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August 31, 2015

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From the Superintendent:

Interactions important in improving schools

Struggling campuses will be measured by academic growth

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Leila Navidi

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

When it comes to student achievement, reform in the Clark County School District must include raising both the ceiling and the floor. Good schools can become better, and schools that have a history of low performance must be assisted immediately.

However, turning around a struggling school is one of those things that is easy to say and hard to do. In my view, the approach isn’t about punishment; it’s more about chemistry. When we look at schools that work, we see common elements interacting in the right ways — leadership, staff, school climate, clarity of mission and goals, parental engagement, curriculum and programs, and others — and the challenge becomes one of replicating those mixes where they have fallen out of balance.

This is difficult work, but because we are committed to transparency, I am pleased to announce a partnership the School District has formed with the Las Vegas Sun that is designed to give readers a closer view of what is involved in turning around an underperforming school.

The series will provide an in-depth look at five campuses with what I call a new model of schooling. Four of the schools are implementing changes funded by School Improvement Grants from the federal government, while one is funded internally by School District general funds.

Steps we have taken so far include reconstituting staff at some schools, allowing unusual privileges in staffing, training principals at some of the most formidable business schools in the country (Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia), and seeking assistance in the form of outsourcing management.

Fundamental to the work on turnaround schools is one key idea, and that is to use academic growth as the way to view and manage school performance. Based on the positive feedback we are receiving from educators, parents, businesses and legislators, academic growth may soon become the centerpiece of a school performance framework in the district. A system like this would rely chiefly — although not exclusively — on the academic growth of students over time. It would also incorporate the academic growth over time shown by various student subgroups (in that way we see whether achievement gaps are widening or closing). And that is what “turnaround” is all about: seeing gains in performance for every student in the system.

Done properly and if made completely transparent (protecting, of course, the confidentiality of individual student data), this provides a way for the system to learn how to improve. By providing clear signals about where we see excellence in action, teachers and principals know where they can go to learn how to get better faster. An approach like this provides not only a stamp of excellence but also a way to decide when a school should no longer be allowed to operate as it has. Over time, this system sends signals about schools that will require more oversight and those that deserve greater autonomy. This system also guides us with respect to incentives for whole staff performance, as well as pay for performance for individuals or teams.

The Las Vegas Sun series should shed light on this idea of turnaround in a way that helps us all better understand and appreciate the challenges we all face today as we strive to help all schools in their pursuit of academic excellence for all students.

Dwight Jones is Clark County Schools superintendent.

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