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July 22, 2014

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Budget crisis slows help for troubled schools

Troubled West Las Vegas schools targeted for help, but budget crisis puts solutions on the back burner

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Leila Navidi

Gregory Oliver helps his little sister during the morning Harambee session at Rainbow Dreams Academy in Las Vegas Thursday, July 22, 2010.

Rainbow Dreams Academy Charter School

Benjamin Horsford, from left in red stripes, Gregory Oliver, in grey, and Bryson Horsford, front right, sing and dance during the morning Harambee session at Rainbow Dreams Academy in Las Vegas Thursday, July 22, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Target schools

The Prime Six elementary schools are Booker, Carson, Fitzgerald, Kelly, McCall and Wendell Williams, all in West Las Vegas, an economically disadvantaged neighborhood near downtown. The once-predominately black area is seeing an influx of Hispanics.

Nearly a year ago, a report on a 15-year effort to improve education at six elementary schools serving West Las Vegas painted a portrait of students isolated by race, poverty and low achievement.

The report provoked community outrage. Clark County School Board meetings and community workshops stretched many hours as the public — in particular, longtime West Las Vegas residents — vented their resentment and anger. And there were promises of change.

Since then, the “Prime Six” problem has been largely pushed aside by the School District’s massive budget crisis.

“It does feel like Prime Six has fallen off the top of the desk, or been put in a drawer somewhere,” said Ron Grogan, a vice president of 100 Black Men of Las Vegas, which expressed concern in the wake of the report. “To some extent I understand the district’s problems, but I also believe if we take the pressure off this particular situation, it’s not going to get any better.”

School District officials say they haven’t forgotten about the issue, although they admit that progress is slow.

The report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project left many “disappointed and disheartened,” School Board President Terri Janison said at a meeting last year. An initiative intended to correct decades of unfairness had apparently veered far off track.

The Prime Six initiative, adopted in 1994 when the district was phasing out a federally mandated busing program, calls for students in six West Las Vegas elementary schools to be bused to other schools to promote voluntary diversity. The students could decline the offer and attend either their neighborhood schools — which became known as the Prime Six — or apply for one of three nearby magnet schools.

The UCLA report looked at test data from 2001 to 2007. Students who opted to be bused to outlying campuses did better academically than their peers who stayed at the Prime Six schools. Prime Six students’ test scores were also below the districtwide average.

In the 16 years since the initiative was enacted, the percentage of black students in the Prime Six schools has decreased, replaced by a larger Hispanic population. The number of families choosing to opt out of the Prime Six schools has steadily declined, along with student achievement at most of those campuses. The overwhelming majority of families choose to keep their children in the Prime Six elementary schools — Booker, Carson, Fitzgerald, Kelly, McCall and Wendell Williams.

For some families it’s a question of proximity, as parents don’t want to send young children on long bus rides out of the neighborhood. But some parents say the Prime Six schools are better than the test results indicate, and they have faith in their children’s teachers and principals.

Others said they weren’t aware there was an option to leave. District officials say the high transiency rates in the neighborhoods and language barriers for some parents have made it difficult to spread the message.

As a result, those campuses have generally become “extremely disadvantaged and isolated student bodies,” according to the UCLA report requested by Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes and made public in August. But changes to the Prime Six program are moving slowly.

For the 2010-11 academic year, only one will be overhauled. The district is starting from scratch at Kit Carson Elementary, replacing the principal and nearly all of the staff.

There are plans to use federal grants to improve teachers’ professional development at all Prime Six schools.

Another problem is that changing neighborhood demographics left most Prime Six campuses drastically underenrolled, even though many parents opted to keep their children at the schools. Agassi Prep, Rainbow Dreams Academy and 100 Academy of Excellence, all charter schools built specifically to serve the historically black community of West Las Vegas, have siphoned off students.

Rainbow Dreams is home to the Freedom Schools’ enrichment program, open to all district students, based on a national model developed by the Children’s Defense Fund. For many local families, the program is the only local opportunity their children have for summer learning.

The backbone of the original Prime Six plan — offering transfers to better schools — isn’t necessarily a solution, said Sonya Horsford, an assistant professor of educational leadership at UNLV and executive director of the Freedom Schools’ local programs.

“A lot of parents are asking why they can’t just have a quality education available right in their neighborhood, and not have to put their child on a bus,” Horsford said. “That’s a question that hasn’t been answered yet.”

Before Prime Six, the district bused black students from West Las Vegas to campuses in outlying areas to maintain racial diversity. At the same time, white students were bused to West Las Vegas for one year to attend “sixth-grade centers.”

In sixth grade, Horsford was bused from her home near Sunrise Mountain to McCall in North Las Vegas.

“I grew up in a diverse community, and that was the most black children I had ever been around,” said Horsford, whose research includes issues related to educational equity. “The tragic part was you never got to see the friends you made that year again.”

Horsford serves on an advisory group of educators and community leaders, handpicked by the superintendent, to examine the Prime Six program following the ULCA report. The group met nine times last year, and the agenda was expanded to include campuses elsewhere in the district that were struggling with similar histories of low performance.

“There is a sense of urgency for all of our persistently underachieving schools,” said Lauren Kohut-Rost, deputy superintendent of instruction.

Several Prime Six schools are actually doing better than many of their district counterparts, based on the most recent test results that were not part of the UCLA review. Booker Elementary in particular has been a consistent high achiever, and Wendell Williams Elementary has made good progress in recent years, Kohut-Rost noted.

Advisory group members were concerned that the district didn’t do enough to make sure parents knew their options.

The district says it is trying to improve communication with families about opportunities to transfer beyond their assigned campuses, whether it’s for Prime Six, magnet schools or a federally mandated choice option for students at its most at-risk, low-achieving campuses.

As the district wrestles with the future of Prime Six campuses, some parents say they don’t have time to wait for a solution.

Beverly Smith, a longtime West Las Vegas resident, said she’s increasingly worried about the slumping academics of her neighborhood campuses, so she put her two sons in charter schools.

To get to school each morning, the family boards a public bus to West Lake Mead Boulevard and Rainbow Dreams Academy, where her 9-year-old arrives at 7 a.m. for the Safe Key program. Then Smith and her 11-year-old son catch a second bus for the 1600 block of East Oakey Boulevard, where they walk to Innovations International’s middle school. She reverses the route in the afternoon when she picks them up.

“It’s worth it,” said Smith, who enrolled her sons in the summer enrichment program at Rainbow Dreams. “I don’t need a car to get my children a better education.”

To win back parents like Smith, the district is considering converting one or more Prime Six campuses into magnet programs that would attract students from throughout the district and boost diversity.

Federal grants will help Carson Elementary in fall 2011 implement the International Baccalaureate program — an intensive curriculum that is intended as a springboard to advanced work in middle and high school. The campus will join the district’s “empowerment” pilot program, which grants schools additional autonomy in exchange for meeting stricter standards.

(Four other Prime Six schools — Booker, Kelly, McCall and Williams — are in the empowerment program and receive additional money made available to schools that joined earlier in the process.)

To qualify for the federal grant, the district agreed to replace the principal at Carson and rehire no more than 50 percent of the staff. Meeting that threshold proved not to be difficult. Of the 21 classroom teachers, only two reapplied. New Carson Principal Cynthia Marlowe told the Sun she rehired one of them and the four support staff who reapplied.

“We’re starting off with a group of people who really want to be here,” said Marlowe, who taught seven years at Carson and most recently was an assistant principal at Martinez Elementary. “Every single teacher I interviewed was excited about the challenges ahead, and about working with this group of students.”

Marlowe’s plans for Carson include hiring a full-time social worker to help the school better serve its students and families, and make sure they connect with social services and support networks. There also will be an on-campus parent resource center to make it easier for families to be more directly involved in school activities and their children’s learning.

“Right now it’s not advertised as much as it could be that help is available,” Marlowe said. “For us, it’s about making sure we are able to have all those children’s basic needs met before they’re even in the classroom.”

As for the future of the Prime Six program, as well as the challenges of the other underachieving campuses, the conversation must continue, Horsford said.

“We had to look at the wider role the School District plays in making sure there’s equitable education for all children,” she said. “If we don’t have a clear vision of what that quality education looks like, then we’re just going to keep talking past ourselves.”

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