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DeVos applauds Midland program's innovation, relevance and flexibility

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Wednesday during her first stop in Nebraska that Midland University’s coding class is a great example of the innovation she's highlighting on her six-state tour.

“Our goal is to help everyone, including educators and students, begin to think differently about how they do school and this is a really great example here of meeting students where they’re at and really addressing needs in a community,” she said.

DeVos came to Midland's new Omaha campus Wednesday evening, talked to students and teachers, and offered a few comments to the media crowded into the room.

DeVos, noting that there are 400 jobs in the fields of coding and web design in the Omaha area, said the coding program is a good example of creating flexible and relevant courses.

The 11 students in the class — part of a 10-month web foundation academy — introduced themselves to DeVos when she arrived, about an hour later than scheduled.

The students are taking the class for various reasons: training for a new career, getting skills to enhance their current jobs, and those looking for something different than a four-year degree.

DeVos said she hopes to make the federal education department better able to support higher education, looking “more holistically” at how the department approaches it, and focusing more on associate degrees and other career-related education.

“Frankly, I think we’ve done a disservice to young people for many years by suggesting the only path to success is through a four-year college or university,” she said. “This is a great example here today of ... different pathways and options.”

Asked about whether she thinks charter schools should be authorized in Nebraska — one of six states that don't allow them — DeVos said her goal is to make sure parents have the ability to make the right choice for their kids, whether in traditional school settings or charters.

“I visited a lot of schools over the last number of months, many of those approaching education differently than the approach undertaken for many years. I think that’s really good. We need more of that ... it’s not a matter of supporting what kind of school, but really supporting a full range of choice so that students’ needs are best met."

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt, who was with DeVos for her visit to Midland, said he’s proud that Nebraska schools were chosen to highlight innovation.

DeVos will visit two schools in Lincoln on Thursday: St. Mary's Catholic School and Lincoln Public Schools' science focus program.

Her day will start with a trip to Nelson Mandela Elementary School in Omaha from 7:50-9:30 a.m., followed by a visit to St. Mary's Catholic School, 1434 K St., in Lincoln from 10:30-11:30 a.m., and ending with a visit to the LPS zoo school, 1222 S. 27th St., from noon-2 p.m.

Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel made it clear Wednesday he's going to make a strong case for public schools during DeVos' visit.

"Students are very excited about this," he said at a news conference. "It's not a very long visit, but we hope to engineer it in a way that a lot of information is conveyed and she gets an opportunity to see what's right about public education in Nebraska — because we think there’s a lot right, especially in Lincoln."

Joel said he's well aware of the push for charter schools, vouchers and tax credits around the country and in Nebraska.

"Her tour is designed to rethink schools. We're a public school. We're a proud public school ... with a community that supports us, and we are going to take it very, very seriously that we are representing all of the voices of public education."

Joel said the 20-year-old science focus program, known as zoo school, is one of the district's "showcase programs" and LPS officials are proud that DeVos requested a visit.

Wednesday evening, a small group of protesters gathered in the Midland parking lot before DeVos' arrival, and her scheduled stops in Lincoln have prompted concern from some parents and other Lincoln residents who worry the purpose is to further an agenda to promote privatized education.

DeVos, a former Republican Party chairwoman in Michigan, is a longtime supporter of school choice and a force behind the spread of charter schools in her home state. Her nomination by President Donald Trump and narrow confirmation in the Senate drew spirited protests, as have previous visits to schools.

Those who oppose her support of charter schools will be visible Thursday in Lincoln.

The group Suit Up Nebraska-Lancaster County, which has about 800 followers, has issued a “call to action” on Facebook for people to gather on the west side of 27th Street across from the zoo on Thursday to show their support for public schools.

Lincoln Police Capt. Mike Woolman said police are encouraging those who plan to gather during DeVos' visit to the focus program to park in the overflow zoo lot south of A Street. The Lincoln Children's Zoo will be closed to accommodate DeVos' visit, which is not open to the public.

Stand for Schools and the Nebraska State Education Association have planned a “peaceful, positive celebration of Nebraska’s public schools” at a 5 p.m. rally at The Bay, 2005 Y St.

“We want to show our support for all the good things public schools can do when they’re not worrying about charter schools and funding schemes and about money being taken away from those programs,” said Karen Kilgarin, NSEA director of government relations and public affairs.

DeVos' Nebraska visits comes after stops at schools in Wyoming and Colorado schools. She also will head to a school in Overland Park, Kansas, later Thursday and will also visit schools in Missouri and Indiana as part of her “Rethink School” tour.

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Professor hopes to interest UNL students in being 'Treehuskers'

Planting one Chuck Taylor shoe against the red oak, Ally Beard tightened her grip and pulled, throwing her hips skyward until she was horizontal a few feet off the ground.

Then it was all hard work — finding the right pull, step, pull, step, pull, step rhythm until she reached the first checkpoint: a branch about 8 feet off the ground.

From there, it was relatively smooth sailing as Beard grabbed hold of higher branches to reposition herself before pull-stepping again all the way into the tree’s canopy.

Assisting Beard on the ground below, Mark Noark, a manager of recruiting and training at The Davey Tree Expert Company and a judge of international tree climbing competitions, told the sophomore from Gretna to stop for a minute and look around.

"Doesn't it give you a different perspective up there at 15 or 20 feet?” Noark called up to Beard. "Just wait until you get to 80, 110 or 140 feet in the air. It gets really, really interesting when you get up over 200 feet."

Back on the ground, Beard said using a rope system to climb the East Campus tree the way an arborist or ecologist might “was way different” than her experiences rock climbing.

“You have to coordinate your arms and feet to pull your body up,” she said. “It’s not a natural way of climbing.”

The demonstration was a peek into a program currently unavailable at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, even as it exists as a land grant university with an expansive Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources in the state where Arbor Day was founded.

Eric North, an assistant professor of practice within the School of Natural Resources, has been tasked with creating a regional and community forestry program, capable of training everyone from urban arborists to conservationists to scale trees safely and efficiently.

“I’m trying to coin the term ‘Treehuskers,’” he said. “This was the tree planting state, so we’re trying to bring that back.”

North, who is working in a position funded through the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the School of Natural Resources, said faculty are busy designing courses and curriculum to create the degree program.

Wednesday’s exercise was designed in part to introduce students, most of them fishery and wildlife majors, to the possibilities of the new program, as well as to the careers available for those who master the ropes.

Nebraska will need trained arborists as the emerald ash borer continues to spread across the state, North said, while Lincoln and Omaha seek experienced arborists or consultants to help them manage the hundreds of thousands of trees maintained by those cities.

North said his former students have also gone on to careers with the U.S. Forestry Service, or at construction firms that seek to build projects with minimal impact on existing trees and landscapes.

Noark, who was a longtime foreman for the Ohio-based Davey Tree Expert Company, told the class of roughly 20 students his work took him all over the U.S. to complete projects that regularly topped six figures in cost.

The hands-on experiences will continue next semester as UNL students learn planting, pruning and diagnosing tree problems on an East Campus grove that will double as a learning lab — as well as a recruiting tool.

“If we could just name the major, it would be ‘People in trees,’” North said. “That’s really what urban forestry and horticulture is about, the human-tree interaction and teaching people how to work with both.”

Want to get a ticket to see Garth? No more Lincoln shows will be added

UPDATE: 10:37 a.m.

A tour publicist says no additional Lincoln shows will be added. Here's the schedule for Garth Brooks in Lincoln:

* Friday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.

* Saturday, Oct. 21, 3 p.m.

* Saturday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.

* Sunday, Oct. 22, 3 p.m.

* Sunday, Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m.

Officials said tickets are still available for all shows.

UPDATE: 10:31 a.m.

Doubleheader shows are now scheduled on Saturday and Sunday with the announcement of a fifth Garth Brooks show in Lincoln, this one set for Saturday, Oct. 21, at 3 p.m.

UPDATE: 10:21 a.m.

Minutes after the announcement of a third show, a fourth show has been added for Sunday afternoon on Oct. 22.

UPDATE: 10:12 a.m. 

With Ticketmaster getting hit hard with requests, a third show has now been added for Saturday, Oct. 21.

UPDATE: 9:50 a.m.

Even before the first tickets went on sale, officials added a second Lincoln show on Friday night, Oct. 20.

If you want to get a ticket to see Garth Brooks perform at Pinnacle Bank Arena next month, get on Ticketmaster and keep trying.

That’s the advice from arena manager Tom Lorenz, who says that because Brooks will add more shows as needed, every buyer who wants in should, at some point, get a ticket.

The first show, 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 21, will go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday. Tickets can be purchased only through Ticketmaster online or by phone at 866-448-7849.

The limited purchasing options are because the giant ticketing company and Brooks have developed sophisticated software that allows them to quickly add shows when needed.

“The shows are driven by demand,” Lorenz said. “By going through the Ticketmaster software, it offers you options that build demand for the next show.

“Keep trying if you don’t get one. More shows will be added. It’s a one-day, two-day, three-day process. People need to know going in that there’s going to be a lot of demand, and it might be kind of a slow process at times. But they will get tickets.”

There will not be announcements of on-sale times for additional shows. The process moves too fast for that.

“Ticketmaster will show that a show will be added,” Lorenz said. “You’ll see it actually happen on Ticketmaster. We’re not going to stop and do an announcement.”

That said, the arena will be posting each new show on its website, Facebook page and will be sending out notices of additional shows on Twitter.

Because they are demand-driven, the number of Lincoln shows won’t be determined until after tickets go on sale. It is, however, expected that the first show added will be at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 20.

Brooks played six shows in Omaha in May 2015 and is slated to play nine shows in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, over two weekends, beginning Friday.

Expectations are that Brooks will play at least four shows in Lincoln, but very likely more, in part because demand may be fueled by the fact that it will be the final appearance in Nebraska, Iowa or Kansas of Brooks’ “World Tour” that began in 2014.

The arena will hold about 12,000 people for each show.

All tickets are $74.98, including fees, no matter where your seat is located. There is an eight-ticket limit per purchase. Tickets will be sold on a best seats-available basis.

For a quicker ticket purchasing experience, fans need to go to to refresh their current account or create one before Friday.

That pre-registration should make for a more streamlined, expedited purchase for each person and for all who are in line trying to get a ticket for one of the shows, Lorenz said. 

MattOlberding / KATHY PLUNKETT/For the Lincoln Journal Star 

Barbara Bartle of the Lincoln Community Foundation accepts her Woman of the Year award Wednesday at the 2017 Inspire awards  at The Cornhusker Marriott Hotel.

Girl, 6, killed in third alcohol-related crash since Whiteclay beer stores closed

A 6-year-old girl died last weekend in the third alcohol-related fatal crash south of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation since beer sales ended in Whiteclay four months ago.

Christina Roubideaux, two other children and three adults were in a minivan that flipped and rolled Saturday evening along a gravel road between Chadron and the reservation town of Oglala, South Dakota.

All six people in the van were injured. Roubideaux died the next day at a Denver hospital. The driver, 32-year-old Kimberly Eagle Bull, was arrested on suspicion of motor-vehicle homicide and DUI, the Nebraska State Patrol said in a news release Wednesday.

The crash comes as the Nebraska Supreme Court mulls whether beer sales should restart in Whiteclay, a tiny outpost along the South Dakota state line that has long served alcohol to the Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge. Alcohol is banned on the reservation.

When Nebraska liquor regulators ordered all four Whiteclay beer stores to close in April, opponents of the decision warned it would lead Pine Ridge residents to drive even farther to buy alcohol, endangering themselves and others on area roads.

"We know that with the closing of the stores, the folks are going to travel to get their alcohol," Rushville Mayor Chris Heiser said Wednesday.

At this point, it's impossible to tell whether recent deaths represent a true uptick in fatal wrecks.

"I still think it's too soon," said Sheridan County Attorney Jamian Simmons, whose county includes Whiteclay.

Simmons believes this summer's fatal crashes are the most she's seen in that area in such a brief period of time, she said. But that doesn't mean it's a trend that will continue.

Activists who fought to end Whiteclay beer sales argue the recent crashes are no different or more frequent than roadway deaths from before the stores closed.

"The fact is that every life lost to an alcohol-related traffic fatality is one too many, but these fatalities occur throughout Nebraska all the time," said John Maisch, a former Oklahoma liquor regulator and lawyer who filmed a documentary about Whiteclay beer sales.

In addition to Saturday's wreck in Dawes County, authorities in Sheridan County believe alcohol contributed to two deadly crashes this summer between Whiteclay and Rushville, which has seen its own beer sales surge since Whiteclay's stores closed.

On July 2, 49-year-old Troylin Pourier rolled a pickup on Nebraska 87, the main highway running south from the reservation. Pourier, who had a blood-alcohol content three times the legal limit, died of her injuries three days later at Rapid City Regional Hospital.

Tests from another deadly crash Aug. 17 show the driver's blood-alcohol content was 0.283 percent, more than three times the legal limit.

Francis Ray Rencountre, 46, was taking a county road back to Pine Ridge after apparently buying beer in Rushville when he rolled his SUV, killing him and injuring a passenger.

And the group of people injured in a nonfatal crash May 4 also appear to have stocked up in Rushville before driving into a ditch along Nebraska 87, Simmons said.

Rescue workers and lawmen arrived to find the driver, Pamelyn Rose Watson, 38, unconscious at the wheel while still buckled in, and a nearly empty bottle of vodka tucked beneath the front passenger seat, according to court documents.

A nurse later reported that Watson's blood-alcohol content tested in the "high .300s."

The drivers in all three Sheridan County wrecks were from Pine Ridge, as was the driver in Saturday's crash in Dawes County.

Maisch noted Pine Ridge residents were dying on Nebraska roads in alcohol-involved crashes before Whiteclay's beer stores closed.

A man from the reservation town of Wounded Knee is accused of driving drunk in a March crash on Nebraska 87 that killed 21-year-old Michael Hawk of Pine Ridge.

And in February 2016, 34-year-old Kerry Peters of Pine Ridge rolled her SUV and died on Slim Buttes Road, the same gravel road where the minivan crashed Saturday.

If anything, Maisch said, Nebraska law enforcement should be cracking down on drunk driving and performing more compliance checks at liquor stores to ensure they aren't selling to intoxicated people. 

Heiser, the Rushville mayor, said he believes closing the Whiteclay stores has already resulted in preventable roadway deaths. However, he acknowledged the decision has "slowed down the violence" in Whiteclay itself.

It's unclear where Eagle Bull was headed Saturday with a minivan full of adults and children.

"That's probably a million-dollar question that needs to be answered," Heiser said. "Is it because the stores closed in Whiteclay in this particular incident? I don't know."

Alan Jacobsen of Lincoln, another activist who supported ending Whiteclay beer sales, recounted an exchange he had with some people in Sheridan County while trying to recruit local residents to formally protest the beer stores' liquor licenses.

A woman asked if Jacobsen would come to her funeral if she was killed by a drunk driver from Pine Ridge.

Jacobsen countered with a question of his own: "How many funerals have all of you gone to in Pine Ridge because of Whiteclay beer sales?"