*This story was written by special contributor Jane McGill of the Central High School Register.
Omaha Public Schools will open its first two new high schools in over fifty years at the beginning of the upcoming 2022-2023 school year. Built with funds from the $830 million dollars worth of bonds that Omaha voters have approved since 2014 for the building of new schools and improvement of existing ones, Westview High School, and Buena Vista High School, which will include both freshmen and sophomore classes, have been a source of tremendous enthusiasm from students, parents, and the Omaha community at large. However, there has been a small yet vocal minority of students for which the opening of the new high schools is a source not of excitement, but instead of anxiety and dread.
Two years ago, OPS began community engagement efforts intended to inform families about the redrawing of the boundary lines that determine which OPS high school is designated as the neighborhood school for their students. Westview High School was made the neighborhood school for many students who previously had Northwest and Burke as their neighborhood school while students in the Central, Bryan, or South neighborhoods now find themselves in Buena Vista’s attendance area. This includes many students who currently attend Burke High School as freshmen who have since been rezoned into the attendance area of Westview.
The School Selection Process and the School Transfer Request Process established procedures through which students can apply to attend a non-neighborhood school. However, this process did not allow many students from Burke the opportunity to continue onto sophomore year at the high schools they currently attend. Officials within the OPS Student Placement rejected many claiming that Burke is above capacity. I spoke with the families of freshmen at Burke High School who are being forced to attend Westview High School for their sophomore year after being denied the opportunity to stay at Burke for the upcoming school year about their experiences.
“I think about this from a well-being perspective,” said Vicki Bautista, a professor at Creighton University whose daughter, Logan Bautista, is a freshman at Burke, “about changing one’s environment when they don’t want it to be changed and what that can do to your mental health and well-being. So, I guess for me, I work at Creighton, whenever there’s some kind of student issue with mental health and well-being, as an instructor I always try to figure out the best way to support a student. Because the whole reason you get into education is to help students get to where they want to be, the next chapter, where their goals are. I think when you take away that choice of where you can go to school after you’ve had like a really good experience at a school, it really deflates you.”
Like other parents, Bautista’s request that her child be allowed to remain at Burke was not granted by the district. “On the transfer form, they said it was denied because of capacity, that Burke didn’t have the capacity to take students, which is not the case. I called the placement office and they said she has to go to Westview. She has a medical condition and her doctor who has been treating her since third grade has signed a letter saying it’s not in her best interest to switch schools for her mental health and well-being. They said that wasn’t a specific enough of a reason for her to be able to stay at her school.”
Dr. Anne MacFarland, the Executive Director of Student and Community Services for OPS oversees the current student placement plan and said that notes from medical professionals are being were handled properly by the Student Placement Office. “We get that all the time and we do follow the practices and the policies of the Omaha Public Schools. And so not being able to speak to any student’s specific situation, we do have a variety of students that have special needs. Some are verified for special education, some have some medical conditions, we did follow all of the policies in place.”
Nevertheless, the students I spoke to said that their mental health had already been affected by their impending departure from Burke. Soon-to-be Westview sophomore Logan Bautista said, “When my mom told me [about having to attend Westview] I was crying, it was really hard. I really love my swim team at Burke and I don’t want to not be a part of that next year. It’s helped me make a lot of friends, stay active, and I just like the community, everyone’s so supportive. One of my best friends is on the swim team, and I talked to her about it and she’s like ‘I’m still gonna want to talk to you. This isn’t gonna change anything.’ But it’s gonna be hard cause I’m gonna swim against her, not with her. I just feel sad all the time. There are times where I just cry about it. I feel kinda helpless about it right now. No one’s going to listen to me. I don’t matter.”
Alicia Villescas said she is planning to move into Burke’s attendance area both in order to safeguard her daughter’s emotional well-being and to allow her to participate in the Air and Space pathway at Burke, “When they denied the letter this last week, I submitted all my financial information to a loan guy on Friday. I don’t want her to go to Westview because they don’t offer any of the academics that she’s really interested in. Why set her up for failure or to lose that intrinsic motivation to do well? I also want her to stay around all her friends, I think that’s really important.”
Kimberly Arkfeld, a social worker who has been advocating on behalf of her daughter who is another student being forced to attend Westview for the upcoming school year, said she feels that OPS has not adequately communicated the rationale behind their decision not to allow her daughter to continue at Burke. “I don’t understand at all. She’s established there, she’s comfortable there, she’s got a letter written by her therapist saying that it is best for her to stay where she is. She is having trouble sleeping, she’s having trouble concentrating, she just wants to stay where she is.”
“I’ve been trying to make the most of my time at Burke knowing that I’ll probably have to leave it all behind,” said Freshman Allison Arkfeld. “Even now I’m so thankful for everything that I’ve gotten at Burke. I would come home from school sometimes and just smile and dance around. I was so happy to have met all those people and be at the place that I was. Knowing that I will have to lose that really frustrates me and makes me sad. I feel kind of depressed. I keep catching myself saying ‘I might have to go to Westview’ and then correcting myself saying ‘I have to go to Westview’. I feel like rather than walking into the school excited, I’ll be very stressed and uncomfortable being there. Knowing that back at Burke, they’re having a first day there without me, it won’t feel right.”
After their transfer requests were denied, both Kimberly Arkfeld and Vicki Bautista reached out to OPS Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Logan about their concerns. Bautista said Dr. Logan reiterated the district’s position that the letter their physician had signed was not an adequate or specific enough reason for her to say because the physician did not understand the facilities at Westview.
Bautista pressed further upon what mental health services would be available to her daughter at the new high school. “I told Dr. Logan ‘Well, if you’re going to force her to go to Westview, what type of mental health support are you going to provide for her?’ because it’s a well-being issue inflicted by OPS. And she said, ‘We can try to reenact her 504 and try to see if there’s any mental health support that we can get her.’ They’ve told us that a 504 plan is to support academic issues, but what she needs is a therapist to talk through how to grieve and get over leaving her school and all of her friends, how to learn to compete against a team that you’ve spent a year connecting with,” Bautista said.
In her phone conference with the superintendent, Arkfeld says Dr. Logan responded to her concerns about the well-being implications of being forced to change schools by emphasizing that being a sophomore at Westview would be a great leadership opportunity and offering to take her daughter on a tour of the new school. Arkfeld felt that her response did not adequately address the concerns she had. “I told her ‘I don’t think you’ve listened to what I’ve been saying because it’s not about the facility. I’m telling you that her relationships with teachers and with friends and her programs that she’s already involved in at Burke, that’s the problem.’ I’m sure Westview is a very nice school. I’m sure that the people that are going to be working there are very nice people. But that’s not what my kid needs. I know what my kids needs and it’s not that.”
While many parents felt disappointed by how their concerns were addressed by OPS’ superintendent, Dr. Logan herself denied that she disregarded the mental health of the students in question. “First of all, I’m a mom. I didn’t give them the answer that they wanted, but I certainly didn’t disregard their concerns. Disregarding would have been I didn’t answer their email or didn’t listen to their story. In my role, I unfortunately have to give people an answer that they don’t want. But just because I give you an answer that you don’t want doesn’t mean I’ve disregarded your request.”
Dr. Logan emphasized thar her foremost concern is how the district’s policies will affect the entirety of Omaha Public Schools. “It is gonna be hard. We have three more months to go and so some people are going to realize ‘Oh my gosh, my kid’s school is changing’ and we’ll hear calls from them. Just because we say ‘This is your child’s school’ doesn’t mean we are dismissing your concern. We are making policy so that works for our entire school district not because we want to make kids sad or angry or that we’re uncaring. You know I didn’t get into this business because I don’t care about children’s mental health, I got into it because I actually do. But I can’t always say yes. And so, it’s a careful balance between being a careful listener, following up, and having the gravitas to implement a decision so that it works for an entire district.”