High School Focus

Diversity Students Friends Happiness Concept

by Julie Nichols

 “This hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you will also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as—yours. I am a man. The same god made us both.” –Chief Standing Bear, addressing the United States court 

Lincoln Public Schools’ high school focus programs have been a point of Lincoln Public School’s strategic planning for nearly three decades. Focus programs yield the benefits of smaller communities, flexibility, experiential learning, individual support, greater self-expression, and stronger relationships with instructors. Creativity and critical thinking, experimentation, on-site training, and self-determination are all parts of focus programs. Different approaches to learning, alternative and specialty curricula, and more opportunity for exposure to out-of-school experiences lie within LPS. 

Lincoln’s newest high school, Standing Bear, opened its doors in 2023, and with it Lincoln schools’ newest focus program. Named for Nebraska’s Ponca leader, Chief Standing Bear, who won the ground-breaking civil rights case declaring that First Peoples are human beings under the law, Standing Bear’s larger than life figure represents Nebraska in Washington; the same figure graces the State Capitol, honoring his triumph for equal rights. Standing Bear High’s business focus program provides immersive experience and opportunities for students to explore marketing, management, accounting, finance, supply chain and economics, and builds on the entrepreneurship pathway at LPS’s Career Academy. Curricula are adapted for students to pursue two or four year degrees, with reduced tuition available to earn college credit; those who plan to enter the workforce directly after graduation may take courses non-credit free of charge. Students interface with dynamic business professionals and local organizations, and instructors/students work with University of Nebraska’s College of Business Administration. The program is designed to be affordable and accessible to all students and families.

With the success of the embedded International Baccalaureate program (Lincoln High) and junior ROTC (Northeast) point to advantages of centering programs within home high schools where peers also attend. Students have more opportunity to participate in activities. As a result of researching similar programs nationwide, embedded focus programs have become a growing part of Lincoln’s high school system; Standing Bear adds another.

While focus programs aren’t a good fit for all, they can be perfect for students who excel in non-traditional environments, or who thrive in intimate learning communities, or who have needs that traditional environments can’t address. Some provide helpful structure, others freedom to explore. Free or low-cost college credit in focus high schools help students save tuition costs. LPS found that a broad majority of students who attend them love the focus program experience that encourages open views and discussions of both real-world issues and deeper dives into subjects they’re passionate about. Any student can apply for acceptance to a focus program at LPS.

Lincoln High’s flagships of Lincoln Public Schools’ focus programs began at Lincoln High. The Science Focus Program, affectionately known as Zoo School has since 2000 been housed inside the Children’s Zoo—a living laboratory. The Zoo School recently unveiled a $3.2 million lab and classroom facility, in which students develop capstone projects ranging from genome sequencing to animation, robotics, forest decomposition, psychology experiments and forensic science simulations. The Arts and Humanities Program, also near Lincoln High, offers visual artists, writers and performers a space to nourish creative projects. Many Arts and Humanities students have gone on to receive scholarships to BFA and graduate programs, and received accolades for their work. 

Bryan Community School adds a focus school for students to reset their relationship to learning in an environment aimed to support individuals. With a high teacher/student ratio, Bryan Community fosters students’ personal journeys, cultivates mutual respect while recognizing students’ specific life struggles. Bryan encourages confidence, builds positive relationships, and urges self-reflection so students connect to futures beyond graduation. Bryan provides daycare for student parents and mental health support through full time counsellors as a feature of its school community.

A specialized focus program, Yankee Hill Learning Center offers a supportive environment for students struggling with learning and behavior, and encourages responsibility and social connections. Committed staff engage with every student’s individual needs through innovative teaching strategies that nurture academic and social successes, individual leadership and accountability. Yankee Hill. With recent additions of staff and students, this all-day school collaborates with families, parents and guardians, and outside agencies to help students succeed as adults.

Bay High opened in 2022 to foster alternative young creators and provide upward mobility for student innovators in emergent technologies. Instead of skipping homework to go to The Bay’s skate park, students can envision careers from the springboards of skateboarding, digital art, content creation and fashion. Founded in 2012,The Bay, as community outreach for at-risk youth and a place for the self-identified “misfits” to gather, quickly became a community nexus for youth. The Bay has already encouraged opportunities for kids to self-produce projects through a magazine (written and designed by kids), and a music venue (organized and staffed by youth) to showcase young local bands. Digital media and design, events marketing, video production, web design, photography and journalism are all fair game. Two LPS teachers work alongside Bay staff (teaching artists) and the program accepts 50 juniors and 50 seniors.

In 2015, Career Academy, partnering with Southeast Community College, absorbed high school IT and entrepreneurship curricula from four “career pathways” which grew rapidly to 16. Pathways now include criminal justice, culinary arts, health sciences, welding, early childhood education, among many. Students earn free college credits, industry certifications, and gain potential for apprenticeships and jobs right out of high school. Although some career pathway courses have shifted to other focus programs, Career Academy continues to expand pathways.

An embedded program recently launched at Northeast High with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Northeast students study agriculture and natural resources concentrating on food, energy, water and societal systems. Attracting a broad range of students, not only those headed for college is emphasized. Foundation STEM courses and field trips familiarize freshmen and sophomores with research facilities and the diversity of ag science and natural resource careers; juniors and seniors take college level courses through UNL for credit if desired. Either way, graduates receive certifications based on demonstrated expertise in areas from conservation and ecology to crop production, problem-solving, critical thinking and STEM systems knowledge. With the proximity of the two campuses, hands-on experience is within easy reach. 

When Lincoln Northwest’s doors opened in 2022, The Medical Science Focus Program opened too. A collaboration with Bryan College of Health Sciences (BCHS), this program prepares students for an array of medical fields. College credit is available through reduced tuition and scholarships.  Integrating health sciences for interested freshmen and sophomores shifts to Bryan’s college courses for juniors and seniors. Students are paired with college student mentors for coursework. With completion of requirements, students earn phlebotomy, CNA and other certifications. Immersive experiences and job-shadowing prepare students to enter healthcare positions immediately upon graduation in a time of growing need for healthcare workers.

Northstar High School piloted a few aviation classes to measure interest, sparked by passionate technical instructor Amanda Woodward, and inadvertently became an industry incubator. Enrollment grew from two students to 45, then nearly doubled during the pandemic. Three flight simulators were purchased to provide realistic training; Ms. Woodward collected a black box and assorted airplane equipment—including a Cessna wing for students to learn riveting and repair of fiberglass. Now, with further funding potential from the FAA and continued support from Duncan Aviation and other organizations, Northstar joins Lincoln’s embedded focus programs, With a substantial grant, Northstar has constructed a hangar-sized facility to accommodate aircraft for a hands-on classroom. Using national aviation curricula, the local partnership with Duncan Aviation provides presentations from aviation professionals, internships, and potential jobs after graduation. Students have an array of opportunities to fill the need for over 750,000 aviation jobs projected over the next fifteen years: flight crews, mechanics, air traffic controllers, airport designers, and accident reconstructionists as well as researchers in environmental engineering.

Lincoln’s high school focus programs build local partnerships and assist industries who seek specific skills, but most of all they open opportunities and alternatives for students who can now choose to attend high schools whose focus programs align with their passions or learning styles, and future careers, enriching Lincoln Public Schools already successful educational community. 

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