Project SEARCH Bridges Education and Employment

2018-03-12T12:44:23+00:00 Published On March 12th, 2018|0 Comments

In my last blog, I shared some of the changes brought about by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014 and its positive impact on students with disabilities. Nebraska VR reaches out to every school to offer and provide pre-employment transition services to students with disabilities. So far this school year, 3,334 students have been provided at least one of five services: counseling on employment opportunities; instruction in self-advocacy; job exploration counseling; work-based learning experience; and/or workplace readiness training. These services are provided in collaboration with the school to support and enhance instruction and activities already occurring in the classroom. We help students make a real world connection between education and employment.

These efforts require the development of relationships with the school and community businesses to ensure students are career ready based on the needs of business. A great example of how this can benefit everyone is Project SEARCH. Project SEARCH is a partnership between Nebraska VR, a business in the community, area school systems, the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Assistive Technology Partnership, and Division of Developmental Disabilities. This one-year school-to-work program is business-led and takes place entirely in the workplace. The experience includes a combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on training through worksite rotations.

Students with disabilities who have completed their academic requirements may apply if they are in their last year of high school. Each interested student is required to make a formal application to the program and to interview with a selection committee. Students are selected through a rating process by a committee consisting of representatives of the school, VR, and the host business. All students must be eligible for pre-employment transition services with Nebraska VR.

 Selected students participate in three 10-week internships during the school year. The student reports to the business each day. In each rotation the student learns job-specific skills while having the opportunity to put employability skills into practice. A certified special education teacher and a worksite skills trainer work with both the students and the business staff. Managers at the internship sites work with the Project SEARCH staff (the teacher and worksite skills trainer) to support the students during the day. Students get continuous feedback from the internship manager, co-workers, and Project SEARCH staff. Students end their day by reflecting, problem solving, planning, and journaling key learning points. The goal is to utilize the skills acquired during the internship for gainful employment.

Last school year, 103 of the 108 students (95%) who started at one of the 17 Project SEARCH sites successfully completed and graduated from the program. To learn more, visit  the Project SEARCH partnerships page.

Education at the Capitol

2018-03-12T15:10:59+00:00 Published On February 8th, 2018|0 Comments

We are currently in the middle of the 105th Legislature, Second Session.  This “short session” is just 60 days and is set to end on Wednesday, April 18th.  There is a lot of work to be done in the time that remains. Unless passed or postponed, all of the bills from the first session in 2017 remain as possible changes to Nebraska statute. On top of that, there were more than 470 bills or resolutions introduced in the first 10 days of this session, and almost 50 of those bills have an education component.

The State Board of Education has a Legislative Committee that advises the Board and the Commissioner of Education on pending legislation and any position they recommend be taken on legislative bills.  While the Legislature is in session, the State Board Legislative Committee and the State Board discuss bills at the State Board meetings each month.  At the most recent State Board meeting on February 2nd, the State Board Legislative Committee made recommendations to the State Board on bills during a Legislative Retreat. The State Board adopted positions on nine new bills introduced at the Legislature in January, and supported an amendment with some qualifications to a bill from last session.

One of my duties as Chief of Staff and Deputy Commissioner is to review all bills introduced and then request that NDE staff who may have expertise in the subject of an introduced bill complete a bill analysis for the benefit of the members of the State Board of Education and the Commissioner.  Although each session may bring entirely new concepts for bills, some bills introduced are concepts previously proposed in bills in past years that never got debated nor enacted and are reintroduced once again.  The expertise of NDE staff are utilized to analyze and inform the Commissioner and members of the State Board.  While NDE staff are a performing their regular duties, January always brings the opportunity for some NDE staff to keep the Commissioner and Board up-to-date on possible legislation.  Each of the bills analyzed are compiled into a document that is shared with the Board, upon which members of the Board can review and use to take positions on bills.  Thanks to all of the NDE staff who take the time to do the analysis of bills assigned, and provide their expertise on matters that may impact NDE or the general supervision and administration of the school system of this state, that is the responsibility of NDE.

Throughout the next several months, the Legislature will continue to meet, and each day presents another opportunity to help inform Senators on bills and policy implications of these bills.  This sometimes requires NDE staff to think through the current methods being utilized and then advise how some of the proposed changes will improve the learning, earning, and living of all Nebraskans.  Keeping in touch with the expertise of numerous NDE staff helps me learn new information and then use that information to improve the work of NDE. 

The Nebraska Unicameral convenes most week days at 9:00 a.m. During session, the Education Committee meets on Mondays and Tuesdays in Room 1525 on the first floor of the Capitol Building. Legislative sessions can be viewed at NETNebraska Live & On Demand.

Multicultural Lessons

2017-12-15T10:09:15+00:00 Published On December 15th, 2017|0 Comments

I miss Sesame Street.  For years I would watch the lessons taught by muppets and children, Big Bird and Cookie Monster.  But now my children are grown and now that I don’t have little ones at home, I don’t watch Sesame Street, as I once did.  The loss of those friendly faces in my life is kind of a bummer.  Our family watched and were reminded of the importance of some basic skills to be used all throughout life; that we may all look different on the outside but it’s important to remember that deep down we are all very much alike; that we all have similar needs, desires and feelings.  For example, I remember Big Bird trying to fit in by changing, only to find it was best to be himself.  Bert and Ernie taught us that relationships work best when friends balance one another.  It is not lost on me that many of their episodes have focused on the very essence of the Nebraska Department of Education’s mission. 

This year Sesame Street introduced Julia, a character with autism.  They have embraced the topics of divorce and bullying, military families, and others.  They had a student explain the parts of a wheelchair and have championed diversity and inclusion. This television series has played an important role in shaping society’s construction of diversity and multiculturalism. 

Multicultural education is also an integral and critical component to the work of the Nebraska Department of Education, “to lead and support the preparation of all Nebraskans for learning, earning, and living.”  The values of the department, like television’s Sesame Street, include, “respect for individuals and individual differences.”  By state law, our Nebraska schools are tasked with integrating multicultural education into all aspects of the K-12 curriculum.  According to the Nebraska Revised Statute 79-719, “multicultural education includes, but is not limited to, studies relative to the culture, history, and contributions of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.  Special emphasis shall be placed on human relations and sensitivity toward all races.”

Nebraska educators are focused on making our classrooms and schools culturally sensitive and safe for students and people from differing backgrounds.  If you haven’t seen the Nebraska Loves Public Schools documentary, “Seeds of Hope,” I encourage you to find a half hour in your day to watch this impactful film.  You can watch it here:  Through English learning programs, schools are responding to the needs of refugee and immigrant families who relocate to Nebraska communities.  However, the idea of multicultural education is much broader than serving these students.  In fact, the need for multicultural education is heightened in communities like Chadron, Lincoln, and Schuyler, which are featured in the film.  Likewise, civility, formal politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech, ensures our schools are safe for all. 

These communities, which might be classified as demographically shifting, have changed dramatically in the last few years.  In many cases, the ethnic majority in these communities was historically white.  Today, people from Burma, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan, to name a few countries, relocate to Nebraska.  In fact, Nebraska led the nation in resettling the most refugees per capita in 2016.  Large numbers of Hispanic immigrants come to Nebraska each year, live in our communities, and are educated in our schools.  Per the multiculturalism statutes, schools have an obligation to teach all students how to engage with one another and model how to respect one another, regardless of background by placing special emphasis on human relations and sensitivity toward all races.  We at the Nebraska Department of Education have an obligation to work with schools to be successful in this effort.  There are some resources on our website for schools and others here:

We have more work today.  In the more than 240 year history of the United States of America, the Civil Rights Movement occurred only about 50 years ago.  While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark in outlawing discrimination in the labor force with respect to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, we continue to see evidence of discrimination in our world.  As we prepare young people in our schools to be college, career, and civic ready, multicultural education must be at the forefront of our teaching and learning process, intertwined and integral.  The Nebraska Career Readiness Standards, found here:, highlight the commitment of cultural competency through one of the standards, “works productively in teams and demonstrates cultural competency.”  Many resources exist for schools and teachers; and opportunities exist for professional learning experiences for educators to continue to implement multicultural education within and across the local school curriculum. 

I challenge school leaders to consider how you are leveraging your resources to integrate multicultural education in the curriculum.  What does multicultural education look like in your school?  What can change with respect to multicultural education in your school?  In this changing world, how can you best prepare students to honor and respect all people; people from different or various ethnicities and different families; people who wear different clothes than one’s own or have a different skin color; yet are people who have the common characteristic of being human beings, with similar feelings, hopes, gifts, challenges, and dreams?  What does multicultural education look like in a high school math class, a first grade reading lesson, a middle school vocal music classroom, on the playground, or on the basketball court? 

For some, Sesame Street was considered the most important children’s program in the history of television. No other show has caused us to think introspectively about education, cultural diversity, multiculturalism, and how we treat others, more than Big Bird and friends. We can still learn from those lessons. Our Nebraska schools are for all.  Let us continue to work together to fulfill the mission of the Nebraska Department Education to lead and support the preparation of all Nebraskans for learning, earning, and living; to prepare students, to honor and respect all people regardless of their characteristics and backgrounds.


2017-11-22T10:13:40+00:00 Published On November 6th, 2017|1 Comment

Over the past year, I’ve noticed the hashtag “#materialsmatter” appearing in my Twitter feed more frequently.  EdReports, a nonprofit offering free reviews of K-12 instructional materials, promotes the hashtag as a reminder that instructional materials play an important role in student learning.  For me, the hashtag offers a simple, yet bold, statement highlighting the impact standards-aligned, high-quality instructional materials have on student learning and achievement.

The idea that when students learn from standards-aligned, high-quality instructional materials isn’t new or novel.  It’s almost too simple, right?  Even so, most state educational agencies (including NDE) have focused primarily on the development of and assessment of content area standards.  Limited attention or guidance has been placed on the instructional materials (e.g. curriculum, core programs, etc.) used to develop and facilitate standards-aligned instruction.  As a result, we have little information about which curricula are most commonly used in Nebraska and which of those resources are most effective in helping students learn the content within our state standards.  Nationally, that trend is similar.  Independent reviews and review tools like EdReports, the EQuIP rubric, or the IMET tool, illustrate a lack of standards-aligned, high-quality instructional materials available and utilized nationwide (Chiefs for Change, 2017).

To me, that’s a problem.

First, and most importantly, this is an equity issue.  We have a responsibility to ensure that all students have equitable access to the education necessary to achieve their full potential.  A key aspect of this is that all students receive strong, standards-aligned instruction.  Schmidt et al. (2015) found that low-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality content or textbooks in the classroom than students in higher income communities.  This inequity, in part, accounts for the significant achievement gap between these students and their more affluent peers.

Additionally, when students receive instruction from materials not aligned to state standards, the opportunity to learn decreases.  For example, middle school students using high-quality instructional materials receive the equivalent of an additional eight months of learning versus students using low-quality materials.  Furthermore, when high-quality materials were combined with professional development, students gained four months of learning over two years versus comparison groups (Taylor et al., 2015).  This research supports the claim that high-quality instructional materials create additional opportunities for students to learn.

The Nebraska State Board of Education approves standards for all content area.  These standards reflect what students should know and be able to do within all content areas.  Additionally, NDE is committed to building an assessment system that includes resources designed to assess all content area standards.  We have solid processes in place to develop and assess content area standards, but that’s not enough.  It is important that NDE provides leadership and support to ensure that teachers are equipped with high-quality instructional materials aligned to the state standards and that teachers receive professional development to effectively implement these materials.

But, how will we get there?

I am excited to share that Nebraska is one of seven states selected to participate in the “Instructional Materials-Professional Development Network” facilitated by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  The goal of this two-year network is to increase the percent of districts in which new instructional material adoptions and procurements are high-quality and aligned to the state’s standards.  Our work is framed around four questions:

  1. What are the most commonly used instructional resources (curricula, core programs, etc.) that Nebraska schools utilize?
  2. What is the alignment of those instructional resources to Nebraska’s content area standards?
  3. Do all students have an opportunity to learn from high-quality instructional resources?
  4. How can NDE help districts identify high-quality, standards-aligned instructional resources?

To accomplish this work, NDE will work with the ESUs to begin identifying the instructional materials most commonly used by Nebraska schools and develop the criteria/process for determining quality and alignment.  Through this work, we hope to increase use of instructional materials aligned to our state standards and increase the percentage of teachers receiving professional development on the use of standards-aligned curricular materials.

It seems like a daunting task and NDE is headed down a path we have never gone before.  Even so, when I describe this work to others, I’m convinced that this work has the potential to be a game changer for our schools and districts.  In a July blog, EdReports summed it up:

In the end, when districts choose strong curriculum it means that teachers are supported and can spend newfound time on deepening and differentiating learning rather than scouring the internet for quality materials. And most of all, it means that all students have access to the content they need to be ready for college and careers.

Well said, my friends.  Well said.



Chiefs for Change. (2017). Hiding in plain sight: Leveraging curriculum to improve student learning (Policy Brief). Retrieved from

Schmidt, W., Burroughs, N., Zoido, P., & Houang, R. (2015). The Role of Schooling in Perpetuating Educational Inequality: An International Perspective. Educational Researcher, 44 (7).

Taylor, J., Getty, S., Kowalski, S., Wilson, C., Carlson, J., & Van Scotter, P. (2015). An efficacy trial of research-based curriculum materials with curriculum-based professional development. American Educational Research Journal, 52 (5).

Nebraska VR Celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month

2017-11-22T10:13:33+00:00 Published On October 4th, 2017|0 Comments

Every October begins National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in recognition and celebration of the contributions of workers with disabilities and the value of a workforce inclusive of their skills and talents. Nebraska VR (Vocational Rehabilitation) includes Disability Determinations, Assistive Technology Partnership, and the Client Assistance Program. The programs under Nebraska VR are comprised of over 300 staff at offices across the state (about 3/5 of the Nebraska Department of Education).

Even though we’ve been around for almost 100 years, many still question who are we, what do we do, and why are we in NDE?

Nationally, the program began in 1920 as a way to address the needs of veterans returning home after World War I. Nebraska’s VR program started a year later in 1921. Over the years, the program evolved into one helping individuals with disabilities of all kinds to prepare for, find, and keep jobs. Recent changes created an emphasis on also helping businesses recruit, train, and retain employees with disabilities. VR has a great degree of flexibility in the kind of services that can be provided as they are based on the individualized needs of the person with a disability. Typical supports include assistive technology, computers, hearing aids, job coaching, job readiness and skill building training, post-secondary training and education, self-employment, tools, uniforms, and vehicle and worksite modifications. As part of a broader workforce system, we provide the necessary support to help the individual achieve their career goal.

So why are we in NDE? In other states, the VR program is under Labor, HHS or is a stand-alone agency. In Nebraska, perhaps due to being in NDE, there has been an emphasis on working with students with disabilities for many years. In fact, about 35% of the 7,000 individuals served each year are students with disabilities. Our collaboration with schools in the provision of transition services benefits students with disabilities as they move from school to work or to post-secondary education and training. An individualized plan with transition services is designed to: a) assist the student and his or her family to think about goals for life after high school and to develop a plan to get there; b) design the high school experience to ensure that the student gains the skills needed to achieve his or her desired goals for life after high school; and c) identify and link the student and family to any needed services, supports or programs before the student leaves the school system.

In 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) mandated a set aside of VR funds for pre-employment transition services for students with disabilities strengthening the requirement for collaboration between VR and schools. Working with schools, we are responsible to ensure students have access to and are provided:

  • Job Exploration Counseling;
  • Workplace Readiness Training;
  • Work-Based Learning Experiences;
  • Counseling on Comprehensive Transition or Post-Secondary Educational Programs; and
  • Instruction in Self-Advocacy.

Our efforts to provide pre-employment transition services has required the development of relationships with every school district in Nebraska. In the last two years, VR has provided financial support to schools, ESUs, and other public and private entities, for the development of innovative short-term programs to provide career exploration, job readiness, and work based learning opportunities for students with disabilities. This past summer, twenty programs across the state, from Omaha to Scottsbluff, were developed.

Other partnerships with Special Education and schools, include the Nebraska Youth Leadership Council (youth with disabilities promoting disability awareness and educating their peers about transition to college and work) and Project Search (a business-led school-to-work program). You can learn more about these initiatives at our website:

By sharing VR’s focus on students with disabilities I hope to grow an understanding of the significance of VR being in the Department of Education. It is not just a matter of convenience but a relationship offering mutual benefits to the achievement of NDE’s mission “to lead and support the preparation of ALL Nebraskans for learning, earning, and living.”

The Role of Chief of Staff

2018-03-12T15:09:56+00:00 Published On September 14th, 2017|0 Comments

Throughout my time with the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE), many people have asked me, “What do you do at NDE?” I have frequently answered, “everything the Commissioner of Education tells me to do.” However, I want to take this opportunity to be more transparent in what my duties are as the Deputy Commissioner/Chief of Staff for NDE.

One of my primary duties is to lead and direct governmental relations for NDE at federal, state, and local levels. The “unique good life” of our state is reflected by the great people of Nebraska who value education to the extent that an entire Article of the Nebraska Constitution is devoted exclusively to the subject. We have a duty to “provide for the free instruction in the common schools of this state of all persons between the ages of five and twenty-one years of age.” NDE was created by the people of Nebraska to be responsible for the general supervision and administration of the school system in the state. When reading the entire Constitution of Nebraska, one can find that NDE and the Nebraska Legislature have a unique partnership that the people of Nebraska expect will work together to ensure that the school system prepares all students for learning, earning, and living.

This year Nebraska is celebrating its Sesquicentennial but the uniqueness of the Nebraska Unicameral is not yet 100 years of age. The Unicameral was created in 1937.  For most of its history senators served until they were defeated by an opponent or retired from the senate. In 2006, the people of Nebraska chose to provide term limits for senators, thereby presenting unique experiences every two years. In the past it was easy for citizens to rely on a senator to be an expert in a subject area and to serve for 12 to 20 years in the Unicameral.  Today, senators can only serve two consecutive four-year terms before they are “term limited.” This can make it challenging to find a senator who fully grasps all of the underlying principles that drove the adoption of state laws that impact education every day. That is where my role comes in: to help those senators understand how NDE supports the preparation of all Nebraskans for learning, earning, and living.

How do I carry out my duty to lead and direct governmental relations of NDE in coordination with the Nebraska Legislature?  The first thing that I do is build relationships with policy makers in the Legislature to learn what they need to know about the school system of this state and how NDE goes about providing the general supervision and administration of that school system, including the work NDE staff do each and every day. The latter presents ongoing opportunities for me to learn what is going on throughout the entire NDE agency in order to be able to coherently explain the work, but also the underlying strategies that drive the work of NDE to policy makers in the Legislature.

So how do I accomplish that?  You will have to wait for my next blog that is scheduled for January 2018.  Happy New Year!

The Role of Information in Education

2017-11-22T10:05:02+00:00 Published On August 11th, 2017|0 Comments

In the late fall of 2016, the Commissioner of Education officially created a Chief Information Officer (CIO) role within the Nebraska Department of Education. The purposes were to 1) create a presence within the Commissioner’s office that ensured technology, data, and communication systems were part of the strategy, planning, policy discussions and ultimate execution of tasks. 2) Coordinate with the processes of working to implement efficiencies, modernization, and alignment of internal operations including aligning support systems for Nebraska schools.

As part of this new NDE division, the priority focuses of alignment include information technology, data collection and use, research and evaluation, project management, communication as well as a deeper focus on digital learning. As one might suspect, implementing alignment and changes, integrating Board and Commissioner priorities, evaluating internal and external processes and systems, evaluating future options and approaches, all while staff are working to maintain current work expectations is challenging to say the least. However, the solutions-focused attitude, innovative approaches, a willingness to adapt and consider the future by our staff all in support of the State Board of Education’s Strategic Plan and Vision has been impressive.

In the coming weeks, I am excited to share insights to work happening in a variety of areas. These include progress updates on Future Ready Nebraska, exploring the transformation is a data collection and use systems known as ADVISER, insights to the Nebraska Education Profile (NEP), some insights of technology changes and training supports, a perspective from the view of the Project Management Office for NDE, opportunities to discuss the use of open education resources by educators in support of digital learning, along with insights to education Innovation occurring within Nebraska schools. These specific initiatives are in addition to the terrific efforts of our NDE communications team.

The Unique Good Life

2017-11-22T09:23:44+00:00 Published On July 6th, 2017|1 Comment

I want to welcome you to one of the many efforts underway at the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) to better connect and communicate happenings across the Department through this new NDE Leadership Blog.  I’ve asked the NDE Communications and Outreach team to identify potential ways to improve our flow of information and I am very pleased to launch this first blog effort.  I look forward to NDE Leadership team members posts and to see how they creatively share stories, news, and team and program information.

Let’s Be Different

The Nebraska Department of Education is a unique mix of programs and services as well as a diverse blend of structures and governance.  The Lincoln children’s musical group, The String Beans, have a song about Nebraska that says, “as Governments go, we’re a freak of nature because we have the country’s only one-house legislature.”

[Hear the whole song here]

Well, NDE has some of those “freak of nature” characteristics that are relatively unique to Nebraska.  We have an elected State Board of Education and only five other states have that structure.  We have the unique honor to have Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and the Disability Determinations Section (DDS) in addition to the more traditional education side of the equation.  We have taken a great deal of responsibility for early childhood providers that might be left to other agencies in other places. We have adult education, veterans education, private post-secondary education, and several areas of responsibility that make us a “freak of nature.”

What I love about the Nebraska song, and The String Beans, is the pride they take in quirkiness, childhood, and Nebraska.  Sure it’s goofy for adults (like myself) to get into the fun but like a lot of kids and families NDE is unique and has it’s own set of unique responsibilities and quirks.  This is great because we might just have to be different to make a difference!


The NDE mission is different.  OK, you got me!  It is actually the same as it has been for a long time (20 years or so) but the State Board took time to build a new strategic plan in 2016 and they realized that the agency mission and the State Board mission should be the same.  We did consider changing it.  But I’m really glad we embraced it because, “to lead and support the preparation of ALL Nebraskans for learning, earning, and living” is a great mission for everyone.  “All” means something to me. Not one person is excluded from our mission.  When you think of each of our roles it seems like our “freak of nature” status is our natural strength.  We have a chance to work with Nebraskans of all ages and across the whole state.  We have so many opportunities to leverage our time and talents and so many ways we can accomplish our goals.

Our Roles

During the strategic planing process, our consultants spoke with many internal and external stakeholders about the agency.  Among the greatest contributions to the effort was to define who we think we are and what we think our roles are.   The following five roles seem to capture important themes of not only what we are, but also what we think we want to be for our students, teachers, administrators, clients, and stakeholders.

  1. Champion
  2. Regulator
  3. Capacity Builder
  4. Connector
  5. Change Agent

You can see these described in more detail at Here you will also find the full copy of the State Board’s Strategic Vision and Direction.

As we prepare to launch the “new school year” at Administrators’ Days – NDE Day in Kearney on July 26, we have embraced these roles in our theme Bridging Connections: Taking Charge of Our Roles and Responsibilities.   I will be presenting at the opening general session about how we can move the state system of education by really working on these five roles together.

So, let’s embrace our “freak of nature” status and be a little different.  Let’s take a few risks and take charge of our roles and responsibilities.  Let’s make a difference for ALL Nebraskans in their learning, earning, and living.

Go to Top