Howard Kennedy Elementary

On Monday, I had a video shoot in North Omaha. On my drive down, and drive back, I took a detour so I could drive by Howard Kennedy Elementary. It doesn’t seem real, sometimes, that I attended there.

The 1984-’85 school year was a memorable one, but not necessarily for good reasons. I was entering the third grade. I had been going to Dundee Elementary, but Dundee didn’t have a third grade due to the district’s forced busing plan.* Most of my classmates went to Howard Kennedy, but somehow I was selected to go to Franklin Elementary. Franklin was also in North Omaha. Going to Franklin was somehow a great honor for me because it was magnet school, or something like that. I think my name was randomly selected from a pool of candidates. I had no idea I was a candidate. I had no idea how I was selected. All I knew was I was now going to Franklin without any of my friends or classmates.

*The forced busing plan was an initiative by the Omaha Public Schools to help integrate students. Omaha is a geographically segregated city. When I was a kid, most elementary schools didn’t have a particular grade. Dundee didn’t have a third grade, for instance. So, students would be bused off to another school, in another part of town, to help the students integrate. Growing up in Midtown Omaha, I was bussed to North Omaha for third grade. This integration plan is no longer in effect within OPS.

Obviously, I didn’t know anyone at Franklin. On the first day of school, the bus picked me up and took me off to this unknown school in an unknown part of the city. Thankfully, I recognized someone else on the bus from my soccer team. I didn’t know him at all, but he was someone. The bus dropped us off at school and we were walking to our class when I asked him, “Are you on my soccer team?” Yes, Dave Getzschman was. He was also in Mrs. Jones class. I had a friend at school.

Dave and I hung out a lot that first part of the year. Dave’s younger brother, Rob, was also attending Franklin. The bus rides to and from school were always fun with them. It was a minibus, #653, with the Marmaduke picture on the door. There were roughly ten of us on the bus. Lots of personal conversations about important topics like GI Joe and Transformers.

Compared to Dundee, Franklin seemed futuristic. It’s funny to think back and remember that I’d never had air conditioning at school until I was at Franklin. It was new and felt like a school for a kid my age. While I was at Franklin it never occurred to me that I was attending a school where I was the minority. It never occurred to me that my family was wealthier than a majority of the school.

I never felt like I fit at Franklin, though. Granted, I was new to the school. Plus, there were factors outside of Franklin that were affecting me. Early in 1985, my parents divorced. The lead up to this was unsettling as well, as life at home was not comforting. Around this time, I was pulled out of Franklin and sent to Howard Kennedy. I don’t recall much about this, but I’m guessing the thought was to give me some stability, during the divorce, by getting me around my old Dundee friends and classmates. While I never felt like I fit in at Franklin, I knew I was going to miss Dave and Rob. Dave and Rob’s family became like a second family to me, whether they realized it or not. While my family was imploding, it was nice to go to their house, play and hang out with their family.

I started attending Howard Kennedy. Changes happened immediately. Instead of the minibus picking me up at my house, I was taken to daycare in the morning. A normal school bus would come by the daycare and pick me up, along with a few others. The bus rides didn’t have the personal factor like the minibus to and from Howard Kennedy. While I knew more students there, because of some of my Dundee classmates, I still didn’t know a majority of the students. My closer friends from Dundee had different teachers at Howard Kennedy. I had to figure out on the fly the ins and outs, the culture, the class system that everyone else already knew there. And, I was trying to figure out what was going on at home. I would manage. I made some friends in my class. I figured out the flow of things within the school. I even had a girlfriend* for a short time that was in my class. She was from Belle Ryan Elementary and was also being bused to Howard Kennedy that year.

*Here was our relationship: silence, awkwardness, passing notes to one another asking to check “yes” or “no” if we liked them, and each of us whispering to our friends about the other.

When I was at Howard Kennedy it was the first time I had heard of Black History Month. My teacher told us about famous and influential African-Americans. I knew about Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens*, which I enjoyed, but I was also made aware of individuals like George Washington Carver.

One thing I remember from my time at Howard Kennedy? Not doing much homework. In fact, I can’t recall doing any. None. How much homework does a third grader do anyway? Who knows. I think not doing any homework was partly due to my parent’s divorce. I was given a pass. For some reason, I remember being told if I wanted to take my desk out into the hall, because I needed time alone, that I could. Were they afraid I was going to do something in class? I don’t know. So, a lot of days I’d just take my desk out into the hall, sit there, and do nothing. I didn’t want to be in class. I felt alone with the tumult at home. I had been transferred to Howard Kennedy for some stability, but it didn’t bring any. And, the friend I was closest with, Dave, was at my previous school.

The school year ended, and since then I have never stepped foot back in Franklin or Howard Kennedy. I had no need to do so. I’ve driven by each school once or twice, but that’s it. It never dawned on me why I was bused to those schools, why I was in the minority, why it was there I first heard about Black History Month.

When I drove by Howard Kennedy, on Monday, it seemed small. When you’re eight years old, everything seems big about school. The buildings, the rooms, the desks, the playground…everything. Now it seems minuscule. I pulled into parking lot and looked at the school, and I thought about my classmates. I can’t remember all my classmates, but I remember a few. I remember the boy who sat in front of me who I saw on the news, less than ten years later, for a crime he committed. He was sent to prison. I think about another classmate that committed suicide in junior high. We had played on a neighborhood softball team together. I wonder about the girl in class a number of us made fun of at recess. She didn’t seem to have any friends. I wonder if she’s mad at God, or the world, because of our teasing.*

*I’ve prayed for this girl over the years. I’ve asked God for forgiveness in not being nice to her. I’m somewhat fascinated by the people God brings to mind, from my childhood, that I should pray for throughout my adult life.

As I thought about my old classmates, I also thought about the current Howard Kennedy students. Today, over 80% of the students at Howard Kennedy live in poverty. And Franklin Elementary? 95% of the students live in poverty. The demographics are a bit different from when I attended the schools, when there was the busing plan. Still, it hit home that a number of my classmates were probably living in poverty.

When I was attending Franklin and Howard Kennedy, I never saw my classmates as statistics. I never viewed any of them as poor. I saw them as kids, as classmates. Some were my friends. If anything, I saw myself as the statistic, the odd one, because of my parent’s divorce. It’s sad to think that some of them are no longer here, some are in prison, some are a statistic because of the negative influence they had at their homes.

Recently, I was invited to a meeting of fellow young professionals. I had no idea what the meeting was about, but I saw John Heaston was involved. John was someone I interviewed two years ago for the Kingdom Color Podcast, and I highly respected his work in the community.

The meeting was a pitch to get some of Omaha’s young professionals involved in mentoring at area Title I schools, like Franklin and Howard Kennedy. The program is The Partnership For Our Kids. It was here that I heard about the poverty statistics with Franklin Elementary. I was shocked. Through mentors, the program hopes to raise the level of life, math and reading skills with the students. They talked about how a mentor meeting with a student, even once a month, can make a positive impact on that student’s life.

I think about my aforementioned Howard Kennedy classmates, and many others. I think about kids across Omaha. I think about how kids start out with the biggest dreams and the biggest hearts toward their fellow kids. I think about how for a number of them those dreams are squelched somewhere along the way. I think about how many kids grow up to be a shadow of the vitality they once had.

I think back to 1985 and how I ultimately beat the odds by not being a statistic. I think about how I want other kids at Howard Kennedy and Franklin to do the same.

Here’s the presentation video for The Partnership For Our Kids.

4 thoughts on “Back to 1985 (Thoughts on Being a Student Amongst Poverty)

  1. I didn't grow up in OPS, but I worked for the district. I am thankful that the bus integration is no longer in effect. However there is still a type of integration via free and reduced lunch numbers. I don't always agree with how school systems devise these plans to create diverse schools.

    I grew up in Phoenix and went to a private Christian school that awarded many scholarships, so we were very diverse. It was in 4th grade that my dad lost his job and we lived out of the church food pantry. Fortunately I wasn't treated differently at that school because we all came from various backgrounds and things weren't always easy. This was one of my first experiences with adversity and it gave me great perspective at the age of nine.

    Now that I teach in another low socioeconomic area of Omaha, I can understand where my students come from. Many will face the same obstacles that your friends at Kennedy faced – divorce, single parents, peer pressure, gangs, maintaining culture, maintaining language, owning one pair of pants but having 2 siblings who have to share, wondering if there will be food for dinner…As an educator, I tap into their passions and push them to see the genius inside. But all too often I wonder what will happen after they leave me. Will they continue on a road to success or choose the road, that more often than not, is chosen because of their circumstances?


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