As a kid, Jai Burks loved music, used to sit on the hood of the family car in the driveway of his Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home and listen to the college band practice across the street.
At the time, he hated school just about as much as he loved music. Two things changed that.
The first was in fourth grade, when his music teacher walked into his classroom, saw him, and said to the teacher “Have you seen this kid play? You need to hear this boy play. He can play.”
All heads turned to a young, trombone-playing Jai, and a heady sense of self-esteem coursed through him like a shot of adrenaline.
The second thing happened at home, where he was the only one in the family who could calm his sister down and get her to do her homework. Once, when he was helping her, his mom leaned down and said in his ear, “I think you found your calling.”
Turns out she was right, which was why Burks was telling this story to a roomful of high school students at the Lincoln Public Schools administrative offices recently.
“I figured if I could be an educator, I could bring along people who didn’t have the advantages I did,” he said. “I could bring them along through music.”
Burks is one of 44 African-American educators at LPS — 1.2 percent of the district’s certificated staff, which is 94.6 percent white. He was joined by three administrators — all people of color who sat on a panel at the front of the room.
They looked out at a sea of color: about 60 students of different races who'd come to learn about being educators.
North Star High School junior Anthony Nguyen was there because he knows he wants to be an educator.
Lincoln High School senior Maia Ramsay was there for the second year, because even though she wants to pursue biochemistry and eventually become a dermatologist, she wants to impact people’s lives in various ways.
“It’s definitely important to learn skills to educate people,” she said.
Teachers have encouraged her and empowered her to be herself, given her a platform to express her ideas, she said. At Lincoln High, where the hallways are full of students of many races, those haven’t necessarily been teachers of color, she said, but have understood who she is, and accepted her.
But when she was younger and her school was less diverse, having teachers who looked like her was important — and that happened twice, the first time in seventh grade.
Joanna Calel, a Lincoln High sophomore, hasn’t decided what she wants to do after high school, but believes having a diverse teaching staff is important.
The first teacher of color she had was at Lincoln High, and because she was a different race than Calel, getting to know her teacher shattered some of Calel’s own stereotypes, she said.
As a student in the pre-International Baccalaureate program, Calel said she was surprised by the lack of diversity in the academically rigorous program.
As one of the few people of color, when certain issues — such as immigration — arise, all eyes turn to her. While she’s passionate about the subject, that’s not the only lens she looks through.
“I have a lot more to say.”
And so she came to the annual workshop hosted by Thomas Christie, the district’s multicultural administrator. He got the idea at a conference about 20 years ago.
“It was the idea of growing your own,” he said. “I wanted to do this for LPS.”
Some of the students who have participated now teach at LPS. Christie doesn’t know how many exactly, but he can name several of them, and knows others in college now earning their teaching degrees.
But recruiting and hiring minorities is a challenge. There aren’t that many students of color getting education degrees, and those who are are in great demand, Christie said.
Nationally, students of color made up nearly half of the student population, compared with just 18 percent of the teaching population, according to a 2014 study by the Center for American Progress.
The Nebraska Department of Education has joined nine other states in an initiative to diversify its teaching force, with a goal of enacting, revising or removing state policies to encourage a more diversified workforce by 2020.
Nebraska would need to hire seven times more African-American and Native educators and 11 times more Hispanic educators to reflect the student population today, said state Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt.
And convincing students from other states to come to Nebraska can be especially challenging, Christie said, although LPS officials managed to convince Burks.
He turned down LPS recruiters who’d come to Baton Rouge the first few times, because the only thing he knew about Nebraska was that it had a good football team and sometimes the LSU baseball team played in the College World Series in Omaha.
But he changed his mind and in 1997 moved to Lincoln, to become one of 45 black educators. At the time, students of color made up 12.3 of total enrollment, compared with 3.6 percent of the teachers, administrators and other certificated staff.
Today, 5.3 percent of LPS educators are people of color, but student diversity has grown at a faster rate. This year, 33 percent of LPS students are racial or ethnic minorities. In the past five years, LPS has hired 71 people of color and has made diversifying the staff one of its strategic goals.
And Friday, Burks, North Star Principal Vann Price, Southwest High School Associate Principal Marco Pedroza and LPS Director of Curriculum and Instruction Takako Olson joined Burks to talk about their experiences and offer advice.
The most important part of being successful, they told students, is to believe in themselves, and be passionate about what they do.
“Don’t be afraid of telling your own story,” said Price. “For years, I wouldn’t tell people I grew up poor and on welfare. But that is part of my story. Don’t be ashamed of your own story and realize there is a place where your story can be told.”
Today, when students tell her they can’t afford certain activities, she can say "I’ve been there."
“There’s someone out there who can relate to your story,” she said.
Reading and writing, said Olson, is the most important skill they'll learn, especially in applying for jobs. Being well-spoken matters, too, said Burks. He dropped his southern drawl, he said, so people would take him seriously.
Olson told students who speak two languages — and more than half the students said they did — not to lose that gift because, she said, it will only help them as they pursue their careers.
Students asked panel members if they’d experienced prejudice.
Yes, said Pedroza, who grew up working the beet fields in Scottsbluff and became a bilingual liaison before getting his teaching certificate. But the key, he said, is being proud of who you are anyway.
“You look past it and work through it,” he said. “It’s a very big piece of who we are.”
The best way to get past it is building relationships, communication, talking to people one-on-one, getting to know them and letting them get to know you, the panelists said.
As the only Asian district director, Olson said, she’s instantly judged when she walks in a room.
“It’s OK,” she said. “It also gives me the opportunity to let them know who I am. So take advantage of it.”
Price said she’s humbled to be the only black principal many of her students have ever seen, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to influence others.
“That is so special,” she said. “I love that.”
Christie noted that right now, Price is the only principal of color in the district. And the longtime administrator, who will retire at the end of the year, challenged the last group of students he’ll lead in the workshop he started two decades ago.
“Ten years from now I want one of you to be a principal at LPS.”
What's it take to be the most decorated wrestler in American history?
Two more years, if you ask Jordan Burroughs.
The former Husker, who lives and trains in Lincoln, is closing in on John Smith's record of six world-level gold medals.
Burroughs has five — World Championship titles in 2011, '13, '15 and '17 and an Olympic gold medal in 2012 — and those around him say he's still getting better.
The Journal Star went behind the scenes with Burroughs for three months leading up to last weekend's Freestyle World Cup in Iowa City, Iowa.
Burroughs' story is one of extremes. It's about the highest highs and the lowest lows, and how one low point can define you, but only if you let it.
It's a story about Russia, but not in the way most Americans think of Russia these days.
"That's always my toughest opponent, every single year," Burroughs says. "I'm always thinking about that. What's the Russian doing? Who is he this year? What's he look like? What's his style?"
Above all else, it's a story about family — Burroughs' Husker family and his immediate family — and how sometimes even the strongest among us need somebody to lean on.
Sports, Section C
Lincoln kept the snow at arm's length longer than expected, but a storm that caused whiteout conditions across much of Nebraska finally swung into the capital city Saturday afternoon.
By then, the powerful spring blizzard had expended much of its energy bringing misery to the northern and western parts of the state.
Windswept snow stranded drivers, including hundreds on Interstate 80, prompting officials to close westbound lanes of the interstate for more than 300 miles. The blizzard also knocked out power and communication for thousands of people.
Several areas saw more than a foot of snow. One person reported 20-foot snowdrifts north of Mullen, deep in the Sandhills.
At least one man died during the storm. Rollo Ward, 61, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, was killed after losing control of his eastbound semitrailer on I-80, entering the median and crashing into an already stranded semi near Chappell, according to the Nebraska State Patrol.
The patrol and other agencies helped more than 100 motorists who became stranded on I-80 near Sidney, ferrying them from their vehicles using Sidney Public Schools buses escorted by patrol cruisers and snow plows.
"The assembled law enforcement officers went door-to-door, knocking on all vehicles and rescuing all of the occupants in freezing temperatures," the patrol said in a news release. "The rescued motorists were taken to Light Memorial Presbyterian Church in Sidney or to a hotel of their choice."
For much of Saturday, westbound Interstate 80 was closed from Grand Island to the Wyoming state line, and the eastbound lanes were closed from Wyoming to Chappell.
“Road conditions are still not safe across the state and travel is not recommended,” said Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, in a news release Saturday morning. “Stay home and be safe.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts declared an emergency, making state funds available to local entities responding to the blizzard. And the state Emergency Management Agency worked to set up a temporary communications tower after 60 mph winds toppled a dispatch tower that served several counties in the Loup Valley in north-central Nebraska.
The Nebraska Public Power District advised people in and around Atkinson in Holt County, where high winds knocked down at least two-dozen power poles, to expect to remain without electricity until late Sunday. The utility planned to bring a portable transformer and generator there to restore power, but couldn't reach the area because of impassable roads.
The town of Newport in Rock County had 14 inches of snow as of 8 a.m. Saturday, and more was falling. At least 11 inches of snow had fallen in Valentine, and areas near Chadron and Sidney received nearly 10 inches.
But even areas with less snowfall saw whiteout conditions because of high winds. Much of Nebraska experienced wind gusts in excess of 50-60 mph. The Ogallala area clocked a 68 mph gust Friday afternoon.
Snow arrived in Lincoln at about 4 p.m. Saturday.
City crews began treating major streets and bridges with granular salt pre-wet with brine starting at noon. "The application is expected to be completed after 8 p.m. and crews will remain on patrol to monitor street conditions," city officials said in a news release.
A four-vehicle crash on Harris Overpass on Saturday evening led police to close the bridge heading out of downtown. It was one of a handful of accidents in the city after snow began to fall.
Just Friday, the high in Lincoln was 82 degrees.
Sunday, forecasts call for clouds and a local high in the mid-30s.