Coming to the Table for Equitable Public Education-A National Conversation

Coming to the Table for Equitable Public Education
A National Conversation

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  Nelson Mandela’s profound words are not only impactful, but they also get to the heart of Toba Cohen-Dunning’s passion in life – education.

Toba has led the Omaha Public Schools Foundation (OPSF) as its Executive Director for over a decade, but her dedication to ensuring that all children have access to equitable public education has been part of her life’s work, and it goes beyond the city of Omaha.

As the first National Schools Foundation Association (NSFA) board president from Nebraska, Toba understands that, to create equity in public education, it is imperative for people from all corners of the country to work together, talk to each other and collaborate for the sake of our children.

“Education, specifically public education, is not just a district issue, city issue or state issue; it’s a national issue,” Toba said. “It impacts every child in every socioeconomic, race, religion, gender identity, age, sexual identity, ethnicity, immigrant, citizen, refugee and language population across our country.”

At the state level, Toba represents OPSF as a member of the Nebraska Association of Public Schools Foundation (NAPSF). This membership allows Toba to collaborate with her colleagues from around the state and to advocate for districts, funders, teachers, administrators and, most importantly, the students. Each member of NAPSF is focused on ensuring the success of public private partnerships that help fund public school districts by broadening learning experiences and educational opportunities.

“Sometimes, as involved citizens, we have to engage with people whose views and beliefs aren’t the same as ours in order to be the voice for these children, to bring about understanding, to create change that levels the playing field for the next generation,” Toba said. We don’t get all the work done in one sitting or one conversation, but it can be a great first step. How can you create change without coming to the table, without starting a conversation?”

So why, you ask, is all the statewide and national work that public school foundations, like OPSF, do so important? Why does it matter?

Toba says, “It’s for the kids. The work that the NAPSF and the NSFA are doing brings us together to share and create best practices so that we come back to our respective districts prepared to be stewards of our superintendents’ goals. We also take part in training and development opportunities to ensure that we adhere to high ethical standards, which are extremely important with the fiscal responsibilities we have. When we are all working together, supporting each other with a common goal in sight, the kids are more prepared to achieve success.”

At the NSFA national conference in Philadelphia last week, Toba and The National Principles and Proven Practices Task Force presented the first document on guiding principles for K-12 education foundations, the result of a three-year-long project through the collaboration of industry leaders around the U.S.  All foundations operate upon a continuum in the “pursuit of public excellence.” These principles and practices are intended to serve as a guide to help foundation boards, executive directors, foundation staff, school boards and superintendents inform decisions at every stage of their journey that will enable them to grow.

 “Ultimately, I know that I am part of a village that is preparing the youngest of learners to high school seniors for their journeys and successes in life,” Toba said. “Public education is a huge factor in their lives. If we, as adults, legislators, contributors, decision-makers, parents and neighbors, choose to invest in quality public education so that every child has access to equitable public schools, we are investing in them–the kids, the next generation of professionals, skilled workers and leaders.”

Building Communities Donor Story

Creating Bonds-How Donors Make an Impact in the District


Imagine 200 of your neighbors coming home one day only to find they no longer have a place to call “home,” not knowing where they will go, not having any of their belongings – only left with uncertainty.

Imagine your child needing help with anxiety, depression, bullying, trauma or other behavioral health issues, but their school nurses not having the resources and tools to help them during the school day.

These are just some of the situations and issues that our Omaha Public Schools (OPS) students face. Luckily, Omaha Public Schools Foundation (OPSF) is in the heart of a generous community that comes together to make gifts toward emergency situations, like when 600 supporters came together in 48 hours to raise $69,000 for families displaced by the Yale Apartment closing. Our donors also fund on-going needs like resources for mental health counselors in schools throughout the district so they can provide critical behavioral health care to OPS students.

There are many ways that people and businesses can support students, teachers and staff throughout the district. By donating gifts of stocks, bonds, cash, checks, online donations, gifts in kind, planned gifts, charitable bequests and more, donors make learning opportunities and essential resources possible and accessible for students, teachers and staff. At OPSF, our role is to ensure that the contributions are distributed through the programs that the donors choose to support.

“I can’t imagine a better place to make a contribution because funds donated quickly find their way to those in need,” Ray Dewaele, OPSF donor, said. “It’s been nearly ten years since my wife, Amy, and I began contributing and have found that it was one of the better decisions that we’ve ever made.”

After 40 years with the OPS district as a Special Education Teacher at Benson High School, Ray recently retired but stays connected as a substitute teacher. Familiar with needs of youth in the district, Ray and Amy know that OPSF directs their contribution to the specific students they want to support.

“Several years ago, we were asked to distribute some funds from a recently deceased relative’s estate in a manner to help students in need,” Ray said. “OPSF is just one of the groups we selected to receive those funds; however, it is the one organization that best addresses the immediate physical and material needs of students.”

Recently, Ray’s brother, Robert, connected with OPSF to set up his own giving plan. Robert decided that the best way to make a widespread impact was to invest in mental health resources and tools that OPS counselors needed to provide critical care for students of all ages.

“I’ve seen the impact on students’ lives which funding from OPSF has provided,” said Robert. “I’m now comfortable in investing my own funds which will be earmarked for mental health purposes.” Addressing mental, social and emotional health and well-being can be a challenge for schools. Through his donation, Robert is helping to bridge a gap in resources so students have a built-in community of support when emotional and behavioral needs arise during in-school hours.

“The Dewaeles’ contributions will provide services that are currently not available to a majority of OPS students,” Roxanne Nielsen, Development Director at OPSF, said. “That is the mission of OPSF. Working alongside donors like Robert, Ray and Amy ensures that we can really do what we are in the business of doing—helping those students, families, teachers and staff in our district who have no other avenues to the services, programs or aid that they need.”

Robert, Ray and Amy trust that their contributions are well-managed through OPSF and know that 100 percent of the funds reach students. If you and your family are considering year-end contributions or working on estate planning, Ray wants you to know this: “Previous donations we have made through OPSF have changed and impacted the lives of others to the degree that we want to keep giving. We encourage you to reach out to OPSF to learn how your gift, any gift can make an impact.”

“I am inspired by donors whose goals are to help students,” Roxanne said. “It’s gratifying work and makes me consider what ways I can be of better service. Many OPSF donors give without asking for any recognition or benefits of any kind. It’s pure philanthropy at its best!”

OPSF makes the giving process convenient and easy. By working with our team, you have the freedom to tailor how your contribution is distributed. Whether your gift impacts all 53,000 OPS students’ learning experiences or provides one student access to resources that helps them lead a healthier life, every gift matters.

Please contact Roxanne at the OPSF office to discuss your giving goals. She is happy to discuss ways to tailor your gift so it reaches those students and teachers you want to support. You can also Donate online.


A New Social Experience – College Application Parties

Central graduates, Maggie Winton and Clara Wolcott, with diploma in hand.

Central graduates, Maggie Winton and Clara Wolcott, with diploma in hand.

OPSF Building Communities

There’s no better way to make completing college scholarships fun than grabbing your closest friends, a ton of junk food and a bunch of caffeinated drinks to hold your own college scholarship application party!

That’s what Wagner College student and Central High School alum, Maggie Winton, recommends to 2018-2019 Omaha Public School (OPS) seniors. With many scholarships out there, it is easy to let the process consume you, but working in some social time with friends not only makes it fun, it is a great way to support each other with tips and advice on those essays!

With encouragement from her friends, counselor, teachers and her parents, Maggie applied for several scholarships including those specific to the OPS schools she attended: Washington Elementary, Lewis and Clark Middle School and Central High School. She also applied for the Superintendent’s Super 13 Scholarship, which is funded through the Omaha Public Schools Foundation (OPSF). Maggie received the Super 13 Scholarship through OPSF among other scholarships she applied for to help with college expenses.

Keith and Lisa Winton on campus at Wagner College with Maggie.

“Earning the scholarships definitely helped me pay for part of my college tuition. College is so expensive these days, and any amount of scholarship money helps,” says Maggie. Even if a scholarship only covers a small amount, those funds can be used to pay for textbooks, placed in savings account or can partially cover a semester’s tuition cost. “My piece of advice is to apply for as many scholarships as possible.  If there are multiple scholarships that you are eligible for, apply for as many of them as you can,” said Maggie.

Now’s the time! OPS high school seniors should be talking with their counselors, teachers and parents about which scholarships they qualify for and start applying. Maggie said, “I know at Central, they hand out a giant booklet of scholarships, both OPSF and non-OPSF, and I went through and highlighted the ones I was eligible for. While you might not get all the scholarships you apply for, applying for multiple scholarships increases your chances immensely.”

OPSF Executive Director, Toba Cohen-Dunning encourages all OPS seniors to speak with their high school counselors about their post-graduation plans. “OPSF is proud to support those OPS students who are moving on to college and university. We have a broad range of scholarships available which is why it is SO important for students to talk to their counselors now. You might be surprised about how many scholarships you qualify for and we definitely want to make sure you have the opportunity to earn as many of our scholarships as possible,” said Toba.

“Many of our scholarships honor the memory of a student, teacher or administrator. Some are based on the OPS schools you attended or the area of study you plan to enter. All of our scholarships are funded through donations and contributions with zero administrative fees so that the recipient gets every dollar allocated to the scholarship,” said Joe Lecci, Associate Executive Director.

Proud Mom Moment, Lisa Winton with Maggie just after graduation.

Proud Mom Moment, Lisa Winton with Maggie just after graduation.

Maggie advises to not let the process overwhelm you, but be vigilant. She said to be careful to complete all the questions and constantly review the information you provide so that you include everything necessary.

Maggie said that completing the scholarship applications gave her an opportunity “to reflect upon my time as an OPS student. All of the OPS-based scholarships required essay questions wherein I had to discuss my experience as an OPS student. Completing these helped me recognize how lucky I was to have such a wonderful public school education experience, and made me incredibly grateful for all those who work at OPS.”

The scholarships that OPSF administers all help OPS student experience broader learning opportunities into higher education, which is one reason that Partners for Livable Communities, a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C, recognized OPSF this November with the Investor in America Award.

About Omaha Public Schools Foundation

Partners Logo_Boiler Plate

Omaha Public Schools Foundation (OPSF) received the 2018 Investors in America award from Partners for Livable Communities, a Washington-based nonprofit. The Investor in America Award acknowledges groups and individuals that use enterprise, vision and creative public/private partnerships to bring new civic assets to our nation’s cities. This award was presented at the National Press Club in Washington DC on November 12 for OPSF’s philanthropic and entrepreneurial work to support the students and teachers in the Omaha Public Schools district, the largest school district in Nebraska.

Past recipients include Parris Glendening, Governor of Maryland; John Snow, Secretary of the US Treasury and Jaime Lerner, former mayor of the city of Curitiba, Brazil.