought everybody together in pride and celebration. That a blonde cheerleader kept a diary about her sweet and tortured love of a black basketball player. That rage smoldered when the bigot, Wallace, brought his campaign to an auditorium two blocks from Central. That Dwaine Dillard, the Agau of his day, put his sense of justice and adventure ahead of basketball.

They also will learn that Central failed Dillard academically, and that he left Central before he graduated. He was a dropout before PLAS existed, and before Special Ed curricula that might have sent his life in a different direction.

None of this history, Ball knows, will matter to his students as much as their plans for the weekend.

"They are in the present—that's how kids are," says Ball.

Akoy Agau is no different. He will be thinking about the start of basketball practice, and another state title. But Akoy is unlike Dillard in one important aspect. This semester he is enrolled in honors Spanish. He wants to add Spanish to his native tongue, Dinka, along with English, and some Arabic that he picked up in Egypt.

"He challenges himself by taking honors classes in other subjects as well," says Behrens, his coach. "He has matured a lot in the last couple of years and shows as much leadership as any player I have coached."

Agau was the child who refused to be left behind. He needs Central to get ahead. Forty-plus years after Dwaine Dillard took to the streets to protest the injustice of racism, Agau's school is tarred by an opaque pejorative that may well spring from a similar impulse. And the quest for justice goes on.

(Steve Marantz is a researcher, journalist and author at work on a book about Fenway High in Boston. He blogs at sportsmediaguide.com and can be reached at marantzsteve@gmail.com)