Las Vegas Sun

May 6, 2015

Currently: 66° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

The Turnaround:

Five struggling schools embark on a journey to improve education

Sun launches yearlong project tracking progress at Chaparral, Mojave, Western, Elizondo and Hancock


Chris Morris / Special to the Sun

Turnaround Schools

Dwight Jones, superintendent of the Clark County School District, inside his office in Las Vegas Thursday, August 25, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Three high schools and two elementary schools in the Clark County School District have been designated as needing help to turn around poor performance. Starting today, the Sun, with the cooperation of the district, will chart their progress.
Also today, in partnership with the Sun, KSNV Channel 3 launches its coverage of “The Turnaround: Inside Clark County Schools” at 11 p.m. Sunday. News 3 anchor Jessica Moore will explain the project and introduce the five leaders of the turnaround schools. Starting Monday, coverage moves to “News 3 Nightly at 6,” focusing on one school each day. These schools will also be featured by the Sun throughout the week.

  • Monday: Principal David Wilson’s effort to restore “Chaparral Pride.”
  • Tuesday: The new “relationship-builder” at Mojave High, Principal Antonio Rael.
  • Wednesday: How Western High Principal Neddy Alvarez will pass on lessons learned from her father.
  • Thursday/Friday: Where many principals focus on teachers and students, Elizondo Elementary’s Keith France says his focus will be on parents. When it comes to her staff, Hancock Elementary Principal Jerre Moore says, “I don’t have three months for them to get it.”

Round-table Discussion: Turnaround Schools

School District leaders Dwight Jones, Superintendent; Pedro Martinez, Deputy Superintendent of Instruction; Florence Barker, Turnaround Leader; and Carolyn Edwards, School Board President; sit down with reporters Dave Berns and Paul Takahashi to discuss turnaround schools, challenges of the upcoming school year and the Sun's ongoing project, "The Turnaround: Inside Clark County Schools."

Dawn is still an hour away and Dwight Jones is in his office, running on four hours of sleep. There’s not enough time in the day, he says, to address all the problems facing the Clark County School District.

So much to do. So much at stake. And as Jones begins his first full school year as superintendent, he sounds overwhelmed.

“I believe we’ve got to change this whole system,” Jones would say later, his eyes sunken but determined. “We’ve got thousands of kids who are in harm’s way right now ... We’re working as fast as we can to save some of them.”

The School District’s reputation is well known: the fifth-largest and among the poorest performing in the country. Last fall, Jones, Colorado’s education commissioner, was recruited to take charge of the district and correct its course.

It will take some time, he says. You can’t turn an aircraft carrier around on a dime. But there are litmus tests to gauge results by the end of the school year.

Those tests are three high schools and two elementary schools, deemed to be performing so poorly that they’ve been singled out as turnaround schools, in need of makeovers aimed at nurturing success where failure has been too familiar a face.

The schools — Elizondo Elementary, Hancock Elementary, Chaparral High, Mojave High and Western High — have been defined as failing under No Child Left Behind, the federal law to compel better student performance. Most students at these five schools can’t read or solve math problems at grade level. More than half of the high schools’ students aren’t expected to graduate in four years.

The unprecedented turnaround effort started last spring. Principals and teachers have been replaced, pep talks delivered, curricula revised, campuses repaired and scrubbed clean.

Now the hard part begins. School starts Monday.

So too begins the Sun’s yearlong project to chronicle the triumphs and successes, the trials and tribulations of the School District’s great experiment with education in Las Vegas: the turnaround.


Over the past two decades, when Clark County was the fastest growing metropolitan region in the country, the School District was too busy opening schools to give adequate attention to the quality of what was being taught, and how it was being taught, inside. Indeed, the district would emerge from its building boom as the fifth largest in the country, at its peak opening a school at a rate of once a month.

At the same time, student demographics were changing in Clark County. More students were coming from historically disadvantaged, poor and minority backgrounds. The number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches jumped more than 20 percentage points from 1990 to 2010. In 2006, the number of Hispanic students surpassed the number of white students for the first time.

With classroom resources stretched thin and parental involvement waning, students suffered. Test scores dropped, graduation rates fell and the state’s education ranking plunged.

The district “got so focused on taking care of growth, it lost focus of its real mission,” Jones said. “The mission was building schools, staffing schools and opening schools. The mission was not focused on what is actually happening in the schools.”

Circumstances worsened in the Great Recession.

The housing bubble popped, trapping hundreds of thousands of Las Vegans in underwater homes. Unemployment in the largely two-industry town of gaming and construction rose to double digits and lingered there. The city of glitter lost its luster and growth went flat.

During this time, Superintendent Walt Rulffes announced he would retire, and the search was launched for his successor.

In December, the School District hired Jones, who had earned a reputation in Colorado for shaking things up.

The time seemed ripe to address the deep problems facing education in Las Vegas.

Print Edition

The Las Vegas Sun print edition on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, featured coverage of the launch of the yearlong project, "The Turnaround: Inside Clark County Schools," throughout the paper. See what the coverage looked like in print at
» Click here to download .pdf of Sunday's front page.

In just nine months, Jones — a former turnaround principal from Wichita, Kan. — brought about a flurry of systemic changes to Las Vegas, from district reorganization to new initiatives to measure student achievement and boost graduation rates.

Those changes were ambitious and bold — the kind that can draw high praise from some and harsh condemnation from others. When the district announced it was restructuring the five turnaround schools, hundreds of Chaparral students protested the decision to remove its popular principal and favorite teachers.

The students were angry, resentful of a district that in their eyes punished teachers for their low test scores. The district didn’t see it that way; in its view, teachers were being held accountable for their students’ academics.

A few days later, Jones sat down with about 15 members of the Chaparral student council, and explained to them the turnaround. The restructuring was part of an effort by the School District to secure $8.7 million in federal stimulus money to make the troubled schools better, he said.

Nevada received about $20 million from the School Improvement Grant program, one of eight states to do so this year. The three-year grant targets schools identified under guidelines enacted during the George W. Bush administration as “persistently lowest achieving.” In other words, schools with low graduation rates and/or test scores.

To get the grant, the School District had to adopt one of Washington’s four dramatic recipes for change: Close the school, cutting its losses and starting anew somewhere else; reopen a failing school as a charter school; recruit new principals and institute reforms starting at the top; or the turnaround model.

The School District went with the fourth option that called for replacing principals with more than three years of experience and making all the staff reapply for their positions. Administrators could not rehire more than 50 percent of the existing staff.

The Chaparral students “felt like this was an attack on their teachers,” Jones said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I get that. I like your teachers, too. But I like you more, and actually, my business is about you.’

“ ‘Right now, 50 percent of the kids in this school don’t graduate high school,’ ” Jones added. “I asked them, ‘Is that acceptable to you?’ ”


Click to enlarge photo

The lockers at Chaparral High School on Thursday, August 4, 2011.

The School District first applied for the School Improvement Grant in the 2009-10 school year. However, it was a tepid effort, said Pedro Martinez, Clark County deputy superintendent of instruction. At the time, he was Washoe County School District’s deputy superintendent.

Washoe sent in seven school applications, but Clark County — the largest district in the state — applied for and received funding for just two schools: Rancho High and Kit Carson Elementary.

Clark County School District’s reform efforts didn’t go as far either, Martinez said. The district under Rulffes, for instance, replaced Rancho’s principal but kept the staff. Although both Kit Carson and Rancho improved their test scores after one year, the district could have helped more of its struggling schools receive federal funding, Martinez said.

Indeed, Nevada frequently turns a cold shoulder to federal money, maybe because of its libertarian streak.

“We’re not very aggressive in applying for federal grants,” Martinez said. “If we ignore this, that’s at our own peril, because we’re going to be left behind.”

So after Jones recruited Martinez, they sought more funding from the School Improvement Grant, which demands “real reforms,” Martinez said.

In other words, this wouldn’t be a rehash of what had been tried before. “We know what those results have been: We’re last in graduation, we have some of the highest remediation rates and we have some of the lowest college-going rates in the country,” Martinez said. “We’re tired of seeing that.”


For the second round of grant applications, the School District under Jones’ leadership selected five schools from a few dozen low-performing schools for turnaround.

Of those schools, four — Chaparral, Hancock, Mojave and Western — received the funds. Elizondo, which didn’t receive the federal dollars, will still be considered a turnaround school, with the School District footing the bill.

Because the principals at Hancock and Western have been at their respective schools for less than three years, they were allowed to stay. Principals at the other schools were replaced, but big staff changes occurred at all the schools.

Most of the grant money will go toward higher salaries and benefits for educators at each — combat pay, as it were, to entice people to work at these low-performing schools.

Principals were given $5,000 signing bonuses; teachers, $1,750, and support staff, $500 for the first year of the grant. In the next two years, teachers would be paid more if their students do better on tests.

In return, these schools must show vast improvements in test scores, discipline issues and parental involvement starting this year. Administrators are given more flexibility over their schools’ budgets, scheduling and staffing, but they may be transferred at any time if they don’t “perform,” or deliver results.

“Adult success will be determined by the success of kids,” Jones said. “It seems easy to say, but that’s quite a departure (for the district). If kids’ success is most important, then evaluations and other accountability measures have to mimic that. Building a performance framework is a lot more aligned to true reform.”

Teachers will be paid more at these schools in large part because the school day will be longer. High school students will be in school up to 20 minutes longer, and elementary school students about an hour longer.

Click to enlarge photo

Dwight Jones, superintendent of the Clark County School District, inside his office in Las Vegas Thursday, August 25, 2011.

Each school will also offer a new curriculum from a math and reading academy for college and career preparation courses.

At Chaparral, students will be exposed to a variety of postsecondary options at its college and career preparatory academy. At Mojave and Western, students can attend an engineering, math and science academy. At Hancock and Elizondo, the emphasis will be on reading and writing.

Even the teachers and administrators will be learning this year.

Principals attended a weeklong “turnaround” conference this summer at the University of Virginia that focused on how to engage and motivate teachers, staff and students. At workshops, the principals examined school-turnaround case studies and some involving private companies.

Throughout the year, teachers will get training and support from education companies such as Pearson, Teachscape and Edison. They will have additional time during the week to plan a coordinated curriculum with fellow teachers across grade levels and disciplines.

“If the only strategy we did was change out the adults, I’d say that probably isn’t a very good strategy. That alone won’t get us the results we want,” Jones said. “We’ve tried to recruit some of the best and brightest teachers … really focusing on training and having the right tools in place and analyzing data. There are a lot of things changing.”

Click to enlarge photo

Pedro Martinez, the deputy superintendent of the Clark County School District, participates in a roundtable discussion with the Las Vegas Sun in Las Vegas Thursday, August 25, 2011.


The motive to turn around schools transcends improving the classroom performance of students, Martinez said. It has everything to do with his favorite quote from Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

“You cannot have a strong, healthy community if you have a broken school.”

Driving around Las Vegas, Martinez said he sees broken schools and broken communities. There are homes wrecked by the recession, two or three families living under the same roof and parents scraping together a livelihood by working multiple shifts and jobs.

To survive this recession, Las Vegas needs to diversify its economy, Martinez said. That requires a solid education, in growing fields such as science, engineering, health care and technology.

That won’t happen the way things are now, he said. Las Vegas has an education crisis — too many kids are in harm’s way, Martinez said.

“If you have individuals who are not being prepared to have good-paying jobs, go to college and get into postsecondary education, then frankly, I think it just perpetuates poverty and unemployment,” he said. “As we make these reforms and kids are coming up better prepared, I think it’s going to transform this community.”

So the project that is causing Dwight Jones to wake up before dawn may also lead to a community turnaround.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 13 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. I wonder if anyone considers returning to the basics i.e. "Dick, Jane, Sally, Puff etc" and the old standards that really worked. The school system is simply too top heavy.

  2. It's fantastic to see school executives (and teachers) who burn the midnight oil and lose sleep over these issues.

    However, I question whether systemic issues will prevent them from enacting any meaningful change. Think about it - every year, literally, we hear the exact same thing from our schools; how bad things are, how they are instituting new policies to correct the situation, and if only there were more money then life would be wonderful. Every year. For decades.

    And things only get worse. Idiotic policies like "social promotion" persist. More idiotic policies get implemented.

    There is a solution, and it's as painfully obvious as it is politically impossible. And that's to make the education system more European in form and function. Essentially, as steve7952 points out, go back to the basics and be hard-core about testing and advancement.

    One can only dream.

  3. I wish the best for these schools

  4. Here's a novel idea. Teach basic lessons, by the eighth grade, some kid will excel in school. Continue to work their minds. Other children need to be tested, to find their strengths, then put them into a trade school of their choice. Yes their choice, if their choice isn't a good one, restest and guide them toward their strength. There is nothing wrong with working with your hands. Mechanics, Plumbers, Carpenders, Brick Layers, Heavy Equipment Operators make very good money. Think outside the box.

  5. These kids don't value a free education, plain and simple. That's the problem. Stop making school mandatory, and start making the parents pay for it. As soon as that happens, everyone will stop treating teachers like garbage.

  6. Make it all one language - English. having teacher babysit students who don't know English, hurts the class and the school

  7. This is part of an 8th Grade FINAL Exam in 1895. Brace yourselves!

    Grammar (Time, one hour)
    1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters.
    2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
    3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph
    4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of 'lie,''play,' and 'run.'

    5 - 8. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

    1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
    2. A wagon box is 2 ft. Deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. Wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
    3. If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1,050 lbs. For tare?
    4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000.. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
    5. Find the cost of 6,720 lbs. Coal at $6.00 per ton.
    6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
    7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft.. Long at $20 per metre?
    8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
    9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?

    U.S. History
    1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided
    2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus
    3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
    4. Show the territorial growth of the United States
    5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas
    6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
    7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton , Bell , Lincoln , Penn, and Howe?
    8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

    Geography (Time, one hour)
    1 What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
    2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas ?
    3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
    4. Describe the mountains of North America
    5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia , Odessa , Denver , Manitoba , Hecla , Yukon , St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco
    6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each..
    8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
    9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
    10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

    Gives the saying 'they only had an 8th grade education' a whole new meaning, doesn't it?!

    No wonder they dropped out after 8th grade. They already knew more than they needed to know!

  8. The number #1 determining factor in school success is socio - economic (google it) so until things are better at home they will not get better at school regardless of all of the 'new' approaches. Maybe we should be focusing on basics like jobs for mom and dad and parenting skills for new parents before asking even more of overworked, underpaid teachers.

  9. No education system is responsible to raise kids, it is the parents. This is the problem with the schools of the last 20 years; parents have stuck their head in a deep dark hole and left teaching their kids up to the public system or no system at all. When parents become involved and remove their heads from that deep dark hole they've had wrapped their heads in and teach their kids that they must work to earn it and hold their kids accountable with parental and educational boundaries, then kids will start to learn. Until then, no amount of money or outside involvement will keep up with the pace with kids who are following in their parents footsteps, succumbed to the liberal agenda where they expect everything to be given to them and they don't have to work for it and when life isn't what others have, they want to take it away from successful people and give to the liberal cesspool.

  10. With the terrible parents out there schools will never improve. Education starts at home. Parents need to be held responsible for their childrens actions. Useless fathers need to man up and be a real father and support your child, you know that will never happen, people will continue to blame the teachers! I would never want to be a teacher these days.

  11. Folks, you've got to see the comedy. The school system flails around, carefully pretending to peer at every possible factor that could have caused decades of dumbing down. Except the main one. It's a kind of Inspector Clouseau slapstick.

    Our Education Establishment has a deathly fear of facts, knowledge, basics, and mastery. Focus on those. The schools will turn around so fast, people will have whiplash.

    As to what to get rid of, that would be all the usual suspects. (Google "56: Top 10 Worst Ideas In Education.")

    Bruce Deitrick Price

  12. I think the thing that bothers me about this "turn-around" project is the Edison privatization piece.

    Clark Count School District already has Edison schools - that haven't proven to be effective. In fact, they have proven the OPPOSITE. Look up Ann T. Lynch Elementary and tell me if you think Edison has improved anything for that school community. I can tell you from a teacher's point of view, there is a reason the entire staff turns over there every year.

    Now, Superintendent Jones sweeps in and makes "reform" again. By definition, reform would be trying something different right?

    I have to wonder if this new media spin and publishing a lot about reform is a ploy since the older Edisons have failed already. . . and Superintendent Jone is a former Edison employee.

    I wish the best for every student - but I can tell you from experience. . . Edison has failed on the national level and economically as a corporation repeatedly. They have a sketchy and checkered past. Google - Edison Schools and you tell me if they seem like a viable "reform" and "privitize" option. They have let down many,many disadvantaged communities already. Must we "reform" with tax payer money . . . an already failed alternative?