Summer wrap-up: Keeping kids learning outside of school hours

In Nebraska, we are blessed with one of the nation’s best public school systems, thanks to long-term investments by generations of Nebraskans in the future of our state and our most precious resource: our youth. While we at Nebraska Children are driven by our mission to provide all youth with the support they need to reach their full potential, as we look at school systems in other states, our appreciation of the public education system we have in Nebraska only grows.

However, we also know from our work in support of early childhood care and education that learning doesn’t start on the first day of kindergarten – nor does it stop when each school year ends. And although summer lasts only three months, when you add up each summer over a child’s K-12 years, it equals more than three years of time that could be used on additional learning opportunities.

Unfortunately, those hours of opportunity are not utilized in the same way by all Nebraska youth. While some children’s summers are full of days jam-packed with creative play, books, vacation trips, and camps, many low-income kids across our state don’t have access to the same learning opportunities as their more affluent classmates. Research shows that when they return to school at the end of summer, these two groups’ difference in access to summer learning opportunities has a dramatic impact on their readiness to learn and their ability to take advantage of the new educational opportunities that come with each new year.

Besmir Gjoka, Jeff Cole, and Lt. Governor Mike Foley celebrating July 14’s designation as Summer Learning Day in Nebraska.

That’s why we believe summer learning programs are so important in our efforts to bridge the opportunity gap that causes a pernicious achievement gap between low-income youth and their more affluent classmates. Lt. Governor Mike Foley recently recognized the importance of summer learning by issuing a proclamation signed by Governor Pete Ricketts that identifies July 14 as Summer Learning Day in Nebraska.


How we can help

Expanding support for and broadening access to high-quality summer learning opportunities is a priority of Beyond School Bells, Nebraska Children’s statewide expanded learning network. Fortunately, it is a priority that is shared by a growing number of communities across the state. Indeed, many Nebraska communities are providing hands-on, engaging summer learning activities for thousands of high-need youth through collaborative efforts that bring together the talents of schools and community-based organizations. These include communities that are part of Beyond School Bells’ 10-city coalition of expanded learning programs, including:

Kearney, where youth have access to a wide variety of programming, including hands-on projects using the Beyond School Bells-supported “Think. Make. Create.” mobile maker space
Columbus, where a BSB mini grant provides opportunities for youth to engage in classic summer activities like fishing and gardening through partnerships with 4H Extension
Sidney, where our support allows youth to participate in a summer entrepreneurship program that includes pitching their ideas to local banks, developing their own t-shirts, and promoting their projects on local radio

Your support matters

We can’t provide this support in isolation. We are very grateful to our partners at The Sherwood Foundation, the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation, the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation, and other key partners for their support of this important work. However, much more needs to be done. For every youth in one of Nebraska’s high-quality afterschool or summer programs, another child would like to participate but is unable to do so because of costs, lack of space, or scarcity of high-quality programs in their communities.

Please consider supporting this important work in your communities and our efforts to build the statewide systems that ensure all youth have the same opportunities to enjoy the Good Life – during the school year as well as the afterschool and summer months.

For more information, visit or contact Jeff Cole, Network Lead and Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, at

NYCI Conference Recap: Coming together for a common good

The first-ever Nebraska Young Child Institute (NYCI) conference is in the books, and we couldn’t be happier with how the event unfolded. More than 500 people gathered in Kearney on June 27-28 to highlight the existing early childhood efforts underway as well as discuss where there are still gaps and barriers for our youngest citizens and their families. Collaboratively planned by Nebraska Children and seven other sponsoring agencies, the conference featured 40 breakout sessions and counted judges, attorneys, caseworkers, home visitors, mental health providers, and other early childhood professionals among its attendees.

A strong start

Day one opened with a welcome from Judge Douglas Johnson of Douglas County Separate Juvenile Court, followed by comments from Nebraska First Lady Susanne Shore, Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Matt Blomstedt, and Department of Health and Human Services CEO Courtney Phillips.


Day 1 Panel
Opening speakers Courtney Phillips, First Lady Susanne Shore, Dr. Matt Blomstedt, Dr. Brenda Jones-Harden, and Honorable Judge Douglas Johnson.

For the first keynote presentation, Dr. Brenda Jones-Harden from the University of Maryland took the stage to speak about the prevalence of trauma in the lives of young children and their families. Dr. Jones-Harden discussed how traumatic experiences like child abuse and intimate partner violence can have unwanted effects on children’s brain development and the families’ mental health. She also presented evidence-based methods for protecting children from adverse effects and shared strategies for developing trauma-informed systems for identification and intervention.

After Dr. Jones-Harden’s address, the conference split into breakout sessions for the rest of the day. Over the course of two days, conference-goers were able to choose breakout sessions from six tracks: Impact of Trauma on the Developing Child, Young Child Development, Legal Representation, Maximizing the Juvenile Court System for Young Children, Evidence-Based Practices for At-Risk Young Children, and Early Education.  The schedule also included time for networking, relaxing, and bonding with other attendees over shared goals.

Day 2 highlights

Dr. Sam Meisels & Honorable Judge Douglas Johnson
Keynote speaker Dr. Sam Meisels with Honorable Judge Douglas Johnson.

The morning session on day two featured a keynote talk by Dr. Sam Meisels, Founding Executive Director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, as well as a policy panel hosted by Jen Goettemoeller, Senior Policy Associate at First Five Nebraska.

Over lunch, conference-goers watched a panel discussion across state systems and public/private lines that focused on early childhood from a policy and systems perspective, highlighting the importance of the early years (ages 0-5) in improving outcomes among children as well as how agencies and the private sector are making early childhood a priority. The panel included Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley, Buffett Early Childhood Fund President Jessie Rasmussen, State Board of Education President Dr. Rachel Wise, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids’ Tom Casady, and DHHS Division of Children and Family Services Director Doug Weinberg.

The conference concluded with a final block of breakout sessions, after which attendees hopefully took what they learned and started thinking of ways to put it into action.

Conference tidbits

Of the 40 breakout sessions offered, Nebraska Children staff and contractors presented 14 sessions on a variety of topics including attachment, early childhood screening and assessment, Sixpence, statewide home visiting initiatives, quality child care, Circle of Security-Parenting, social-emotional development of young children, parents interacting with infants, and Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). In addition, Nebraska Children brought in two individuals to provide reflective consultation sessions to attorneys and home visitors.

Highlights for attendees included the panel of parents and foster parents who shared their experiences with the child welfare system, learning about evidence-based practices that can support young children and their families and how to access them, and networking with other professionals. As one attendee commented, “Having multiple agencies and systems attend and present was amazing! We can learn so much from each other and work together on issues our families are facing.”

For more information about the Nebraska Young Child Institute, visit

Changemakers Spotlight: Victor Rivas Rivers


Victor Rivas Rivers

We’re eagerly anticipating this year’s Changemakers luncheon, not least because this year’s keynote speaker is author, social activist, and actor Victor Rivas Rivers! Learn a little more about Victor below, then be sure to join us September 12 to hear his whole story.

Nebraska Children: Why is a strong community so important to a child?

Victor Rivas Rivers: I grew up in a home where violence took place on the level of torture by my father, at a time where there were no shelters or hotlines that my mother could turn to for help. Domestic violence and child abuse training for law enforcement was almost non-existent. Educators and school administrations didn’t get involved in personal family issues. But there were exceptions in my personal journey: a teacher who secretly paid for a school cafeteria meal ticket when my father was starving me; a Little League coach who gave me the confidence to excel in athletics; a vice principal who chose a tough-love approach instead of expelling me; the numerous families who opened their homes to a troubled, violent kid. I’m the end result of a coordinated response by a loving, protective, and humane community, [and] there are a lot of children like me in all of our communities – even the most affluent – who need to be rescued, redirected, and given the chance to reclaim their lives.

NC: Do you think people still view abuse as “a private family matter”? How can communities change that perception?

VRR: Yes and no. We have come a long way to further the conversation on domestic violence/abuse so that it’s not seen as “a private family matter.” There’s training for law enforcement and healthcare providers [as well as] public awareness campaigns. That’s the good news! The bad news is that domestic violence/abuse continues to be the most underreported crime. It’s often called “the quiet crime” because it thrives in an atmosphere of silence, denial, and shame. I also think there’s still a reluctance to get involved in somebody’s business, especially family issues. [But] abuse, on any level, is not “a private family matter” because it will impact the whole community. So we all have to get involved in creating a more humane and peaceful world.

NC: What lessons did you learn during your time on the football field that you’ve applied to your advocacy?

VRR: [In] college football history, Nebraska is [recognized] for its National Championships, coaches, and players. Over the past 40 years, Florida State University has [joined Nebraska in] the conversation of storied teams, legendary coaches, and exceptional players. I was fortunate to be a starting offensive guard on Bobby Bowden’s first team at FSU. I learned so much from Coach Bowden about team unity, preparation, dedication, and what it takes to be a winner – but it was my first three seasons where I learned about life. You see, Coach Bowden was my third head coach – [because] we stunk! My freshman year, we went 0-11. By my senior year, only a handful of us had stuck it out. I learned that sports, like life, doesn’t always go your way and you learn as much, if not more, from adversity. In my advocate/activist journey, I’ve learned the odds are usually stacked against the victims and survivors – [and that] the domestic violence and child abuse advocates that work in the trenches approach their work with same dedication, preparation, and unity that I learned on the gridiron. They are the true heroes in the movement to end all abuse.

NC: What do you hope Changemakers attendees take away from your talk?

VRR: My ultimate goal whenever I speak is that I will have inspired one person to look at the issues of family violence differently, to help someone break their own silence, to encourage someone to get involved locally, or if they’re able, to write a generous check. I hope that I represent the “end result” of the life-changing and life-saving work that organizations like Nebraska Children and Families Foundation are doing all across America. My high school community saved and rescued a homicidal, suicidal gang member: ME. Your community needs to know that they can and will make a difference.

NC: What’s been your favorite role as an actor?

VRR: I’ve been in a lot of fun and memorable films, but the film that changed me in so many ways was “Blood In/Blood Out.” It’s a Taylor Hackford film that follows the lives of three Chicano boys from East L.A. One of the boys takes the wrong path and ends up in San Quentin, the maximum security prison in Northern California. The prison scenes were shot in San Quentin in the prison population. We were not protected or guarded. The men in the scenes with us are the real convicts serving their time. As I walked around San Quentin, I realized “there but for the grace of God.” That could have and should have been me! The overwhelming majority of the men incarcerated in our prison systems started out as witnesses and victims of family violence. The other common denominator is literacy; 7 out of 10 inmates have trouble reading and writing. That’s why we need to reach these men and women before they get there, like my community did with me.

Register now to save your seat at Changemakers on Sept. 12.

Beyond School Bells, part 6: Community partnerships

Over the course of six weeks, the Nebraska Children blog has invited Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, to write some guest posts sharing his program’s work.

NebraskaChildren_BSB_final_Jan2016In my final installment as guest blogger, I will focus on what Beyond School Bells has found to be the heart of high-quality Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) programs: strong school-community partnerships.

Nebraska is blessed with a strong tradition of support for public schools – and rightfully so. With one of the nation’s highest graduation rates, above-average ACT scores, and off-the-chart satisfaction rates from parents, Nebraska citizens take pride in their intergenerational investment in our state’s high-quality public schools. We can also be proud of the high level of participation and civic engagement that characterizes Nebraskans from Sidney to Omaha and all points in between.

ELO programs bring together these two Nebraska strengths. Built on learning opportunities taking place after hours in school buildings across our state, ELO programs create a platform for involved citizens and organizations to provide meaningful learning opportunities and support for the next generation of Nebraska citizens and leaders.

As I outlined in previous blogs, these partnerships are helping to provide the hands-on, engaging STEM learning experiences that our young people need to grow Nebraska’s future prosperity. Increasingly, these programs are also providing opportunities for local businesses to expose youth to career opportunities that await them in every Nebraska community. These collaborations are also strengthening the time-honored bonds that unite our public schools and the communities they serve.

The final video in our series outlines the role that community partnerships play in strengthening the capacity of ELO programs to provide all Nebraska youth, especially youth from our state’s most challenging educational environments, with the additional learning opportunities they need to be successful in school, in careers, and in life.

Although the blog series has come to an end, we encourage you to check in with Beyond School Bells to see what’s new with ELO programs in Nebraska. Thanks for following along!


A day dedicated to youth employment success

More than 40 people attended the 2nd Annual Youth Employment Community Capacity Building Event on June 16 at the Lincoln Community Foundation. Together, the group spent the day taking an honest look at the successes, barriers, and possibilities surrounding employment and employment retention for unconnected youth.

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Organized by the Lincoln Education/Employment Committee and facilitated by CommonAction Consulting, the work of the day built on the previous year’s event, which laid out the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of our system of support for young people around employment. Recognizing that human services support agencies could not address the issue of youth employment alone, the group brought business and human resource representatives to the table, along with youth themselves, for this new discussion to determine how the community can work together.

Collaboration is key

Prosper Lincoln Employment Skills Developer Bryan Seck called the group to action and collaboration and facilitated a panel of employers to highlight the perspective of the business world. Sharing this perspective not only showcased the efforts of employers in Lincoln but served to begin an open and focused dialogue between businesses and those who may have a better understanding of the barriers faced by unconnected youth. The group had honest conversations about how simple things like having the correct legal documentation can be a significant barrier to employment for unconnected youth. These discussions helped move the effort forward, with business and human services agencies outlining ways to support one another on behalf of the youth.

Building on these informative conversations, the group worked together across systems to identify specific next steps, lay out tasks to accomplish these steps, and hold each other accountable by determining dates for completion. These next steps, tasks, and action dates will be taken to the Lincoln Transition Team and Education/Employment Committee to be carried out over the next year. Business and human resource representatives have joined these teams to continue the partnership across systems.

Although we don’t yet have the perfect solution for helping unconnected youth find employment success, the connections made across systems and the shared dedication to these young people and to improving Lincoln’s workforce allowed the Lincoln community to take a significant step forward toward the greater good.



Beyond School Bells, part 5: A QuESTT

Over the course of six weeks, the Nebraska Children blog has invited Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, to write some guest posts sharing his program’s work.

NebraskaChildren_BSB_final_Jan2016My previous posts have focused on Beyond School Bells’ role in supporting and developing high-quality, school-based, community-powered afterschool and summer programs – what we call Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs).

In this post, I’m going to change things up and focus on a development at the Nebraska Department of Education that could potentially have a huge impact on ELO programs in every school across our state: the Accountability for a Quality Education System Today and Tomorrow system, or A QuESTT.

One of the most far-reaching educational developments in Nebraska in recent years, A QuESTT was launched in 2015 and represents the future of state-level accountability for Nebraska’s schools, districts, and communities. In a break with the last 15 years of national practice, namely the recently repealed No Child Left Behind Act, A QuESTT is a Nebraska approach recognizing that learning is a dynamic process that cannot be captured in a single test.

In place of a sole reliance on high-stakes testing, A QuESTT creates a process for evaluating and measuring diverse components of a quality education. And in A QuESTT, school-community partnerships providing high-quality ELO programs for students are considered an important piece of the puzzle. This development codifies what common sense tells us – that learning taking place during the afterschool hours and over the summer months plays a critical role in the education of all Nebraska youth.

This recognition, and the corresponding development of an accountability framework in A QuESTT that incentivizes and rewards school-community partnerships, represents a huge opportunity for ELOs. A QuESTT encourages schools and districts across the state to think about developing more ELO partnerships to support key tenets of A QuESTT, like expanded learning, easing transitions, and supporting career exploration, among others.

In this week’s video, we turned to Nebraska’s state and local administrators to explain A QuESTT and the potential it has to elevate the role school-community partnerships can play in supporting the education of all young people in Nebraska.

If you’d like to learn more about A QuESTT, on our video page you can download a PDF of an editorial I wrote in the Nebraska Association of School Administrators Spring 2016 newsletter.

CYI panel members represent Nebraska well

For many, turning 22 means relaxing and having fun with friends. But for Rosetta Judd, a member of the Connected Youth Initiative Citizen Review Panel, it meant a trip to Arizona with fellow CYI-CRP members Raevin Bigelow, 21, and Lacey Combs, 20, to represent Nebraska at the 2016 National Citizen Review Panel Conference. Together, these young women spent three days listening to presentations on data and policy change, voicing their opinions on how to improve child welfare, and networking with professionals and community advocates from across the country.

Tackling important issues together

CRPs exist due to a federal bill called the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which gives states dollars to prevent child abuse and neglect and strengthen the systems that serve those who have been affected. In order to receive these dollars, states must have at least three CRPs, and Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services decided one of these should consist entirely of youth with current or former involvement in Nebraska’s system. Enter the CYI-CRP.

The group meets four times a year in person and as needed virtually to review and make recommendations for DHHS policies on youth in child welfare. They also offer ideas for improving practices to help ensure these policies are implemented in effective and meaningful ways. And they don’t shy away from the tough discussions, either: CYI-CRP members have tackled issues from normalcy to foster parent training to youth missing from foster care. Each year, they cap off their work by sitting down with DHHS representatives to share their recommendations and discuss how to make them a reality.

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Paving the way to a better future

For all their hard work in Nebraska, the CYI-CRP was selected to present at the conference. Their presentation, “Youth Voices in Action: Strategies for Engaging Older Youth with System Involvement in CRPs,” captured more than 40 attendees and offered tips for pulling in youth as CRP members. It was amazing to watch each of them let their personalities shine as they laughed and learned with so many others. After the presentation, they were practically celebrities. Lines of people waited to talk, ask questions, and take selfies – and one even asked, “Can we fly you to Connecticut?”

As their adult supporter, I was really along for the ride. Their fire burned via questions during keynote presentations and long discussions by the hotel pool with other youth CRP members from various states. They took notes. They exchanged strategies. They hugged and offered support. In those three days, I watched as three young adults who had once walked onto CYI youth councils as alumni overcoming trauma and looking for connections stepped up to become advocates ready to lead policy change that would never benefit them. They want more for their siblings and others who might struggle through state systems as they did, and they’re making it happen.

Perhaps the most powerful thing for me, though, was the responses they gave when asked about why they do what they do. Raevin said, “When labels are put on you, your world becomes limited. We have stepped up and became more than our limits.” Rosetta said, “I’m advocating for part of the world that raised me, and now I get to be part of the rapid change.” And I think Lacey spoke for us all: “What they said!”

About the author: Cassy Blakely, MA, PLMHP, is the Assistant Vice President of Youth Policy at Nebraska Children. Cassy has served in a number of capacities, all focusing on expanding youth voice and engagement at all levels. Her current focus is on helping to influence policies concerning the needs of young people by collaborating with state partners, committees, and policy makers.

Beyond School Bells, part 4: Environmental education

Over the course of six weeks, the Nebraska Children blog has invited Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, to write some guest posts sharing his program’s work.

NebraskaChildren_BSB_final_Jan2016In addition to supporting a wide variety of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programming in Nebraska’s afterschool and summer programs, a topic I explored in my last post, Beyond School Bells (BSB) is also very excited to support the rise of environmental education opportunities.

From Sidney to Omaha, environmental concepts and student-centered projects are finding fertile ground within Nebraska’s growing array of school-based and community-powered Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) programs.

Thanks to partnerships between school-based afterschool programs and strong community partners such as the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Audubon Society, Nebraskans for Civic Reform, and others, participating youth in many Nebraska communities are able to participate in hands-on learning projects that empower them to become engaged and inspired environmental problem solvers.

Through these environmental education programs, participating youth also have new opportunities to interact with environmental professionals who love their work and share their passion for environmental inquiry and problem-solving — helping youth develop their identities as future STEM problem solvers. Getting the chance to expand their horizons and explore career paths in the environmental sector is an important component of these programs.

In the this week’s video, we tried to capture some of the energy that environmental education is bringing to ELO programs and illustrate the types of partnerships that are powering these important learning opportunities across Nebraska.

Beyond School Bells, part 3: STEM learning

Over the course of six weeks, the Nebraska Children blog has invited Jeff Cole, Associate Vice President of School-Community Partnerships for Beyond School Bells, to write some guest posts sharing his program’s work.

NebraskaChildren_BSB_final_Jan2016One of the most exciting developments in the world of afterschool and summer programming – what we call Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) programs – is the rise of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programming, commonly referred to as the STEM fields.

Over the past four years, Beyond School Bells (BSB) has been working with partners across our great state to help spread the word that ELOs and STEM learning are a perfect match. To gain fluency in STEM fields and begin to develop and identify as STEM learners, young people need exposure to STEM concepts outside of the classroom. Through engaging, hands-on STEM experiences, young people in Nebraska’s ELO programs are becoming the excited, inspired STEM learners we need to create the jobs that will fuel our future prosperity.

BSB also promotes the belief that everyone has a role to play in helping Nebraska’s youth develop STEM skills. To this end, we support STEM programming in all of our Coalition communities that builds local capacity and collaborations with STEM-rich institutions. This support has included funding for environmental science projects, robotics, DNA testing, information technology, gardening, and career exploration clubs, among many others. We also work closely with our partners at UNL’s 4-H Click2SciencePD to provide professional development opportunities for afterschool educators interested in providing high-quality programming to participating youth.

With the growth of these partnerships and exciting, high-quality STEM programs, BSB sees afterschool and summer programs across Nebraska becoming important community “charging stations” where youth can become excited about the STEM concepts and see opportunities to apply them in their own homes and communities.

In this week’s companion video, we explore the many facets of ELO STEM and encourage STEM professionals in every community to partner with their afterschool and summer program to provide the next generation with exposure to the STEM fields that will play such a critical role in their success and our collective prosperity.

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