Nebraska State Education Association

About 50% fewer students are going into education over the past dozen years.

That’s according to statistics provided by the Nebraska State Education Association. President Jenni Benson said the organization wants to change that.

“(Teaching is) hard work. That’s part of it,” she said. “I think that sometimes I see that our students went through education when times are tougher, they might have seen the challenges and they’re like, ‘Probably not.’ ”

On Tuesday, Benson and associate staff member Kelsey Foley visited the Daily News to discuss ways communities and public schools are working together, including teacher mentorship, career pathway programs and school safety. NSEA is a member-directed professional union representing public school professionals across the state.

NSEA strives to help students get more interested in teaching at the high school level, which they have been able to accomplish through Educators Rising Nebraska, the state chapter of a national organization dedicated to students interested in education-related careers. Benson said there are now 500 Nebraska students interested in becoming teachers.

“If we can get those 500 students to go through and become teachers, that’s huge for us.”

Educators Rising Nebraska provides high school students with hands-on teaching experience and helps them cultivate the skills they need to be successful educators, according to the Educators Rising website.

On local levels, Benson also advises educators to mentor students who are interested in becoming teachers and encourage them to stay in the area, which other communities like Grand Island are successfully doing.

“Grow your own, keep them in Norfolk,” she said. “... Teachers are great in the community.”

Norfolk Public Schools not only supports students interested in education, but 12 other job fields including agriculture, health sciences and construction through the Norfolk High School career academy that was first implemented about six years ago.

On April 30, the program had its first U.S. Department of Labor youth registered apprenticeship signing ceremony with Norfolk business Continental ContiTech. The ceremony may be the first of numerous partnerships between the school and community businesses.

Norfolk was the 10th community in the state to implement a youth registered apprenticeship program with its public schools. It’s increasingly becoming an important part of workforce development amid industry expansion and the baby boomers population enters into retirement.

“We have to develop our own workforce. We have to keep them in Nebraska to keep these communities alive,” she said. “And the public school is keeping some of these communities alive and functioning.”

Preparing for the future of Nebraska is something schools and communities should work on in tandem, she said. And in growing communities like Norfolk, local support for expanding school districts is important.

“There are some very cool things happening … and I think in Norfolk that’s the same thing. There are great things and if the community is expanding, you, as a public school, have to meet the needs of that community, but you have to show them where your needs are, too.

“That might be a bond issue or tax levy, the things you need to do to invest in that school, whether you have kids in school or not. I think people need to see that good of what’s happening in public schools and help with those kinds of things.”

She said community efforts, which also include things like backpack programs to provide food for free- and reduced-lunch students, are crucial pillars in local schools as legislative bills designed to help districts stall out. For example, after the last legislative session, there are still no solutions to the thorny property tax issue, which she said would take cooperation from rural and urban Nebraskans.

Another example is early childhood education.

“We’ve had bills regarding early childhood, but we’ve also seen communities that have rallied … to give support to early childhood,” she said.

This issue is at the forefront of educators’ minds in Norfolk, as the district formed a “Power of Preschool” group designed to help area daycares and preschools collaborate with other early childhood educators in the area.

It’s a part of the Norfolk Public Schools’ strategic goal to promote early childhood education. This is important since Madison County has 52% of children age 0 to 5 at risk of school failure, according to First Five Nebraska, an organization that promotes early childhood education.

Other communities in the state are making early childhood education a priority, Benson said. Red Cloud invested in early childhood and families started moving because they knew they could get a quality preschool program.

“If you have quality early childhood education, it pays off in dividends,” she said.

Another way the Norfolk community has been working with its district is in school safety, where a committee of community members, law enforcement officials and school administrators work together to make sure the district has comprehensive and up-to-date safety practices.

Across the state, district administrators are becoming more diligent about security and mental health support, Benson said, with the goal of making schools safe without feeling stifling.

And safety is about much more than security.

“Part of that is just culture and environment. Making relationships with people,” she said. “It’s not about locking out a building or practicing safety drills, it’s about the bigger picture. … We want schools to be safe.

Some kids come from chaotic situations in their home life. We want them to be safe and secure and develop relationships.”

NSEA is doing its own outreach and will hold forums in the spring about school safety and mental health to gather input from community members.

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