Residents of the Gifford Park area have spent the past two decades building up their midtown neighborhood.
By many measures, they've succeeded. There is still crime and poverty, but the area boasts a particularly strong neighborhood association that has sponsored cleanups, established a community garden and youth tennis league, and campaigned for stronger liquor laws.
But amid the strong neighborhood ties, the presence of many young, diverse families and a growing business district that many neighborhoods would envy, a vital link remains missing.
Gifford Park has no neighborhood school.
“That missing piece is what brings families in instead of renters,” resident Mike Caban said. “It's the linchpin of a neighborhood.”
Gifford Park residents have been campaigning to have their own school since 1999, when the Omaha Public Schools closed Yates Elementary at 32nd and Davenport Streets.
But with a new OPS superintendent and school board, residents are reminding school district officials that their fight for a new school is far from over — in fact, it's gathering steam.
Yates Elementary School was built in the 1920s. When it closed in 1999, its PTA was the longest-running parent-teacher organization in Nebraska. The strong community involvement of the PTA led directly to the creation of the Gifford Park Neighborhood Association.
Built for 200 students, the school was already crowded and sending second- and third-graders to Kellom by the time it closed. Its standardized test scores were among the lowest in OPS. But neighbors held on to hope that Yates would be replaced.
The same year the school closed, OPS passed a $254 million bond issue meant to shift the district to a neighborhood schools model, and away from a policy of mandatory integration and cross-town busing.
“The purpose of the 1999 bond issue was to create neighborhood schools,” said Chris Foster, a neighborhood association board member. “Ours got taken away.”
Yates students transferred to surrounding schools, while the building sat empty for several years before becoming an alternative school. Today, Yates Community Center is a crucial support system for many refugees and immigrants who take English, computer and sewing classes.
More than 350 children in kindergarten through sixth grade currently live in the Gifford Park enrollment area and attend 40 different schools across the city.
“This isn't choice, this is chaos,” said OPS board member Marque Snow, who lives in the neighborhood and has been meeting with residents about school concerns. “At the end of the day, they're getting bused all over.”
Ninety-two percent of students in the area qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and nearly half attend Kellom Elementary, which is one to two miles from most Gifford Park homes.
A one-mile commute to Kellom doesn't sound far. But the walk would take youngsters across Cuming Street and under Interstate 480.
“It's a dangerous walk,” Foster said. “I don't know of one kid that walks it, and that's why they get bused to other schools.”
Several residents called neighborhood schools ground zero for community involvement. As they pick up their children after school, parents can meet one another, pass out fliers for events or just chit-chat. Kids can walk home with friends or make a pit stop at a classmate's house to work on homework together.
“Neighborhood schools are part of the foundation for meeting people,” resident Tyronda Pierce said. “It's the center core.”
Monica Lehn home-schools her 5-year-old. They live on the border of the Gifford Park and Dundee enrollment area, and she said she might be persuaded to send her son to public school if they could walk a few blocks to an elementary school.
“If he had the chance to be in a school where the kids we interact with all summer at the (community) garden are, I'd be way more into the idea of having him go there,” Lehn said.
Proponents of a new school don't want to revive Yates at the expense of the current community center. Suggestions include adding on to the old school, building a new school on several nearby Creighton parking lots or turning portions of the Teachers Administration Center into an elementary school.
OPS spokesman Todd Andrews said the proposal will be looked at as the district's planning continues.
“The Gifford Park Neighborhood Association's ideas will be examined within the framework of the strategic planning process,” he said.
A new school could be fit into a future construction bond issue. School officials have acknowledged that a bond issue could be among the ideas that come out of strategic plan talks.
In 2012, OPS floated a proposal to reopen Yates and convert it back to an elementary school by 2014-15, while transforming Kellom into an early childhood school. Gifford Park residents cheered the news, until push-back from parents at Kellom and Conestoga Elementary Schools appeared to sink the plan.
Caban said it's time for OPS to turn its attention back to the area.
“I want them to invest some money in this neighborhood, this neighborhood that's invested, time, energy and sweat equity into keeping this community viable,” he said.