Howard Kennedy Elementary is our primary education partner, helping Seventy Five North move forward the needle of quality education and creating more stable communities. From previous articles, we’ve explained how our mission aims to build a bridge between the Highlander neighborhood and the next generation. We believe that lasting, durable change in Highlander is dependent upon equipping the next generation with the kind of educational foundation that allows them to compete in a rapidly shifting environment.
To that end, allow us to introduce you to Tony Gunter; a family man, North Omaha Native and tireless advocate for children. Long before becoming the Principal of Howard Kennedy Elementary, Gunter enjoyed a markedly different experience growing up on North 30th street than many of his current students.
“When I think back on my life growing up, I was a happy kid. I was very curious and I loved school. I hung out a lot with my father and I had great teachers who I knew cared about me. If there were things I didn’t know or was struggling with, they always took the time to help me.
“I could watch my dad go into any room and converse with people. And I thought, ‘wow that’s really cool.’ As I got older I realized how much my parents struggled financially but they never let us know that. And we see that a lot nowadays with the kids in our community. Whether it’s the fact that they didn’t have the resources or someone’s not sure where to go for help, a lot of that drives me to this day. Every student is one of my kids.”
Gunter’s humble, yet proud, background helped shape his ambition to continue in the field of education. He was a first-generation college student aiming to finish his teaching degree while working as a night custodian from 2-11 p.m. Soon after graduation he began his role as Assistant Principal at King Science Elementary - the same school where he was a teaching assistant and at one point doing custodial work to make ends meet. Later, Tony married another of his passions, technology, to his love of education through a position with Apple that sought to use software to enhance and support classroom teaching. Following that experience, Tony worked briefly in District 66 before responding to what he called a “dream job” at Howard Kennedy.
Howard Kennedy has one of the highest poverty rates in the district and academically was one of the lowest performing schools in the district. Eighty percent of students come from the two highest concentrated neighborhoods of poverty in Omaha. In addition, students and their families are dealing with plenty of social and economic barriers; from housing to household income and even nutritional balance. These issues don’t disappear when they arrive in the classrooms. Far from daunted by these conditions, Gunter is buoyed by the infinite potential and talent that he sees in the students that walk through his doors every morning. He emphasizes how important it is for the kids to have adults that they trust in their lives to help them navigate the various challenges many will encounter.
“You should see these kids around recess time. They play so hard that when it’s over they’re drenched with sweat. You know why? It’s because some of them don’t have anywhere else to play,” Tony said. “And sometimes we notice that during this time a lot of emotions come up. We try to be there for them then too and deal with those emotions. We want them to feel like it’s a safe place to express them.”
He mentions that social and emotional learning opportunities are not often available outside of the school setting so it’s important to have healthy models to help students express them. Even when it comes to dealing with the parents, Tony says he’s passionate about creating a supportive network for the parents to respond to issues as well.
“We talk about loco parentis in education, meaning we are their parents while they’re here. I don’t take that lightly. I make sure they are safe, I make sure they’re well fed and that they get a good education. But when I look at the tasks we’ve been charged with at Howard Kennedy, it’s not about me, it’s about our community.”
Tony believes that the Highlander Project can be a way of seeing life a little differently without having to go too far. Every kid responds to their environment, he says.
“If we give them the right type of soil, with fertilizer and nourishment, they will flourish. Every kid is like a seed of hope,” Tony says. “We want all of our kids to learn something new and later feel like they have something to contribute to their community.”
At Kennedy, school days are filled with project-based learning activities interwoven with a dynamic S.T.E.A.M. curriculum incorporating aquaponics, coding, entrepreneurship through neighborhood-wide collaborations. As the Highlander project evolves, future phases include increased opportunities for interaction between the students at Howard Elementary and local professionals to broaden students’ view of what is possible.
Students at Kennedy are surrounded by faculty and staff that believe in their ability and are determined to help them reach their potential. In Tony’s mind, he’s just trying to model (along with his staff) the same kind of thoughtful guidance that Tony received as a child. According to Tony, that’s an example of strong leadership.
“A strong leader should be able to step back, let someone else lead, and be vulnerable enough to give up some level of control to find a solution. And that’s what I try to model in my work and in this school.”
About the Writer - JoAnna LeFlore is a freelance lifestyle writer based in Nebraska. As an advocate for celebrating culture, she shares her experiences regularly on her blog at joannaleflore.com. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter at @leflorecreative.
About the Photographer - Davie Grams, LLC is a Nebraska based business whose purpose is to provide photography services and community outreach through various programs and projects. Follow the Davie Grams trail on Instagram @davie_gram, and Facebook @Davie Grams, LLC