Last year, Nebraska native Ann Hunter-Pirtle got angry. She got so angry she wrote a letter to her hometown paper about the state of public schools.
Hunter-Pirtle is a product of Lincoln Public Schools.
I had the chance to talk to Hunter-Pirtle about her passions.
“I am from Lincoln, born and raised,” she said. “I am an LPS graduate and I went to UNL for both undergraduate and Master’s [degrees]. So I bleed Husker red.”
In her letter to the Lincoln Journal Star, she stated why she thought charter schools were wrong for Nebraska.
She ended the letter by saying that Nebraskans know better than to be schooled by out-of-state advisory boards (pun-intended) funded by unnamed donors. With access to adequate funding, she believes strong public school education offers life-changing opportunities to every Nebraska child—as it did for her.
She sent the letter off and returned to her day job, working in Washington D.C. with the Environmental Protection Agency. Before that, she worked in the White House.
“I got to live my dreams,” she said of her experience. “I was able to go out in the world and do what I wanted to do.”
But back in Nebraska, things were changing. The charter school agenda was gaining traction and lobbyists were backing the initiatives—not exactly the public school support she was hoping for.
Some of the supporters urged Nebraska to introduce charter schools—which receive public funding but operate outside of the public school system. Others wanted the state to let families opt out of supporting public schools with their tax dollars if they choose to send their children to private school or homeschool. Hunter-Pirtle, however, wasn’t happy about it.
“Whether that’s creating a footprint of our own or latching onto other organizations we can ally with. Overall, we want to see opportunity gaps narrow, same with achievement gaps. That’s the goal. We support long-term strategies that are proven over and over to help public schools better serve all students.”
“After I wrote my opinion piece, I thought that was going to be it,” she said. “But I started to realize that there was a need for some strong advocacy on the ground, supporting public schools in Nebraska.”
The longer she thought about the changes happening in Nebraska, the more she wanted to be a part of it.
“I moved home a year ago, late July of last year, and got this thing started,” she said. “I quit my job on a Friday, flew home on a Sunday, and on Monday, I sat down in my folk’s living room and made calls about office space at Nonprofit Hub. That’s how Stand for Schools came to be.”
Funded by the Sherwood Foundation, Stand For Schools is “dedicated to our state’s ongoing tradition of public school excellence.” They find innovative ways to make public schools even stronger with opportunities like early childhood education, school-to-career pathways, summer programming and before- and after-school programs.
At just a year old, and officially operating their day-to-day out of Nonprofit Hub, Stand for Schools has accomplished plenty.
“This first year has largely been about building the organization,” Hunter-Pirtle said. “We’ve been getting to know people in Lincoln and making sure that community members throughout the state know how great our schools are.”
In March, Stand for Schools held their first rally at the State Capitol on the hearing day of this year’s charter school bill.
“My day started with a call from a local radio station asking if the rally was still on because it was like 10 degrees and snowing outside,” Hunter-Pirtle said. “I was like, ‘Yeah it’s still on, we’ll see how this goes.’ A good couple hundred people showed up and that was really exciting. I think it shows that people care about public schools; people are looking for ways to be engaged and they want to be involved. That was really great.”
That day was also Sarah Streyder’s first day working for Stand for Schools. As the outreach coordinator, Streyder works with interested parties who want to learn more about the organization or host educational events.
“Ann and I share responsibilities, but theoretically it starts on my desk before it ends up on hers,” Streyder said. “My role has morphed and grown, as I am the first hire in the organization.”
Moving forward, the duo’s to-do list is long; they want to accomplish a lot under the Stand for Schools umbrella. The hard part is knowing where they fit in.
“We’re still figuring out what our role is in places like Omaha, where we don’t already have a footprint,” Streyder said. “Whether that’s creating a footprint of our own or latching onto other organizations we can ally with. Overall, we want to see opportunity gaps narrow, same with achievement gaps. That’s the goal.”
“We support long-term strategies that are proven over and over to help public schools better serve all students,” Hunter-Pirtle said.
Those things include expanding early childhood education, expanding career education, supporting school nutrition programs and supporting what is called “expanding learning opportunities.”
Nebraskans from across the political spectrum support their public schools very strongly. Last year’s Nebraska Public School study by Gallup showed 85 percent of people were in support of public schools.
Hunter-Pirtle knows there is a lot of work left to be done, and is energized by her work environment.
“This year went well,” Hunter-Pirtle said, “but things can always change, so we’re going to have to keep working harder to protect public schools. There are some real champions for public schools in the legislature and we’re certainly grateful for their work. We appreciate them and hope they stay there.”