“The ability of educators to connect and work with our business community and articulate a cohesive message about the importance of education to our economic well-being, for me, is critical. If anyone can do it, Omaha can do it.”
Dr. Ken Bird and The Community-elevating Impact of Avenue Scholars
An icon in Greater Omaha’s education dynamic, Ken Bird, Ed.D., is almost 11 years into what was intended to be a two-year commitment.
“What excited me about Avenue Scholars was the sense that we had a blank page – we had a vision to help individuals in poverty achieve a higher position in the community by linking education and jobs,” says Dr. Bird, the nonprofit’s president and CEO.
He launched Avenue Scholars in 2008 after retiring as superintendent of Westside Community Schools, a position he held for 16 of his 38 years in public education. The initiative is dedicated to “ensuring careers for committed students of hope and need through education, training and supportive relationships.” It’s achieving its mission – and helping to provide a workforce for the future – by building partnerships across the community.
“We serve more than 900 students. We work with almost 400 different employers,” Dr. Bird says. “Every year, we’re getting better at what we’re doing, being more intentional in our efforts so we’re aligning our students with what we believe are the employment and practical needs in the community.”
Avenue Scholars focuses on five high-demand career fields with jobs that require an associate degree or less:
- Health Services
- Information Technology
- Auto Tech & Transportation
- Trade, Manufacturing & Building
- Business & Office Processes
Avenue Scholars students, all of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, are required to participate in job coaching (junior & senior year) and a daily Avenue Scholars class, which emphasizes financial literacy (junior year). They’re also required to keep a part-time job “where they’re demonstrating the development of their soft skills.”
The nonprofit just announced an exciting, new enhancement – a Youth, Business & Community (YBC) Internship Program with Millard Public Schools: “We’ll have 50 kids in high school in dedicated, paid internships. We hope to scale that up to hundreds.”
Avenue Scholars has an astounding 98-percent graduation rate for students in poverty. Following successful completion of the High School program, students have the opportunity to continue their education – and obtain up to an associate degree – through an Avenue Horatio Alger Scholarship of up to $8,000 funded jointly by the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation and Metropolitan Community College. (Walter Scott Jr., philanthropist and former Kiewit CEO, is Avenue Scholar’s founding board chair.)
Echoing an old Peter Kiewit saying, “Pleased but not satisfied,” Dr. Bird says he and his team are continually working to “make what we do better.” That push includes just-announced plans for expansion into southwest Iowa with the creation of a brand-new partnership program, Career EdVantage-Southwest Iowa, powered by Avenue Scholars and funded by a multi-million-dollar grant from the Charles E. Lakin Foundation.
Well into extra innings now – far above and beyond his initial two-year projection for program involvement – Dr. Bird says he’s been “so blessed to be able to come from the superintendency and help design and work with a bridge between the business and education community that we call Avenue Scholars.”