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Sussie DeVeney’s first grader sat at a table in their West Omaha home with his hand raised. Staring at the tablet screen in front of him, he waited for his teacher to call on him, only to realize the class for the day was a pre-recorded video.
DeVeney, a mother of four and a former Omaha Public Schools teacher, had thought about leaving the Omaha Public Schools district before the pandemic. Her oldest son experienced bullying, and she felt that her younger sons were falling behind in learning to read.
So when OPS decided to keep classes remote in the fall of 2020, even as other public and private school districts in the Omaha metro area returned in person, DeVeney pulled her kids out of the district and enrolled them in a private school.
“OPS put kids in front of a tablet and were like, ‘Watch these videos, this is how you’re learning today,’ and expect them to understand, then expect the teachers to somehow follow-up on that, and then just assume that they get it,” DeVeney said.
DeVeney’s children are among the more than 1,600 white students who abandoned the Omaha Public Schools during the pandemic, accelerating a major demographic upheaval in this diversifying midwestern city.
“This is a thing that state leaders I think in particular should be looking out for as you continue to experience these patterns of white families leaving the district for neighboring areas.”Ivy Morgan, Ed Trust
In 2012, 16,286 students, or nearly a third of the district, were white, according to district data. Following a steady drip of a few hundred students a year, that number had fallen to 13,689, or just over a quarter, in 2019. But when the pandemic struck, the pace of white flight drastically increased. In the fall 2020, 1,000 white students left the district – more than double the largest single-year drop in the last decade.
By the fall of 2021, just over 12,000 white students remained, making up about 23 percent of Omaha’s public school population.
Before the pandemic, declines in white enrollment were offset by a growing number of Latino students in the Omaha Public School district, the largest and most diverse K-12 public school system in the state of Nebraska. But the significant decrease in white students, coupled with a slowdown in the numbers of Latino students and dwindling numbers of Black students, has reversed a two-decade long trend of enrollment gains in the district. Since 2019, enrollment in the OPS district dropped from 53,552 to 51,674 students, a decrease of 1,878 students overall.
Similar trends are playing out nationally. Between the fall of 2019 and 2020, public school enrollment dropped by 3 percent nationwide, but cities have been hit especially hard. New York, Chicago and Minneapolis, already dealing with enrollment declines, also saw an exodus during the pandemic. But the racial divide in who stays and who leaves makes Omaha stick out.
The data available doesn’t show clearly where all the district’s students have gone. Some have left for the suburbs or enrolled in other public school districts in the Omaha metro area.
DeVeney, the mom of the first grader struggling with remote learning, enrolled all three of her school-aged kids at St. Wenceslaus, a Catholic school in West Omaha, which offered in-person learning throughout the 2020-21 school year.
But the falling number of white students could carry grave implications in a place with a history of conflict over racial segregation in schools: Declines in enrollment can have significant consequences for a district’s funding, which, in Nebraska, is a mix of federal, state and local revenue. And researchers typically agree that increased racial segregation can negatively impact students, especially kids who are living in poverty.
The majority of the district’s students come from low-income homes. About 78 percent of Omaha Public Schools students receive free and reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty. Nebraska takes into account some student needs when distributing state funds — including the number of low-income students, English language Learners and students in special education in a district.
But, while Omaha Public Schools receives a large share of the state’s education dollars, research shows disparities in funding remain for Nebraska’s students of color. An analysis by The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found that while high-poverty districts in Nebraska, like Omaha Public Schools, seem to receive slightly more state and local funds per student than the lowest poverty districts, they actually receive 4 percent less, when adjusted for the additional needs of low-income students. The situation is even worse in districts serving the most students of color, which take in over $3,000 less per student in state and local funds than districts with predominantly white enrollment. The almost 25 percent difference in funding is due, in part, to disparities in the amounts districts can raise in local funding through property taxes.
“A difference between $3,300 a student is a really, really big deal,” said Ivy Morgan, who authored the Education Trust report. “This is a thing that state leaders I think in particular should be looking out for as you continue to experience these patterns of white families leaving the district for neighboring areas.”
Bridget Blevins, a spokesperson for the Omaha Public Schools, said the changing student population “could also represent changing demographics in a city or our country at large.”
“While some students may opt [out] from Omaha Public Schools to another area school district,” Blevins wrote in an email, “to conclude that changing demographics in a school district mean some have ‘left’ may not be accurate.”
The city’s demographics are indeed changing rapidly.
From its downtown center, nesting along the western side of the Missouri River, Omaha branches north into historically Black neighborhoods and south into predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Over a century ago South Omaha emerged as a leader in the meatpacking industry largely due to immigrants’ contributions.
While immigrants, particularly from Latin America, Sudan, and Southeast Asia, have contributed to the metro area’s growth through the decades, over time the city has spread westward, developing suburban neighborhoods both in and outside of OPS’s jurisdiction. The largely white suburbs are some of the fastest-growing areas in the city, according to the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Those fast-growing areas include Millard and Elkhorn, towns annexed by the city that retained their own separate school districts.
When Covid hit Omaha in March 2020, OPS canceled classes for a few weeks at first, and then for the rest of the semester. The district sent out online packets as optional work for students once a week. As Covid surged that summer, OPS officials decided to start classes remotely in the fall. In-person classes didn’t return until October 2020, when the district brought students back to school in a hybrid plan of in-person and virtual learning. In contrast, suburban schools opened sooner for in-person learning.
For many, the reason behind their decision to leave OPS was dissatisfaction with the district itself, especially after Covid.
Becky, a white mother who declined to give her last name to protect her children’s privacy,* had hoped to keep her twin 6-year-old boys at the OPS elementary school, where they attended kindergarten at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, and then move to Millard for junior high and high school. The pandemic accelerated those plans.
Her family moved to the Millard Public Schools district in April 2021, and her sons started first grade at a Millard school in the fall. “The decisions that were being made through the OPS Board of Education and the superintendent regarding remote learning were really the driving force,” Becky said.
As the delta variant spread in the summer of 2021, “it was almost like a mad rush of public-school families,” said Diane Tribulato, the private school division manager at DiGiorgio’s Sports Wear, one of two stores in the Omaha metro area that sells uniforms for local private schools.
In recent years, local Catholic schools within the boundaries of the OPS district have also lost white students, however, Hispanic students have increased and boosted overall enrollments, according to a representative of the Archdiocese of Omaha.
Some suburban districts have seen a drop-off in the number of white students attending their schools, although the fall has not been as rapid as in the city district. White student enrollment declined by almost 7 percent in the Millard Public Schools and about 10 percent at Westside Community Schools between 2013 and 2020, according to the Nebraska Department of Education.
In contrast, Elkhorn Public Schools, located further out from the city, saw white student enrollment increase by 43 percent between the fall of 2013 and 2020. State enrollment data for the 2021-22 school year in Millard Public Schools, Elkhorn Public Schools and Westside Community Schools districts was not available.
Declines in the number of white students attending OPS are not new. The shift started decades ago, in 1976, when white student enrollment in the OPS district plummeted after a U.S. federal court order mandated busing to integrate Omaha Public Schools.
What’s happening to Omaha public school enrollment now exemplifies a new national phenomenon not unlike the past, according to Bruce Fuller, a researcher at the University of California Berkeley and co-author of a recent study on school segregation. As low-income Latino families move into urban districts, middle class white families are moving out, he said.
Hispanic or Latino students now represent the largest group in OPS; their numbers increased by 30 percent in 10 years. The number of English language learners rose from about 14 percent to almost 21 percent of the district’s population during that time.
“As [Latinos] move into Omaha they’re probably trying to get into safer neighborhoods and better schools,” Fuller said. There’s an “aspiration to do the best for their children,” he added. “But the unfortunate thing is when that leads to this white flight, it disempowers these parents because now their kids are less likely to go to school with middle class peers, and that’s going to hold those kids back,” Fuller said.
Integrated schools often have larger numbers of economically and politically influential parents, who are more likely to demand better teachers, improved facilities and higher academic expectations, Fuller said.
Some cities have tried to create new, innovative schools and programs to attract middle class students and keep them in the district. This school year, the Omaha Public Schools began to restructure the curriculum in all eight of its high schools, some of which are magnet schools, and created a “college and career academies and pathways” program.
In each school, students can choose from three to four pathways or academies to focus on a specific field, including STEM research, design and construction, legal studies, health sciences, teaching as a profession, urban agriculture, air and space. In the fall, the district will also open two new elementary schools and two new high schools for freshmen and sophomores — Buena Vista High School in South Omaha and Westview in West Omaha.
Tena Hahn Rodriguez is the director of strategic partnerships at Inclusive Communities, a nonprofit organization that specializes in advocacy on diversity and inclusion in workplaces and Nebraska communities. She worries that new schools and programs will make parents more selective about where to send their children, leading to more funding and resources in certain schools while perpetuating longstanding inequities in others.
“When you don’t have the school that people that live in West Omaha are drawn to, the school ultimately suffers, and that keeps happening over and over,” Hahn Rodriguez said.
“As (Latinos) move into Omaha they’re probably trying to get into safer neighborhoods and better schools … but the unfortunate thing is when that leads to this white flight,”Bruce Fuller, University of California Berkeley
Hahn Rodriguez thinks the drop in white student enrollment indicates many Nebraskans need to engage in a larger conversation about whiteness — for some, leaving OPS is about escaping diverse schools, she said.
Yahdira Hernandez, 17, a sophomore at Bryan High School, a majority Latino high school in South Omaha, said she’s noticed that some white families have moved further west or sent their children to schools outside OPS. “Some people call OPS schools ‘ghetto,’ but I do feel like OPS really brings kids together,” Hernandez said.
While some families disapproved of Omaha Public Schools’ decision to start August 2020 with online learning, Hernandez feels the district made the right decision “to put kids first.”
White students are leaving Omaha Public Schools in the highest numbers, but they are not the only group whose numbers in the district have declined: During the pandemic the number of Black students dropped by 436 and the number of Native students dropped by 15.
When the pandemic shut down in-person and virtual classes for Omaha Public Schools in March 2020, Jenelle Emory would sit in her home with her daughters — a first grader and a kindergartener at Adams Elementary — and walk through the packet of optional work they’d been given for the week. She noticed her kindergartener needed more time and guidance on most of the concepts.
After going through the lessons with her at home, Emory discovered her kindergartener has dyslexia. She doesn’t think a teacher in a crowded OPS classroom would have caught it.
“That really encouraged me that I needed to give her that more one-on-one time,” said Emory, a Black reiki practitioner and business owner.
In late summer of 2020 – right before the deadline – she and her husband registered their household for homeschooling with the Nebraska Department of Education. They joined a flood of families seeking to home school; filings jumped 21 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
“We can fool around with the public school system, or we can take their education into our own hands,” Emory said.
A few families chose to opt in to Omaha Public Schools during the pandemic, in some cases, because of its stricter mask policy. (The OPS School Board did not decide to make masks optional until late February; the policy started Feb. 25.)
Arielle Miller, a white mother and landscape designer, took her kindergarten son out of his Millard public school in the first week of the 2021 school year when she learned that some staff members in the mask-optional district discouraged students from wearing masks. Since her family had recently moved into the Millard district, and she still owned a home in the OPS district, Miller was able to enroll her son into OPS.
When Miller tells people she moved from Millard to OPS, the reaction from white parents is always, “Why?”
“I feel that most people just kind of judge the district or won’t be the ones who keep their kids in their home schools to try to make it better,” Miller said. “It’s just kind of one of those things like no one wants to do the work to make it any better.”
This story about white flight was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with the Omaha Reader. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
*Clarification: This story has been updated to include the reason Becky withheld her last name.