Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo Displays a Talent for Teaching and Connecting
You don’t think of a master teacher as someone in her 30s but that’s exactly what Luisa Palomo of Omaha is. The kindergarten instructor at Liberty Elementary School has mastered the art and craft that is teaching and she is deservedly being recognized for it. The following two stories I did on her, in 2010 and 2012, appeared in El Percio newspaper shortly after she earned major education prizes in those respective years. The school she teaches at, Liberty Elementary, is one I am quite fond of. You’ll find several more articles by me about Liberty on this blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Maldonado Palomo has reached the top of her field as a 2010 Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award-winner.
The Gering, Neb. native is the grade leader at her Omaha school. She heads outreach efforts to parents, many of them undocumented, through the Liberty Community Council. She’s a liaison with partners assisting Liberty kids and families. The school engages community through parenting and computer classes, food and clothes pantries, and, starting in the fall, a health clinic.
Colleagues admire her dedication working with the school’s many constituents.
“She truly reaches the whole child – behaviorally, academically, socially, emotionally — and then steps beyond that and reaches the family too,” said Liberty Principal Carri Hutcherson. “We can count on her to do a lot of the family components we have at Liberty because she gets it, she has a heart for it, the passion, the drive, the focus, all those great things it takes. She’s an expert practitioner on so many levels.”
But there was a time when Palomo questioned whether she wanted to be a classroom teacher. While a Creighton University education major she participated in Encuentro Dominicano, a semester-long study abroad in the impoverished Dominican Republic. She described this immersion as a “huge, life-changing experience” for reawakening a call to service inherited from her father, Matt Palomo.
“My dad has spent his whole life doing for others,” she said. “He comes from a migrant worker family. He gave up a college scholarship to work so he could help support his nine brothers and sisters. From the age of 15 he’s been involved with the Boy Scouts as a scout leader. He just celebrated his 45th year with the Boy Scouts of America.
“He’s always worked with underprivileged youth, Hispanic or Caucasian, in our small town. He’s such a role model for so many young boys who’ve gone through that program. He has such a sense of what’s right and wrong and he’s instilled that in my brother and sister and I.”
In the Dominican Republic Luisa felt connected to people, their lives and their needs.
“You work, take classes and live with families,” she said. “You learn the philosophy and the why of what’s going on. You really learn to form relationships with people, which isn’t something that always comes naturally to Americans. Here, it’s always more individualistic and what do I need to do for myself, whereas in a lot of other countries people think about what do I need to do for my community and my family.”
The communal culture was akin to what she knew back in Gering. When she returned to the States she sought to replicate the bonds she’d forged. “I came back wanting that,” she said. Unable to find it in her first teaching practicums, she became disillusioned.
“I was ready to quit education and my advisor was like, ‘Nope, there’s this new school in a warehouse and Nancy Oberst is the principal and you’ll meet her and love her, give it a shot before you quit.’ So I went there and loved it and stayed there. Nancy and I just clicked and she hired me to teach kindergarten.”
Liberty opened in 2002 in a former bus warehouse at 20th and Leavenworth. In 2004 it moved into a newly constructed building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Oberst was someone Palomo aspired to be like.
“She’s so dynamic and such a good model,” said Palomo. “She has such a vision for how a school should be — it shouldn’t be an 8:30 to 4 o’clock building. Instead it should be a community space where it’s open all the time and families come for all kinds of different services, and that really is the center of the community.”
Oberst and many of Liberty’s original teachers have moved on. Palomo’s stayed. “We have a core group of parents who have been with us from the old building and they know I’m one of the few teachers who have been here all eight years,” she said. “They’ve seen what I do. They know Miss Palomo is the one who spent the night in the ER when Jose broke his arm and started a fund raiser when Emiliano’s house burned down. They know me and they trust me and they let me into their homes.
“They know I’m coming from a good place.”
She said one Liberty family’s “adopted” her and her fiance. The family’s four children will be in the couple’s fall wedding.
Hutcherson said Liberty is “the hub” for its downtown neighborhood and educators like Palomo empower parents “to feel they’re not just visitors but participants.” Whether helping a family get their home’s utilities turned back on or translating for them, she said Palomo and other staff “step out of the walls of this building to get it done.” For two-plus years Palomo mentored a girl separated from her parents.
“It’s that whole reaching out and meeting our families where they’re at,” said Palomo.
Liberty’s holistic, family-centered, “do what’s best for the child” approach is just what she was looking for and now she can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I really love it here. We’re not just a teacher in the classroom. We do so much to really bring our community into our school so our families can come to us for all these different activities and for help with different needs. It’s one of those things where we let them into our lives and they let us into theirs, and we’re both better for it.”
She’s proud to be “a strong Hispanic” for kids who may not know another college graduate that looks like them.
Palomo recently earned her master’s in educational administration from UNO. Sooner or later, she’ll be a principal. Hutcherson said when that day comes “it’ll be a great loss to Liberty but a great gain for the district.”
_ _ _
Liberty’s Luisa Palomo Named Nebraska Teacher of the Year
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
In only two years Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Palomo, 30, has won Nebraska’s top teacher recognition honors. In 2010 she was named an Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher, an award given top Omaha Public Schools educators, and last November she was selected Nebraska Teacher of the Year.
The Gering, Neb. native applied for the state honor at the prodding of OPS colleagues. She completed the required essays and interviews but held out little hope of winning.
“I felt there’s no way they’re going to choose me because to be quite honest I am young and I’ve only taught for a short amount of time compared to a lot of other teachers of the year. And while I’m passionate about early childhood education I know it’s not on the forefront of everybody’s brain when they think about education.”
She was motivated to put her name in the running because the winner gains a stage and she wanted a platform on education.
“By getting this award you get so much more of an audience,” she says. “By having this title behind my name now finally people will listen to me. I kind of applied for the award thinking this – that I would have a title that would give me a foot in the door.”
As expected, she’s in high demand as a speaker and she says she’s eager to present on “topics I feel really passionate about.”
“What I want the media and the public to know is that there’s so many good things happening in education. The media’s focus on bad news stories is really not an accurate reflection of what’s happening in schools, so I kind of want to put that message out there.
“What I’ll be talking to teachers about is a shift in how we run our schools. Instead of it having to be a traditional 9-to-3, nine months out of the year model, we really need to shift that mentality to what is best for kids. For some kids the traditional school year works beautifully, but for other kids, like the ones I work with in my downtown school, it’s so much more beneficial to them to have an extended day where they’re able to come in early and stay late and have educational opportunities, and to attend summer school through the first week of July.”
She advocates that schools adjust to meet students where they are.
“There doesn’t need to be a one size fits all model for education. Instead it’s what works for the kids you’re serving. It may mean doing what Liberty does, which is coordinate with all these community services to offer Our Completely Kids program. It opens our building at 7 in the morning and closes it at 6 at night.
“Liberty employs this full service community school model where it says if families trust the school, bring in the services. Why send families across town? Why not have a doctor in your school? Liberty allows any of us as teachers to accompany our families through so much of their lives, and we’re better for it and our families are better for it and the children are better for it. Our kids are better adjusted and they’re more connected to school.
“There’s so many different ways to meet the needs of our kids, we just have to be open to accepting it.”
She bristles at the notion a teacher’s duties stop when the last school bell rings.
“I hear some teachers say, ‘But my job is not to be a social worker,’ but really it is because your job is to look out for what’s best for children.”
For Palomo, teaching is about making lives better.
“All kids have a path and the teachers they have in the classroom determine where that path is. There’s so much literature that talks about the effectiveness of quality teachers. If I’m able to reach these kids and get them to love learning I’m changing the outcome of their path. To be a transformational leader is understanding your job is so much more than teaching phonics or number recognition.”
She approaches the school day as a “very purposeful” adventure in which she “guides and encourages” the learning process. “I never talk at our children but with our children and kind of explore with our kids as they learn. It’s a balance of what’s developmentally appropriate and what’s engaging for our kids.”
During 2012 she’ll be meeting fellow teachers of the year at national education events. The first was in Dallas, Texas in late Jan. Upcoming events are in Washington D.C., Huntsville, Ala. and New York-New Jersey. She says she enjoys the prospect of making “connections with people all around the country that I’ll be able call on when I have questions or when I need support.”
She’s already getting to know past Nebraska Teachers of the Year, who work as a cohort on education initiatives. “It’s expected as a teacher of the year you’re continually giving back to the education community,” she says. That’s fine with Palomo since she sees her calling as a service mission. The recognition only confirms that. “This award really makes me think that not only did I choose the right career but I must be doing things right.” She also sees it as validation that quality education happens in inner city schools.
She intends on being an administrator one day but for now is content where she is.
“I want to be in the classroom for a chunk of my career before I move on. I feel like I learn so much every year by being in the foxholes. I work with parents, students, teachers on a daily basis, and it’s very real. I’m not tied up in administrative duties or policy, I’m working with who I want to have the most effect on.”
- Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Awards (omaha.com)
- Teachers from Iowa, Neb., to be celebrated in DC (thegazette.com)
Education is not my beat. In fact, I don’t have a beat as a reporter or journalist. Life is my subject matter. Pretty broad, I know. But there are certain subjects and subjects within subjects that I get drawn to and one of these is the downtown Omaha Liberty Elementary School. The following is one of several stories I’ve filed about it and its staff over the years. It’s a special place with special people and hopeflly this story (and the others) conveys why. The woman who headed up the school at the start, Nancy Oberst, has since moved on but her assistant principal Ilka Oberst (no relation) is now in charge and so there’s been a nice continuity there. An example of the superb teaching staff at Liberty is Luisa Palomo, whom I’ve recently profiled and posted about, winner of the 2012 Nebraska Teacher of the Year award. I expect I’ll be drawn back there again to file a future story. Meanwhile, check out the articles filed under my education category and you should find quite a variety there.
Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School
©by Leo Adam Biga
Oriignally appearee in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
For the first time, the largely Hispanic-served Liberty Elementary School has a home to call its own. Located a half-block from the temporary warehouse Liberty occupied since being formed in 2002, the new-look Liberty opens the 2004-2005 school year August 25 in a newly constructed three-level building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Designed by the Omaha architectural firm Zenon Beringer Mabrey Partners Inc., the $7.4 million site is as traditional as the previous one was unconventional.
With a likely enrollment increase from 500 to 600, Liberty’s continuing its mission of educating a high English-as-a-Second Language student base (60-plus percent) and gearing programs to new arrivals’ needs. Sixty-eight percent of its kids are Hispanic. Most are first-generation Americans. The remaining quotient is divided among African-Americans, Native Americans, Africans and Caucasians. Diversity at Liberty is more than a symbol, it’s infused in lesson plans and in the books kids read, in the art they create, in the foods they eat and in the heroes whose praises they sing.
Taking advantage of a downtown locale with such kids-friendly attractions as the Omaha Children’s Museum across the street, the YMCA around the corner and the Rose Theater and Joslyn Art Museum within easy walking distance, Liberty’s formed partnerships that give students and families preferred access to these facilities. Unlike the old Liberty, which lacked a gymnasium and theater, the new Liberty’s outfitted with both. Not having those facilities was spun into a positive when the Y and Rose let students access their athletic and stage resources, respectively.
A hybrid downtown-neighborhood school serving the low income areas just south, east and west of the restored Drake Court Apartments, Liberty’s created a warm school culture that’s arisen, in part, from the makeshift space it held classes in for two years. The school was situated in a former bus barn and paper storage warehouse. The facility, running from 22nd to 20th and Leavenworth Streets, was renovated by its owners, NuStyle Development Corporation, and leased to the Omaha Public Schools. Working with acres of open-floor space and lofty ceilings, Alley-Poyner Architects designed a modular layout of classrooms separated by partitions. With little to baffle sound, Liberty was constantly abuzz with noise. The resulting chorus of youthful voices leaking through the cavernous environs added a homey vitality and charm absent from the sterile confines of most schools, where children are holed-up behind walls except at class breaks, recess and meals.
Liberty brightened a dull industrial setting into a vibrant space. Children’s artwork was plastered everywhere. Without an intercom system or classroom phones, Liberty staff communicated the old fashioned way, not unlike neighbors speaking between fences or hedges. Visitors could overhear or glimpse the rhythms of education unfolding or sometimes spilling-over all around.
Principal Nancy Oberst said she and her staff enjoyed the freedom of a barrier-free school whose informality, in-turn, fostered camaraderie. “It’s something I saw real early on over there. If you needed something, you talked face-to-face or you stood on a chair and you reached over and grabbed that book or yardstick or whatever other resource you needed. We really could bring our staff together quickly because we spent so much time with each other and in such close quarters. We had a lot to overcome and I think because of that we became a real unified, strong staff. We had to be together to do it,” she said.
Beyond the benefits to staff, she feels the more relaxed school atmosphere helped put students and parents, including some immigrant adults facing legal residency issues, more at ease. With the move to the new building and its more spacious and segmented interior, she doesn’t want to lose the essence of what made Liberty such an inviting place. Likening a new school to a gleaming gated community, she wants to avoid the trend that isolates people behind closed doors.
“It’s a concern to us. Everyone on our staff has talked about it. Being a tall, sturdy, large new structure will, in some ways, make some people a little bit more worried about coming in. And, so, we’re going to really work hard on making sure we can keep that family-centered, welcoming, we-are-your-school spirit. We want to say, It doesn’t matter where you come from, we are happy to have you. That’s kind of a charge I’m rekindling with everyone. It’s something I know existed at the old Liberty. We can’t lose that. That’s what made us strong.”
Oberst said the formidable walls and amenities that make some schools cold, imposing places can be broken, “but you have to make an effort. I know a building can be beautiful and not welcoming enough. That part we have to create. We want to warm it up, and the only way you warm things up is by people. You just have to work at it. For example, I still want to know the names of all our kids and parents.”
As Liberty prepares showing off its new digs, Oberst plans leading a team of staff on a meet-and greet-canvassing of the school’s mixed-use residential-commercial district — something they did three summers ago. “We’re going to go door-to-door again and invite all the neighbors to come and see the new school. Now, we really have a great showcase for them to see. I think schools really need to do that. Schools need to reach out to their neighborhoods because schools aren’t neutral ground. They’re a plus, and you really should promote your school as a plus and your students as the future. We need to be providers of hope.”
The hope Liberty embodies carries special import for its immigrant families. Oberst takes seriously the principles and dreams bound up in the name. “We really try to create this feeling that Liberty is THE community and not just this separate place. We want to be the community…the starting point, the Ellis Island, the place where families can come and find things. We represent that ideal for many people. The wonderful thing about this spectacular new building is what it will offer our kids. They’ll be proud to tell everyone this is their school. In a way, it’s a new start.”
For a first-time school plopped-down in a funky area of trendy eateries, light industries and thrift stores and in close proximity to 24-Hour Package Liquor and the Douglas County Correctional Center, it’s been a successful adaptation. The school went to great pains to win over neighbors. It worked with the Omaha Police Department to increase patrols and the City of Omaha to ease traffic snarls. Still, an apartment house only two blocks away has been the site of repeated police calls over drug and prostitution activity. Neighbors are suing its owner.
Oberst, who’s been at Liberty since its start-up, feels the school’s helped stabilize the area. “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, I’m so glad they’ve put a school in that neighborhood.” Mike Nath, branch manager of nearby Motion Industries, said, “I think it’s been a good thing for the downtown community. I think the police have paid more attention to the area.” Lindy Hoyer, executive director of the Omaha Children’s Museum, said, “We’ve been extremely thrilled to have the school as a neighbor, and now that’s it’s just across the street, there’s no telling the potential of that relationship. Liberty’s given this part of downtown more of a sense it is a true neighborhood. We love the fact kids and families are residents of the area and take ownership in it. I think there’s great pride in having the school. It adds a life and personality to this diverse neighborhood.”
Oberst said Liberty’s own diversity is a selling point. It’s why Jim and Barb Farho and John and Jennifer Cleveland elect to send their kids there. She said the fact parents keep their kids enrolled “means we’ve really held their expectation of providing a quality education in a diverse urban environment.” Another indicator of Liberty’s quality, she said, is that several teachers on staff send their kids there.
The sight of Liberty kids walking to and from school in the working-class Columbus Park neighborhood must evoke memories in older residents of Mason School. Now apartments, the former South 20th Street public school was long a magnet for children of the European immigrant families that once anchored the ward. Like then, many Liberty families are starting out or starting over, but one difference is Liberty’s highly mobile student body. Many youths lead nomadic lives due to parents’ seasonal jobs or pending legal status or family issues back home in Mexico, Guatemala or whatever Latin or Central American country of origin they hail from.
Oberst said student turnover has increased as the economy’s slumped. “Some rooms are hit really hard. I had a first-grade teacher who started the year with 15 kids and saw 13 changes. Now, it doesn’t mean that all 13 left, but some kids leave and some kids come back. We often have kids go and come back.” Once gone, a student’s whereabouts can be hard to track. “Sometimes…it’s a quick move in the middle of the night. The family may not have a phone. Then, it takes us awhile to locate where the kid is. And we do work at that. We send people to the house to see if they actually moved or if it was a family emergency. A child may move in with another family member. Or, they may just be attending another OPS school.”
Strict post-9/11 regulations may prompt newcomers to uproot their families, she said, such as the Nebraska License Bureau’s requirement of a birth certificate, green card and social security card. Requirements for registering a child at Liberty remain the same — a birth certificate, immunization record and address verification.
A transient life, she said, is an endemic problem among the poor. “Poverty means having to move often.” The disruption such want causes, she said, is only exacerbated by “not having language.” Then there’s the added burden many
bilingual minority children have of acting as interpreters for their parents, who, in turn, are frustrated by a language gulf that makes them dependent on their kids.
She said many Liberty kids grow up wanting. “There’s no space for the kids to play. There’s no space for the family to have a quiet dinner. All those things that promote communication and closeness — it’s more of a challenge.” She described a recent home visit that found no parent at home to attend the kids, one of whom was sick and absent from school that day, and a living space so cramped that bunk beds were literally jammed in a doorway. “There’s some sadness,” she said.
She estimates 95 percent of Liberty kids lack such basic tools as a home computer. Others lack bare living essentials like a suitable bed to sleep in or a decent pair of shoes to wear. Oberst, like other inner city principals, is forced to beg, borrow and steal for extras that are staples at well-heeled suburban schools. “It’s true. The kids with the greatest needs have the least resources,” she said. “I’m trying to collaborate with anyone and everyone who wants to help…just to make the field more level for our kids — to have at their fingertips what other kids have.”
Liberty’s many partners include Camp Fire, First National Bank and Kutak Rock LLP. Liberty’s working to expand its Y ties to encompass a swimming program. Oberst is seeking support to put an I-book or laptop in every kid’s home. In keeping with its mission of providing care to the underserved and uninsured, One World Community Health Centers makes twice-weekly visits to Liberty for pediatric check-ups, immunizations, physicals — “all the things our community needs but doesn’t have much access to,” Oberst said, adding that One World is after funding to add on-site family health and dental care and behavioral counseling services.
To further address disadvantages, Liberty: maintains a large ESL teaching staff and encourages all staff to be fluent Spanish-speakers; holds English-language and GED classes for adults; specializes in guided reading to promote literacy and language arts; sends staff out to kids’ homes for goodwill-outreach visits; operates a food bank and emergency fund for urgent family needs; and refers families to human service agencies. “We’re a safety net. We also try to teach people how to help themselves by doing budgeting, price shopping and using what’s available in the community,” Oberst said. “Building relationships is fundamental to all of this.”
Academically, Liberty’s a first-time participant in the local Banneker/CEMS initiative to improve math and science performance. Given the obstacles its kids face, progress is measured incrementally. “We’ve made some strides in our standardized test scores. We’ve grown five points, so we’re inching our way up,” Oberst said. “But we’re going to have difficulty keeping up with the No Child Left Behind mark, because that’s a difficult mark to attain. Some standardized assessments don’t really show a child’s progress. We’re teaching towards strengths and measuring how far kids come from where they started. This past year, we identified 50 kids as gifted. The year before we had 14 or 15. We’re not so much into a strata thing as wanting to push all the kids ahead. It is my job to open the doors for all my kids.”
Not all families’ struggles persist. Many, she said, save enough to buy new homes. Some parents attain their GED. Older siblings of Liberty kids find jobs that take advantage of their bilingual skills. All signs of hope for Liberty’s future graduates. “Those are my kids who are going to be marketable” one day, Oberst said. As far as her own future at the school, she said, “I want to be here to see our kids go to junior high. I would like to do that. I love this place. My heart is here.”
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