Monday, June 9, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The woman walked in to the lobby of Whitney Elementary School loaded down with boxes of canned goods and other pantry staples.
She’d told her birthday party guests that instead of gifts she wanted them to bring food for Whitney’s needy students.
Donations and offers of volunteer assistance have poured into the campus since the Sun’s story about the school ran Tuesday. The school was also featured on “Face to Face With Jon Ralston” and on KLAS TV Channel 8 last week.
“Literally, the phone is ringing off the hook,” said Whitney Principal Sherrie Gahn. “What’s wonderful is that the help is coming from the entire community. It’s bigger than just us now.”
Whitney has one of the largest populations of homeless students in the district. Gahn and her staff have taken a grass-roots approach to providing food, clothing, medical care and other services for its students and has seen a corresponding improvement in academic performance, behavior and attendance.
Recent donations include $1,700 in cash, gift cards for local stores, clothing and food.
“Many of these parents are trying to do the best they can under very difficult circumstances,” Gahn said. “They are deserving of help.”
There are several other Clark County School District campuses with large numbers of needy students, and there’s no shortage of opportunities for volunteers. For information, contact the district’s Homeless Outreach for Education Program at 855-6682 or e-mail coordinator Myra Berkovits at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In January, 17 principals submitted applications to join the empowerment schools pilot program, which offered more autonomy and extra funding in exchange for stricter accountability.
When steep education budget cuts were announced, including the state scrapping its plan to fund empowerment schools, it looked like the district’s pilot program would not grow beyond the eight campuses taking part.
But last month Quannah McCall Principal Maria Chairez got a phone call from the School District.
Would she be interested in hers becoming an empowerment school, even without the extra $400 per student that had been part of the original plan?
“We hadn’t really thought what we could do without the money,” Chairez told the Sun. “But it still seemed worth it to test what empowerment could mean for our school.”
One cost-free concept? Chairez plans to add 10 minutes to the instructional day next year, which will let her send students home early one day each month and use the time for staff development.
McCall is one of six schools that will join the empowerment program for the 2008-09 academic year. The other campuses are John Bonner and Matt Kelly elementary schools, Duane Keller Middle School, and Cheyenne and Moapa Valley high schools.
Because of funding shortages, the district’s empowerment pilot program has become three-tiered.
The four elementary schools that launched the program in 2006 receive an extra $600 per student, and four elementary campuses added the following year receive $400. Both of those schools also offer teachers merit bonuses, based on a combination of performance factors, including student test scores and parent satisfaction surveys.
The newest empowerment schools will be first in line for extra funding, should it become available from either public sources or private donors, said Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes.
The district is also lining up community partners for each campus, which will be another source of funding and volunteers. That’s one reason April Key, principal at Keller Middle School, thought it was worthwhile to join the pilot program even without the extra per-pupil funding. She’s using her new authority to rearrange staffing and hire an extra assistant principal to oversee the school’s urban science academy.
Becoming the district first’s empowerment middle school has attracted attention, Key said. She’s choosing her staff for next year, and has been flooded with applications.
“We’re getting our pick of great teachers,” Key said.
Graduation season is under way, with most high school ceremonies being held at the Thomas & Mack Center or the Orleans Arena through Friday. If you can’t make it in person, broadcasts will also air Monday through June 19 on Cox Channel 96, and online via streaming video at http://www.Cox96.net.