Lozier Foundation funds private school

By Julie Anderson / World-Herald staff writer

Dianne Seeman Lozier became a believer in the phonics-focused Spalding Method about 20 years ago.

She and her husband, Allan Lozier, had a couple of grandsons who were behind in reading. They went to the Phoenix Academy, which uses the Spalding Method, “The Writing Road to Reading.” She’s convinced that the program gave them the reading skills they needed to be successful in their lives.

Now Lozier wants to bring that method, along with a math curriculum known as Singapore Math, to the private school that the Lozier Foundation plans to start on the campus of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in 2015.

The school, which would not charge tuition and would enroll students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches, aims to start with two sections each of kindergarten and first grade and add a grade annually until it tops out at sixth grade.

The new school also will focus on character development and will offer both an extended day and an extended school year in order to bolster student achievement and minimize summer learning loss, or “summer slide.”

The foundation has retained Susan Toohey, until recently the head of school at Marian High School, as director of educational initiatives.

Toohey has more than 25 years of education experience and recently completed a doctorate in education in interdisciplinary leadership at Creighton University.

The Spalding Method isn’t new to the area. In addition to the Phoenix Academy, where Lozier sits on the board, the program has been used at the Omaha district’s Central Park Elementary School and in the Core Academy at the Millard district’s Willa Cather Elementary.

The Omaha Public Schools will be using “The Writing Road to Reading” at two schools this fall — one as a full reading program and the other as an intervention — with the help of a Lozier-funded grant, OPS officials said.

The Omaha schools have had a heavy emphasis on phonics since 2012. For the third year in a row, the Lozier Foundation is providing support for clinics for teachers at elementary summer school sites where teachers can learn best practices and then work directly with students.

Other area districts, too, focus on phonics in general. The practice involves kids learning letters and letter combinations, then reading whole words by decoding the sounds.

Some educators, however, caution that phonics is just one part of teaching kids to read. Wilma Kuhlman, a teacher education professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s College of Education, said just being able to say words is not enough.

“There has to be understanding, or there isn’t reading,” she said.

Nancy Liebermann, executive director of the Phoenix Academy, said Spalding is a comprehensive language arts program.

“What makes it unique is the intensity of the phonics, and that’s what people know it for,” she said. “But it also comes with comprehension and spelling.”

Singapore Math is a curriculum that focuses more on a deeper understanding of concepts and less on memorization. It teaches in three phases — the concrete, the pictorial and the abstract. The Omaha district used it at one school in the mid-2000s but no longer does so.

In addition to her work with the Phoenix Academy, Lozier has been involved in a number of projects with OPS, including a master’s degree in reading for teachers and principals, she said. She also plans to work with the district and others on a principal leadership program.

Still, starting a school is a big step for the foundation, which in the past has focused on less visible projects.

“But we think the timing is right,” she said. She noted that the foundation wants to demonstrate how the curriculums and teaching methods can work and be transparent with results “so it can be picked up and used by others.”

Existing public and private schools in the area, she said, are highly focused on improving students’ performance, and they have made gains year by year. But they still have a ways to go.

“In this school, we hope to demonstrate that focusing on this high-poverty population in a somewhat different way will help close the achievement gap,” she said.

Both the approach and the curriculums to be used at the school, while not easy, will be designed to give kids quick success and build confidence. “The kids believe they can do it and start doing it, and they can do more,” she said.

The foundation’s proposal to buy the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church campus has been accepted by the parish and endorsed by the Archdiocese of Omaha. The sale is scheduled to close in late July.

Lozier described the purchase price as less than $1 million. It will cost several million dollars to renovate the facility, including air conditioning. The school has big, beautiful classrooms with lots of light. The foundation has retained Holland Basham Architects to work on designs.

Lozier said the foundation hopes to involve the community in how the school will look and feel. It plans to include minority contractors in the bidding process for construction work and hire a diverse faculty and staff, although that may take time given the small size of the school when it opens.

An annual operating budget has not been determined, although officials expect to have a better idea within six to nine months. Lozier said the foundation is prepared for the “strong likelihood” that it will be the sole funder, although it won’t refuse outside contributions.

While there will be no tuition, parents may be asked to pay some fees, although those details have not been worked out. Class sizes will be in the smaller range, probably 20 to 22.

The foundation also is wrestling with whether it will offer preschool and early childhood education, she said.

The school would anticipate about 80 students the first year. The foundation’s goal, she said, is for students who start in kindergarten or first grade to be proficient in math and reading by third grade and to remain so in all subject areas through sixth grade, as well as developing the social and emotional skills they need to be successful.

The school will have no religious affiliation. The Omaha school district, she said, is aware of the foundation’s plans and is supportive.

Lozier Foundation

Formed in 1986, the Lozier Foundation is a personal foundation funded by Allan and Dianne Lozier. Its focus is education, social services and issues involving women and children, with an emphasis on the inner city and underrepresented populations.

Some of the specific projects and programs that the foundation has been involved with include:

• The NorthStar Foundation’s new after-school center for boys.

• Girls Inc.

• Habitat for Humanity

• Women’s Fund of Omaha

• Women’s Center for Advancement

• The Omaha Public Schools, various programs