Lynn Camerer's first-grade class at Field Club Elementary marched single file down the hall last Friday, decked out in white Bellevue University T-shirts that dwarfed their tiny frames and hung past their knees.
“You're looking like college students,” Field Club Principal Barbara Wild said approvingly as they lined up quietly against a wall.
Asked what their college was, the kids didn't hesitate.
“We're the Bellevue Bruins!” several called out in unison.
First grade might seem a little early to be talking higher education.
But at Field Club, college is promoted as a viable option to students as young as 5. Participating classes are told, from kindergarten up, that college is an option for them, that they must work hard to get there, and most of all, that there's no excuse for failure.
The message is part of No Excuses University, a network of 184 schools across the country that foster college readiness at a young age.
“For at-risk, first-generation-college kids, it really instills hope for the future,” counselor Jenna Hunter said. “They know 'I can go to college. I can do this with my life.' ”
Field Club, near 35th and Center Streets, is part of Omaha Public Schools. It is the first school in Nebraska or Iowa to adopt the “No Excuses” mantra. The school is in the process of applying to become an official member of the No Excuses network.
School counselor Carrie Tubbs imported the program from her previous district in Amarillo, Texas, where low-income San Jacinto Elementary was an early adopter of the program. Within a year the school saw double-digit gains in state test scores and became a poster child for the program.
Stressing academic success, introducing the concept of college early on and raising expectations is especially important for Field Club families, Wild said.
More than 85 percent of Field Club students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indication of family poverty, and half are English language learners. Studies show students born into poverty are less likely to graduate from high school, attend college and climb the economic ladder into the middle class.
“A lot of our students may not have a college graduate at home,” Wild said. “Their parents didn't go, and they might not have that conversation at home, that college is a possibility.”
Half of the school's 28 classrooms participate in the program, up from five last year. Fourteen colleges in Nebraska and Iowa, including the University of Nebraska, Iowa State University, Peru State College and Grace University, have adopted classrooms, sending pennants, T-shirts and encouraging words.
Students from Lori Cupit-Stott's first-grade class write letters to pen pals at Iowa State, a group of freshman elementary education majors. Cupit-Stott is an Iowa State grad and asked her alma mater to consider forging a partnership with her class.
“The message they give is 'College can be for you,' ” said Chuck Achter, assistant to the director of the university's School of Education. “ 'We're in college and we hope someday you can be, too.' Part of being a good teacher is being an encourager, and that's one of the lessons I hope my students gain from this.”
One year after implementing the No Excuses principles, Tubbs said absenteeism was down and test scores were up. In 2012-13, the school's reading and science scores rose by 8 points and math by 10.
Kids wear their college shirts each Friday. Using age-appropriate vocabulary and activities, teachers explore different careers with students and reinforce the progress and good habits it takes to advance to middle school, then high school and, finally, college.
One class of fifth-graders took a field trip to their designated college — the University of Nebraska Medical Center — and Wild hopes more college visits will follow.
Throughout the building, “No Excuses” posters line the hallways and outside each kindergarten room is a class photo with a particularly forward-looking message: “I am college bound — Class of 2030.”
Teachers constantly remind students to exhibit “college” behavior — pay attention in class, arrive at school on time and complete all your work — and kids sign similar academic pledges.
“In classrooms, it helps with behavior,” Hunter said. “If a student is off task, a teacher might ask 'Is that how a college student would act?' They'll say 'Oh, no' and straighten up at their desk.”
Students who act especially praiseworthy — maybe they handed in all their work on time one week — are rewarded with a “college call” home, where a counselor or teacher will inform their parents they were caught exhibiting collegelike behavior.
Some remain skeptical that kids as young as 5 or 6 can really grasp the concept of college.
“I get a lot of reactions from people who say 'Really? College in kindergarten?' ” Hunter said. “Yes, kindergarten, and guess what? It sticks with them.”