‘A curveball out of nowhere’: Late decision by OPS forces North Omaha students to move schools or forgo special education

Rylee Garcia was looking forward to starting fourth grade at North Omaha’s King Elementary School and reuniting with friends she hadn’t seen all summer. 

Rylee, who is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, came to trust her teachers by the end of her first year in Omaha Public Schools. 

But nine days out from the first day of school, her mother, Alicia Garcia, got an email from OPS with the subject line “Updating how we deliver some special education services.”

The email said King Elementary will no longer offer special education due to staffing shortages, and Rylee would have to attend another school to keep receiving the services she needs. 

Garcia learned the next day that two schools on the opposite end of the district in Bellevue represented Rylee’s only options for staying in special education within the district.

The fact that Rylee would have to transfer schools was upsetting, but the timing of the decision felt offensive, Garcia told the Flatwater Free Press. 

“It really feels like a curveball out of nowhere,” she said. “I just really want to know why this is happening last minute and why this (email) wasn’t sent out earlier if they knew they were short on special education teachers.”

The Garcias are one of about 140 families notified by OPS on Monday that their kids will have to start at another school to maintain the accommodations that the district is legally required to provide them.

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Three elementary schools in North Omaha — King, Central Park and Walnut Hill — will have no special education staff when classes start on Aug. 16. Children of color made up 90% of the students who attended the three schools last year, according to state education data. Students of color made up about 77% of the entire district.

The decision to stop offering special education at the schools came after district administrators recognized they weren’t able to hire enough teachers to go around, said Susan Christopherson, OPS chief academic officer.  

“We worked diligently and countless hours all summer to try to ensure that our young people could stay at the school in which they were currently attending,” she told the Flatwater Free Press. “Due to those staffing limitations, we unfortunately had to make a decision to provide a different option in order to support the student.”

Alicia Garcia, whose daughter Rylee received special education services at King Elementary School last year, received this email from Omaha Public Schools nine days before the start of the 2023-24 school year. Provided by Alicia Garcia

It’s still unclear how many special education students will switch schools since the district only began calling affected parents on Tuesday, Christopherson said.

OPS board member Bri Full, who represents North Omaha, did not respond to requests for comment.

Garcia opted Wednesday to send her two kids — Rylee and Sienna, who is starting kindergarten — to Chandler View Elementary School in Bellevue, nearly 9 miles south of Rylee’s previous school. The family hasn’t even received the school supply list. 

Help wanted, badly

Special education staffing issues extend far beyond Omaha: 45% of schools nationwide reported having vacancies in special ed teaching roles in 2022. A December report found that a fifth of special ed jobs in Nebraska were vacant.

But the number of vacancies within OPS is unusually high. The district had 160 unfilled special education positions, including 75 in elementary schools, as of July 28, according to Charles Wakefield, OPS chief operations and talent officer.

The district hosted 136 recruiting events in 20 different states over the last year to find more teachers, but the need for special education staff has stubbornly persisted, Christopherson said. 

Speech-language pathology also will be different at OPS this school year because of staffing shortages. The district is working on a not-yet-approved contract to offer the service to students virtually, Christopherson said. 

About 1,000 students who received speech aid in person last year will transition to virtual services, which won’t start until at least September, according to an OPS spokesperson.

Waking up earlier, getting home later

The Garcias moved to North Omaha from rural Iowa a year ago, in part, because of the better special education opportunities for Rylee. The 9-year-old tends to get overwhelmed in the classroom and needs help on tests and one-on-one time with a teacher, her mother said.

Rylee mostly got that kind of attention from teachers last year at King Elementary. Garcia said she doesn’t know if the new school will offer the same standard of education. 

The two-minute commute to King will turn into a drive of at least 15 minutes to Chandler View from the Garcias’ home and a 20-minute drive from Alicia Garcia’s workplace in west Omaha. The change will mean waking up earlier and getting home later, she said. 

The district has offered students like Rylee free transportation to and from school, but Garcia said she will drive her daughters to school since Rylee doesn’t do well on buses.

Rylee told the Flatwater Free Press she’s disappointed about having to switch schools, but she’s keeping a positive attitude about the ordeal. 

“I don’t want to go to a different school, but I’m excited to meet new friends,” she said. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include an estimate for the number of students who will transition to virtual speech aid services.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

By Jeremy Turley

Jeremy Turley covers the Omaha metro area. He worked at newspapers across the Midwest before moving to Nebraska. Most recently, he shivered through several frigid winters in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he covered state government and the COVID-19 pandemic for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and a native of suburban Chicago. His hobbies include disc golfing, collecting campaign buttons and using too many em dashes — or so his editors say.

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