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Western Hills
Principal Margie Reed-Schmid in the Western Hills multipurpose room with students at the start of the school day. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

A Model of Success: UNO-Western Hills Partnership Thrives at Six Years

by Tim Kaldahl

They think big at Western Hills Elementary and they sure like UNO.

The full name for the school near 66th Street and Western Avenue is, in fact, Western Hills University Partnership Magnet Center.  For the last six years students and faculty from UNO and students and faculty from Western have gone back and forth teaching, presenting, hosting and field tripping all in the name of a better educational experience.  Even this far into the partnership, administrators and faculty know they have only begun to scratch the surface of possibilities.

"Good morning.  Good morning.  Good morning," said Principal Margie Reed-Schmid as Western Hills students streamed into the school at the first bell on a Monday morning.  It's a real bell, too, not a buzzer or something electronic.  The school turned 54 this year.  The classrooms have air conditioning . . . the hallways not so much.  "Good morning. Have a great day, Kevin."

The first bell and the quick meet-and-greet have always been the best part of her day, said Reed-Schmid.  There's a quick hug for a little boy, an effective kind word or two for a new kindergartener who was more than a little out of sorts and lots of smiling from students and faculty.

Reed-Schmid served as the school's magnet coordinator for a year and a half before being named principal six years ago.  Becoming a magnet center partnered with a university remains unique in the city and the region, and it came about because Reed-Schmid and the Western Hills faculty called on resources they knew would be available at UNO.  She received a master's in reading and language arts from the university and an endorsement in educational administration.

"I will never forget this first time I took a group on a field trip to UNO," she said.  "A little second grader standing next to me looked around and said 'Man, I'm going to college.' "

Reed-Schmid said she wants every one of her students to visit UNO at least once during the school year.  It makes a big impression, she said.

Western Hills may be just on the far side of the Fairacres neighborhood, but the school's 350 students are diverse and 70 percent receive free or reduced price lunch.  The students are also charming.

"We should always have the Regents visit Western Hills," said Paul Sather, the director of the UNO Service-Learning Academy.  During an NU Board of Regents UNO campus visit last spring, the group stopped by Western Hills and took a tour hosted by the school's student ambassadors.  Skyeler Taylor is a new fourth grader this year, but has been an ambassador for three years.  She knows her school.

"We have computers, we have books and puppet shows," she said walking past the math lab.  The school bustles and hums along.  Portable classrooms near the playground house some classes and activities.  She also knows the school's three Bs – be safe, be responsible, be respectful.  Her father works at UNO in landscaping. 

Taylor points out the library, the school stage, the room used for speech, the nurses office.  The building looks like any other older, well-maintained elementary school, but the place is infused with a sense of wanting to do and try more.

"The volume of activity at Western Hills is phenomenal," said John Langan, dean of the UNO College of Education.  Everyone at UNO who has learned about what goes on at the elementary school buys in, he said.  The mission of UNO, as a metropolitan university, also stresses the importance of outreach and collaboration in the community.

Professor Kathleen Danielson has brought her Teaching Reading/Language Arts methods classes to Western since the beginning of the UNO-Western Hills partnership.  Now, the class actually meets at the school instead of on the UNO campus.  Her students receive frequent, real, classroom teaching experience, she said.  Reed-Schmid is a former student of hers, too.

"When I get student evaluations, they always say the Western Hills practicum was the best part of class," she said.  Dr. Danielson adds that Reed-Schmid, who she said is "an ideal principal," has created a home for UNO students. 

"I feel they want my students to succeed," she said.  "It makes a tremendous difference."

The Band Buddy program, also now in its sixth year, gets band students from Western Hills in touch with UNO Marching Maverick band members.  The elementary school kids learn to march and attend a UNO home game—where they march in--and sit with their buddy. 

Like the language arts students, band members have always enjoyed the experience, said Melissa Berke, chair of the UNO Music Department. 

"It's very inviting at Western," she said.  "Everyone has always been very welcoming."

Last spring, UNO and Western Hills students also paired up for National and Global Youth Service Day and helped clean up four city parks.  More service-learning projects are in the planning stages, too.

Many of the exchanges between UNO and Western Hills have come from the elementary school's electives programs, which happen three times a year.   For a two-week period, students spend part of their day learning about subjects that interest them—how to create a movie on a computer, dance, the history of basketball, leadership.  Over the years, more than 100 electives have been offered, and UNO faculty and students often become the outside experts who come in to help and teach.

Reed-Schmid said she credits her magnet coordinator/assistant principal, Heather Harbison, with figuring out a wealth of complex logistics.  Matching up the availability of students, faculty, guest speakers and room assignments is no small task.

"She sees it as a giant sudoku puzzle," Reed-Shmid said.        

UNO students very quickly get the idea that their interactions at Western Hills or with Western Hill students in the community mean something to a child, Sather said.

"The best way to learn something is to be responsible for teaching it to someone else," he said.  UNO students truly learn by doing in that environment, he said.  Dean Langan said he agrees.

"There has to be something in it for both sides," he said.  "And that's exactly what happened."

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