Las Vegas Sun

August 3, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Shifting demographics demand greater urgency in improving schools

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J. Patrick Coolican

The news last week that Hispanics are Nevada’s largest group of students was worrisome. OK, that sounds offensive, and not something you’d expect from me.

But here’s what I mean: Nevada’s achievement gap — the chasm between Asians and whites and blacks and Hispanics in academic success — isn’t like the narrow strip between the platform and the train. It’s more like one of the great canyons of the West.

According to a June report from Education Week, just 29.6 of our Hispanic students of the class of 2008 graduated with a regular diploma. Read that number again.

It’s true there are many ways to determine graduation rates, and Education Week’s are lower than other methods. But Pedro Martinez, Clark County Schools deputy superintendent, notes that nearly half of incoming seniors — not just Hispanics — won’t graduate next spring because they don’t have the credits and/or haven’t passed the standardized High School Proficiency Exam, while nearly one-third have already dropped out. “Not acceptable,” Martinez says.

State Sen. Ruben Kihuen, a Las Vegas Democrat, tells me he was shocked to hear the new numbers among Hispanics, until he reflected on the fact that half his old pals from high school never graduated.

The numbers for other demographics aren’t great either, with 63 percent of Asians, 33 percent of blacks and 55.8 percent of whites graduating.

But if our largest student group is Hispanic, and fewer than one-third of our Hispanic students are graduating, that means Nevada and Las Vegas in particular are being flooded with high school dropouts — low-skill workers of whom we already have too many.

During the boom years, this wasn’t such a problem, as these workers could find jobs in construction or the service industries. Indeed, Hispanics had the lowest unemployment rate in the United States before the recession.

All that’s finished. And, if you want to know why the Great Recession won’t truly end here in Southern Nevada for many years, this is it: The construction economy is dead and will be for years, the resorts have learned to do more with less, and we’re stuck with hundreds of thousands of workers who have few skills and no education.

They’re the equivalent of workers in Akron or Cleveland after steel went south and then overseas.

This is why we went from Boom Town to Neo-Rust Belt in just a few years. Consider the difference in earnings between those with education and those without: In 2009, for adults 25 to 34, the median worker with a bachelor’s degree made $45,000, or more than twice the median of someone without a high school degree.

Kihuen says the recession is actually compounding the dropout problem because with one or more parents out of work many households are leaning on teenagers to help put food on the table; this in turn is causing some to perform poorly or drop out of school altogether.

Thankfully, Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones and his team recognize the crisis and have a plan to address it, which they unveiled this month to the School Board.

Martinez says they’ve asked each high school principal to put in place an immediate crisis plan to deal with the 10,000 students who won’t graduate without significant intervention. Each student will have an individual plan and be matched with a teacher, counselor or assistant principal to get them up to speed so they can graduate.

But that’s short term, while this is a long-term problem requiring a long-term solution.

The proficiency exam is mostly based on ninth grade-level work, meaning that we have a lot of high school students, like as many as half, who can’t do ninth grade work. Great.

Martinez says the key problem is that too many students aren’t exposed to academic rigor. The district hopes to phase out remedial classes so that all students are exposed to tougher material. In the short term they’ll move students who are succeeding in remedial classes into regular classes.

“Pre-algebra isn’t going to help them pass the proficiency exam,” Martinez says.

While asking more of students and teachers, the district will offer extra help in the form of after-school programs and other interventions.

Staff will also use the Preliminary SAT to identify students who scored well and should be taking Advanced Placement classes — these are the tough classes where students can earn college credit — and strongly encourage these students and their families to go big.

But obviously the problems start earlier than high school, so the district will be giving more training to middle school teachers, so their students will be ready for high school. But the problem starts even earlier than that, which is why the district is flooding the zone on literacy, because there’s basically no learning without it.

These solutions will help all students, but Hispanic students especially because they suffer the greatest achievement gap.

Solving this education crisis is the best — maybe the only — real plan for economic development. Given the continued growth of our Hispanic population, as Kihuen says, “An investment in our Latino students is an investment in the state of Nevada.”

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