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Jeremy Jensen speaks out on firing, GIPS issues letter to parents

Local4 News at 10
Published: Apr. 15, 2022 at 11:31 PM CDT
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GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (KSNB) - The Grand Island boys soccer team went through a very unexpected change Thursday afternoon.

Their head coach Jeremy Jensen was fired after posting what Grand Island Public Schools deemed as confidential information regarding student survey results about school culture and climate. The images Jensen shared on his Facebook page don’t reveal any student or staff names, nor does it reveal any personal information about them, but it did point to what appeared to be systemic issues within GIPS.

The post included reports of a lack of connection between administrators and students, as well as rapid staff loss with more than 100 teachers leaving the district this year alone. It was these images that eventually led to Jensen’s firing Thursday after district administrators called the longtime coach in for a meeting. He told Local4 that he knew exactly what the meeting was for.

”Over the Noon hour, I put together a statement because I knew what was coming,” Jensen said. “I walked in at 3:30 and walked out of there at I think 3:33. I mean, it was short and sweet. The HR Director told me that we were going to have a discussion and once the discussion was over, everything was going to be done. We left, and it was going to be the end of the story.

However, it’s been anything but the end of the story since. Effective immediately, GIPS banned Jensen from attending the GISH boys soccer team’s practice Thursday night and for every practice the rest of the season. This meant that Jensen wasn’t able to inform his team of his own firing.

”I think that is about as juvenile and irresponsible as can be,” Jensen said of the district’s decision to ban him from the practices. “I was also told that - so we practice at 7 p.m. - and I was told that the district was going to have somebody at the stadium every night at 7 p.m. to ensure that I don’t go and help out in terms of my team. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up. So, my kids didn’t get to hear it from me and frankly that really pisses me off.”

What stands out to Jensen since his firing, though, is the type of people he has heard from in the community about the move.

”It’s from all walks of life, and it was from all around the state,” Jensen said. “It’s high school coaches that we competed against. It’s been people from business. It’s been people in the media, past players, lots of teachers...lots of teachers. You can’t with any reasonable right mind go on to my social media page and read the comments that I specifically posted from the teachers and think that this is not a big deal.”

Local4 did reach out to Grand Island Public Schools for further comment Friday after they initially released a statement on the matter and the reason behind the decision Thursday. While they did decline an on-camera interview, GIPS Superintendent Dr. Tawana Grover did send a letter out to parents shortly after 5 p.m. Friday.

Here is that full letter:

Dear GIPS Families,

With the last few days of social media comments circulating, I want to communicate directly with you.

Thank you for being amazing partners for your child’s education and opportunities. Thank you for demanding the best out of your school district and community. Thank you for advocating for your students. Thank you for entrusting us with their education.

Our mission at Grand Island Public Schools is, “Every Student, Every Day, A Success!” You hear us speak of it often because it is truly what we look to as our guiding light as we serve your students.

Part of serving your student, and the other 10,000 students we serve, is by having measures for safety and security including personal information that they provide to us.

You may be hearing about our Panorama survey and the importance of confidential student information.

The Panorama survey is a valuable resource we implemented three years ago to help the district identify strengths and – yes – points of improvement at the building level. As we have been repeatedly advised, the results of these types of surveys are confidential by law and must remain confidential. All GIPS staff are expected to adhere to these legal standards and the overall commitment of student privacy.

That survey through this trusted platform is designed to gain insight into the student experience. More importantly, it helps measure the social and emotional well-being of our students. We administer this survey as a resource to help us meet our students’ needs.

In addition to this platform providing a fruitful way to measure student engagement at the building level, this is an effective way we may report to state requirements (per the Nebraska Department of Education) while making a more meaningful impact in the social and emotional learning spaces for our students.

Why is this important?

The student experience and their overall well-being is the cornerstone of all that we do. If we truly aim for our students to thrive we must focus on the whole child, on education from cradle-to-career, and engage in meeting basic and vital social and emotional needs alongside academic exploration.

We view this Panorama survey to be one of our resources in creating better, safer, vibrant, and more equitable learning environments.

Because the Panorama survey speaks to sensitive student emotional needs and carries identifiable data from each of our students, it has always been our district policy to protect the integrity obtained through this platform.

We cannot compromise the security, well-being, and identity of our students. We need and want our students to trust enough to share about their experiences as we work towards continuous school improvement. As educators, we realize one of the first steps in being able to address the multifaceted components of educating the whole child is a child’s willingness to share with a trusted adult. All of which has the potential to be found in their comments and may be a doorway to us getting students the specific help they need while informing us on where we need to adjust or be better.

This alone signals GIPS wants to understand what is happening with its students and the Panorama survey is a way of knowing.

In regards to Mr. Jeremy Jensen, we wish to make it clear that Mr. Jensen’s dismissal was not due to his outspoken statements about the district, nor was it based on his coaching prowess, but rather a direct result of unauthorized sharing of that confidential information and the potential compromising of student information captured through Panorama.

This recent exchange with Mr. Jensen has been disappointing in regards to how it has played out on social media. We want to assure you that we have met with Mr. Jensen throughout the school year and have provided follow-up while extended additional collaboration opportunities. We have never shied away from having conversation with our constituents, nor have we ever aimed to silence meaningful discourse.

Social media can play a helpful role in highlighting the good our community and school district has to offer. However, social media has proven time and again that it is not the best outlet when it comes to embracing nuance, providing critical context, and engaging in healthy yet challenging dialogue.

Our Board President and Vice President still have a meeting scheduled on the books to meet with him next week despite his mishandling of confidential information. We do view the topics he raised as vital for our students and staff and we want to partner for progress.

Yes, by all means, let us acknowledge our shortcomings, let us address where we must improve but let us also be driven by a commonality: Implementing solutions and establishing healthy practices that strengthen our staff support and propel our students to find the fun in learning and thrive in school and life.

We recognize that over the last year what we have seen in schools in our district, statewide, even nationwide is a greater need to focus on mental health. We believe it is our responsibility as a school district to be proactive in monitoring these needs.

During this year we have seen the need to:

Implement a stricter tardy policy.

Shared our concerns around attendance to community members and sent countless reports to families around attendance.

In February we approved a policy for a more specific dress code for the next school year.

We have engaged staff and student groups on grading policy, seeking their insight into meaning and relevant ways to approach grading.

In November, 2021, our Board of Education adopted a new strategic plan to accommodate this expanded focus. We have dedicated a large portion of our ESSER dollars towards mental health support for our students. We have already scheduled a program evaluation for Senior High to take place this summer. And we are continuing to meet for listening tours in every one of our buildings. This grants our staff the opportunity to speak directly to me and our leadership with their questions, concerns, ideas, challenges, and potential solutions.

This is how we engage in fruitful, solution-based conversation. Systemic transformation is not an instantaneous thing – it is an intensive collaborative effort that requires both our immediate attention and persistence in pursuit of healthy, vital solutions.

We are steadfast and persistent in our efforts and are incorporating evidence-based research practices to address the individualized needs of our students.

Each year brings its own unique challenges but that’s what makes Grand Island Public Schools such a rich place. We have diverse needs that stretch beyond what we typically would see in a rural context. Our community has seen incredible growth over the past two decades. And in that, the needs of our school community have evolved.

Over 67% of our students register for free and reduced price meals.

17.41% are English language learners.

7.4% are highly mobile (compared to the state average of 3.95%).

These are needs we are meeting on a practical level in our district and at a more increased level than most of our neighboring districts. We do not view these as drawbacks but rather as opportunities. Opportunities for us to be equitable advocates for helping our students thrive.

As challenges arise, we don’t sit idly by, we take action.

Even as we have faced unprecedented flexibility these last two years, we have still seen notable success. Our early childhood reading proficiency has seen a two year 51% increase in Kindergarten and 25% increase in first grade – both of which outpace the national average. Our graduation rate last year was the highest it has been in five years at 87.27% with growth in every major demographic we have. Over 50 Senior High students were inducted into the National Honor Society last month and just this week we honored over 60 Seniors with over $49,000 in scholarships as the highest academic achieving students in their class. We have students through the Academies of Grand Island Senior High earning state recognitions for their work in visual art, robotics, technical sciences, and so many other valuable skills.

Yes, we still have much work to do but we have much to be proud of.

We also recognize that our staff have felt the weight of these last two years more acutely than most. They continue to show-up every day and bring their best for your students, to help them realize their potential. I couldn’t be more proud of them and the incredible fortitude, passion, and rigor they have displayed through their craft of teaching.

But we also understand that we are still facing the challenge of supporting staff with additional resources aimed to serve the increasing needs of students. Their livelihood and well-being are just as important to us as are our students.

I say that to share with you we understand that we have areas that need to be improved and we’re not trying to pretend they don’t exist. There is still room for growth as we continue to engage our staff, to provide helpful professional development, to provide resources as they navigate classroom management, to implement equitable grading practices, and to hold them up as the heroes they are.

We acknowledge that now is the time for us as a district and leadership to step up our efforts even more.

As we move forward, we know it is going to take all of us. It will take all of us to go deeper into this conversation; to collaborate on proactive solutions; to pursue excellence; to see growth; to strengthen our learning opportunities; and to thrive. We invite you to be part of this conversation.

We will be hosting a series of community conversations in the coming weeks. A few of the topics we aim to unpack are:

Grading and Expectations

Safety, School Environment, & Mental Health

Staff & Teacher Support

All who have a vested interest in the health of our district are invited to join, ask questions, engage in conversation, and visualize with us what “On Track to Thrive” looks like for our staff, students, families, and community. All of this has been in motion as a part of a proactive effort to be collaborative and forthright with you.

We will be sharing more information on these forums very soon.

We have faced other challenges together and we have also seen great success together. That will never change. For the sake of our students, staff, families, and community, let us continue to be better together. All of us want great things happening for our students and staff in Grand Island Public Schools.

Let us journey, learn, and grow together.

#1GIPSforALL

Superintendent Dr. Tawana Grover - Grand Island Public Schools

As for what’s next for Jensen, he tells us it’s a longer game than just one incident like this. He relayed that he’s already been to the Hall County Election Commissioner’s office to consider a run for a seat on the GIPS Board of Education to help fix some of the issues he’s referencing from the inside.

However, the former Grand Island mayor and his family has also considered leaving Grand Island altogether and pulling their kids from the district.

”You know, it got to the point where I was finally like ‘I can’t sleep at night,’” Jensen said. “My family and I were looking at Zillow, talking about moving to other districts because this is not the place we want to be with our kids for their education, and that hurt because I’m a Grand Island guy. I grew up here, went to school here, obviously the mayor and coached here for 18 years.”

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