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.

Eight years ago, Deborah McGinn started something — and now she’ll leave that something to others.

McGinn, who celebrated her 35th year as an English teacher at Lincoln High this year, began the school’s slam poetry team in 2011-2012.

It was the first Lincoln high school with a slam poetry team — joined later that year by North Star and in subsequent years by every other public high school in the city.

Lincoln High won the state championship three of those years — more than any other school in the state. Two Lincoln High poets were individual state champions.

And Lincoln High became the first school in the nation to offer a letter in slam poetry.

She said she decided to step down because it had stopped being as much fun for her. 

“In 2012 it was fresh, it was brand-new,” she said. “Now some of the poems, the content, is starting to sound a little bit alike ... it lost its luster for me.”

She began to wonder — for a moment — if things had run their course.

“Of course, I don’t believe that,” she said. “There’s so much to write about.”

McGinn’s passion for writing is what led her to teaching in the first place, and seven years ago it led her to a youth slam poetry festival called Louder Than A Bomb.

Organizers of the Nebraska Writer’s Collective had invited her to a showing of a documentary at Chicago’s Louder Than A Bomb festival. They also announced that they’d be starting one with Omaha schools.

McGinn, not prone to drawing attention to herself, stood up in the theater full of people and said she wanted Lincoln High to be a part of it. 

I guess Lincoln High is in, she remembers someone responding.

McGinn loved the idea of the festival and saw it as an extension of something she and Lincoln East teacher Sarah Thomas had been doing for a number of years.

The two English and writing teachers had their own poetry festival, bringing two very different high schools together to share a common love: poetry.

“It shattered stereotypes, for one thing,” she said. “We brought food and had all this camaraderie. It was the perfect venue.”

Initially, she said, she was drawn to the idea of a competition. Seven years in, she’s not sure it’s the best thing for poetry.

So she’ll step away, and the team will continue with other teachers as sponsors.

McGinn, who said she was blessed with talented and dedicated students over those years, will keep teaching and is thinking of starting an adult writing group for Lincoln High staff and others.

“Imagine how fun that could be,” she said.

Standing up for teachers

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Paula Baack — who spent 27 years teaching music at Lincoln Public Schools — was writing a book when she came to a realization.

“The highlight of my career was Lincoln, Nebraska,” she said. "I realized my time in Lincoln was wonderful."

Two years ago, she began writing a memoir, relating anecdotes from 46 years in the classroom.

Called “Rescue the Teacher, Save the Child,” the book is part-memoir, part-advice, part-advocacy for teachers Baack says are treated poorly, not only because of pay disparities with other professions, but because of entitled parents, social media and lack of support from administrators.

She began writing the self-published book after being forced into retirement in 2017 after nine years as the choir director at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs.

A story in the Colorado Springs Gazette about the controversy generated by her retirement mentioned awards she received and quotes students and parents who supported her — including one student who protested outside the school office.

The story said she'd told parents that administrators planned to reassign her after accusing her of misappropriating money because she was trying to help a student in need by collecting change in class. A student told the newspaper she'd gotten permission to raise the money.

Baack grew up in Fremont and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

She taught at Meadowlane and Morley elementary schools and Irving Middle School (it was a junior high at the time). She also directed the Scarlet and Cream Singers at UNL before moving to Arizona.

She spent nine years in the choral department of Scottsdale Community College, heading the department for two of those years.

From there, she and her husband moved to Colorado and she became the choral director at the Colorado Springs high school.

Baack said the ordeal opened her eyes to the plight of teachers across the country, and she believes she isn't the only veteran teacher who's been forced out.

“I want to compel it to a national conversation,” she said.

Loss of institutional memory 

In her 26 years as an administrative assistant in LPS human resources, Mary Hiller had a hand in hiring every current LPS administrator except one.

Her last day was Friday, one of the 138 employees retiring this year, ending a career at the right hand of the associate superintendent of human resources.

She made the wheels of the hiring process turn: contacting applicants, helping set up interviews, bringing together the hiring committees.

The only administrator — both in schools and at the district office — hired before Hiller was there: Director of Nutrition Services Edith Zumwalt.

Hiller became Eric Weber's administrative assistant when he started six years ago.

“I don’t know how I would have done it without her,” he said. “She just had so much institutional knowledge."

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

On Twitter @LJSreist.


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