A statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear of Nebraska, after its unveiling in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Nebraska Department of Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt did his best to make the dedication of the Chief Standing Bear statue in Washington earlier this week a teachable moment.

He sent a letter to all district superintendents suggesting social studies teachers let their students watch the dedication of the statue in the nation's capitol Wednesday, which was televised by C-Span.

The dedication, which our very own Cindy Lange-Kubick attended, presented a unique opportunity to teach students about one of Nebraska’s greatest historical figures, Blomstedt said.

He noted in his letter that Nebraska is the first state to honor both a Native and a female with statues in the U.S. Capitol. Author Willa Cather will be the state's second statue in Statuary Hall.

He didn’t ask schools to report back about what they’d done, but the commissioner said he’d seen several Tweets from schools that talked about the dedication and the man being honored.

Standing Bear’s story — which led to a ground-breaking civil rights case that proclaimed Natives people under the law — is a powerful and important part of history for students to understand, he said.

“I think the Standing Bear story, the human dignity portion of that history, is important for Nebraskans to recognize, but also for the country to recognize,” he said in an interview.

It’s also important students understand that the story occurred in the not-so-distant past.

“If we’ve made that much progress in 140 years, how much more progress can we make in the next decades?”

It’s FAFSA time

Parents of high school seniors, if you’ve never heard of the FAFSA, let me help ease you into the world of college applications and financial aid.

That is an acronym you need to know. It stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and it is an important step in the how-are-we-going-to-afford-this journey that college inspires.  

Students must fill out the form, which can be done online, to get any kind of federal financial aid, which includes various grants, loans and work-study jobs.

The student’s and parents' financial information from the form is used to calculate the amount a family can reasonably afford to pay each year for higher education. That figure is used to determine federal aid and also can be used as a basis for state-funded and college grants and scholarships.

Families can begin filling out the FAFSA on Oct. 1 for students planning to attend college in the fall of 2020.

There’s good reason to get it done early.

Both federal and state grants (one is called the Supplemental Educational Opportunty Grant, another the Nebraska State Opportunity Grant) are finite pools of money. 

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So the earlier you get the FAFSA filed, the better chance of getting some of that money, said Les Monroe, director of college planning at EducationQuest.

You can find lots more information at EducationQuest.org, the college planning nonprofit's website.

But here are a few of the basics:

* Go to fafsa.gov to complete the application, which will require 2018 tax data. That tax information can be transferred electronically from the IRS site. This makes things much easier. 

* You need a federal student aid ID, which you can create at fsaid.ed.gov. Parents need one, too, to retrieve tax information electronically and sign the FAFSA.

This is important enough that Monroe and his colleagues hit the road each fall, going to high schools to educate students and parents — they’ll do nearly 300 school presentations statewide this year.

So get on it, parents, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

School shootings

So, weird confluence of events this week.

1) I got an e-mail from my kid’s school telling me it had done a lockdown drill, a practice run to make sure everyone knows what to do if there’s an armed intruder in the school. This is a regular, not-out-of-the-ordinary thing everywhere now, not just at Lincoln Public Schools.

2) Culler Middle School staff locked the exterior doors and cleared the hallways for a short time Friday after a staff member saw three people standing in the school driveway with what looked like a gun. They called police and it only took 10 minutes for officers to figure out there was no threat there, just three people in Halloween costumes with a toy gun.

3) The Sandy Hook Project, a national nonprofit led by several family members whose loved ones were killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, in 2012, released its latest public service announcement called “Back-to-School Essentials.”

The video is powerful and disturbing. It begins like one of those cheery back-to-school ads, with a boy showing off his new backpack, but quickly descends into something much darker: students using their back-to-school stuff — scissors and tennis shoes, a jacket, a skateboard, a new sock — to protect themselves and escape from an unseen gunman.

The end is particularly haunting, a girl huddled in a bathroom with her brand-new phone, texting “I love you” to her mom as footsteps approach.

The group releases videos at the start of each school year, and the goal is to wake up parents to the reality their students face today.

I don’t know how much students carry the prospect of such horrors with them day to day, or if the drills upset them. I suspect it’s different for each child.

But the video is a powerful reminder that it would be nice to live in a world where the first thing that comes to mind when one sees three people in Halloween costumes isn't that a gunman might be about to walk through school doors.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.


Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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