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September 2, 2015

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The Turnaround:

Key to improving students’ performance is developing relationships

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Pedro Martinez

This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking Clark County School District’s efforts to turn around five failing schools.

For all the highbrow strategies to get more kids to graduate from high school, Clark County School District Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Pedro Martinez thinks the beleaguered Clark County School District is learning what really works.

And it’s not all about tutors and tests.

The secret, Martinez said, is for principals and teachers to recognize, acknowledge and care about every student — and especially to understand the academic needs of struggling students at risk of dropping out altogether.

Connecting with them — a morning greeting, knowing their names, engaging in conversations — nurtures a sense of belonging among students, that they are an important part of campus life. And then, these students are the focus of a renewed academic effort by administrators and teachers to get them across the graduation stage in higher numbers.

Martinez said this double-barrel approach may be the most important ingredient in improving the performance in the three high schools where students have struggled so much to graduate that school faculties and administrations have been upturned in an attempt to turn these schools around.

Halfway into the school year, the turnaround experiment seems to be working, Martinez said. There is no conclusive evidence of it — no astounding test results and indicators that are still too early to call — but Martinez and school principals say they can sense it’s working.

“We feel that the reason we’re losing so many kids is the fact that, at some point, because of our growth, things became impersonal,” Martinez said. “I don’t know any other way you could lose hundreds of kids in a high school, or thousands of kids at a district level, during their last year. The only way you could lose that many kids is if you don’t really know who they are.”

• • •

One of the most effective efforts to connect with at-risk students occurred in the fall. The three turnaround high schools participated in a new district initiative called “Reclaim Your Future,” in which school administrators and district officials visited the homes of seniors and juniors who have dropped out, encouraging them to return to class. More than 600 students were “reclaimed” through the home visits and phone calls, and the majority of them have remained in schools, Martinez said.

Riding on the success of the first event, Martinez wants to expand the 10-school initiative districtwide next school year. A second “Reclaim Your Future” event — targeting freshmen through juniors — has already been planned for late-January, he said.

“We already lost over 1,400 kids, ninth through 11th grades, from the start of this year, so we want to go back and get them,” Martinez said. “For so many years, kids have been dropping out, and nobody ever talked about it. Nobody did anything about it.

“Now, here we are talking about going out and finding them again. I think that’s going to send a very strong message not only to the families but also, frankly, to our community.”

Reaching out to the homes of student dropouts and luring them back to the classroom is but one tactic employed by the district to make a dent in lackluster performance.

The district is throwing millions of federal dollars into the effort to improve student performance, targeting three high schools to be turned around: Chaparral, Mojave and Western.

Last year, the graduation rates at each of the high schools hovered around 50 percent by some calculations, by others, closer to 30 percent. This year, all three high schools are aiming for a 10 to 20 percent-increase in the graduation rate.

Last year, test scores at each of the high schools were among the lowest of the 49 valley high schools. The federal School Improvement Grant — about $2 million per school over three years — stipulates that test scores improve each year.

To these ends, the district overhauled the schools, replacing most of the staff and implementing new leaders at Chaparral and Mojave. Curricula were revamped, campuses cleaned and a new culture enacted. Now, the three turnaround high schools are showing some gains.

• • •

Scores are up for Chaparral High School juniors and seniors on state reading, math and science proficiency exams as compared with the results of a year ago. (Results for the writing exams, which are hand-graded as opposed to the computer-grading of the other three, were not yet available.)

What helped? Students were diverted to test prep sessions in the weeks before the early November exams, often sitting through multiple sessions in a day to improve their performance. Students are ineligible to graduate with diplomas unless they pass the exams. Instead, they receive less-stringent certificates of attendance, making them ineligible to attend college or be hired for a variety of jobs.

“I’m putting the emphasis, flat out, on instruction, instruction, instruction,” said Chaparral Principal Dave Wilson. “The teachers are doing a better job of preparing the kids.”

In the meantime, attendance rates are up about 5 percent, with an additional 110 students at school on a daily basis, and the incidence of misbehaving students is down. Attendance officers and school administrators routinely contact the homes of students who miss multiple days of school, while the entire Chaparral staff walks the corridors of the school between periods to keep students moving.

A strict tardy policy has cut down on late arrivals, and aggressive oversight of the campus has reduced the number of students who walk away from school during the school day, a practice that was prevalent a year ago under a different administration and staff.

“We’re hunting students down with attendance officers, phone calls, and once they come in they don’t leave,” Wilson said. “If you’re not attending, we’re all over you; so the kids see what’s happening, and they’re coming to school.”

•••

At Mojave, a similar scene has unfolded. More students passed the fall proficiency exams than last year, but reading results have not shown as much improvement as math because of more stringent standards implemented this year.

“The results bring mixed emotions,” Mojave Principal Antonio Rael said. “We have made appropriate progress, but we have a lot of work to do. It’s not OK for a kid not to pass these exams and finish high school with only a certificate of attendance.”

What Mojave teachers are finding — as with the other turnaround high schools — are gaps in knowledge created over years of neglect, Rael said. There are 120 Mojave seniors who need to pass as many as three proficiency exams. A third of students are still credit deficient. Although the attendance rate is at 90 percent, Rael said the greatest challenge facing Mojave is making sure to keep at-risk students coming to school and not giving up.

To reach — and keep — more students, Mojave administrators and teachers have made relationship-building a priority. Every Friday, administrators and office staff — eschewing the automatic robocalls for truancy — spend an hour making personal phone calls to homes of students with the most absences that week, relaying their concerns to parents and guardians.

Beyond “Reclaim Your Future,” Rael and administrators have visited students’ homes on occasion to encourage dropouts to return to school. Every passing period, Mojave staffers roam the halls, greeting students and keeping a watchful eye over student behavior.

Further, administrators have started to volunteer time on weekends. Mojave recently instituted a “School On Saturday” program that tutors students who have fallen behind and disciplines those who have misbehaved that week with community service projects that help the school.

“We’ve fixed the behavior problems. We’ve improved the culture We have kid-advocate teachers,” Rael said. “We have our community behind us. We’ve begun to change the perception in the community.

“Now it’s looking at every individual child, starting with seniors, and saying, how do we get you ready to walk across the (graduation) stage?”

•••

The first semester at Western was not without controversy; a hazing incident brought about an early end to its football season. However, for Principal Neddy Alvarez, the measure of Western’s turnaround success lies in its graduation projections.

Based on the number of students passing proficiencies and making up credits, Alvarez is projecting a 15 percent-bump in the graduation rate. Test scores have jumped 10 percent in math, although they have fallen in reading and science due to higher standards.

“Are we making progress? Yes,” Alvarez said. “But is there a lot more improvement that needs to happen? Yes.”

The former math teacher has immersed herself with statistics about her students, tracked on a master Excel sheet where all 2,200 Western students’ data is analyzed on a daily basis. Thousands of cells are filled with information tabulating student attendance, credits and even how many times a counselor has met with each student. The spreadsheet is color coded so that patterns and trends — such as which feeder middle school has prepared Western students well — can be identified.

A separate spreadsheet is used to monitor teacher performance — for example, how many students are failing in each class and the number of teacher absences — to better hold teachers accountable, Alvarez said. Although they took dozens of hours to create, the master spreadsheets are a powerful tool that has given Alvarez a better understanding of her school, she said.

“I need to have a pulse on everything that’s happening at Western,” she said. “I need to know what’s going on to help our students.”

Although it’s a large high school, Western has made the student experience closer to that of a smaller high school by grouping students by grade level into different floors and hallways. Pictures of teachers atop classroom doors and colorful decorations covering walls have made the school more personable to students, Alvarez said. A new science and math academy is encouraging at-risk students to pursue more rigorous fields of study in nursing and robotics.

Western restructured its schedule into seven-period school days, allowing for additional classes to support struggling students. Teachers have been given more professional development through an outside company to better engage students. It’s too early to tell how effective these support classes and teacher coaching will be, but Alvarez is confident Western is on the right track, she said.

•••

The culture has shifted at these turnaround high schools, but until the district addresses the fundamental problems in the system, students will continue to come into Chaparral, Mojave and Western unprepared to pass proficiencies and graduate, Martinez said.

“Until all these pieces get fixed, I feel like we’re still going to be playing catch up at these schools,” Martinez said. “It’s a Band-Aid solution until we get these other issues resolved.”

Districtwide, classes are too soft; so too is instruction, Martinez said. Expectations for student performance are set too low. Too many youngsters are enrolled in remedial classes. Not enough have access to more difficult Advanced Placement courses in math, science, history and English.

About 90 percent of the 10,000 at-risk seniors this year haven’t passed the proficiency exams, which covers mostly eighth- and ninth-grade material. A significant percentage weren’t given additional tutoring or offered longer class periods.

Teachers weren’t given the training and the tools to prepare students for a more rigorous curriculum, Martinez said.

“Frankly, when we were growing, we were hiring just so many people, I don’t think the district really prepared our teachers to be successful,” Martinez said. “That’s why we’re playing so much catch up.”

The School District is now realigning its resources, culling together grant money and funneling them into professional development and additional instructional time for students.

A $45 million federal grant over five years will go toward improving literacy districtwide. Through an expanded weeklong summer academy, more middle and high school teachers will be trained to prepare students to take Advanced Placement classes by the 10th grade.

Middle school curriculums will be revamped to encourage more students into the math and sciences. Incoming high school freshmen who are deemed at-risk will be ushered into high school a month early to get a jump-start on their classes.

The School District plans to eliminate all remedial courses in middle schools and high schools during the upcoming school year. Despite the concerns of parents who fear their children will fall further behind academically, Martinez and Superintendent Dwight Jones argue that tougher classes with the added support of tutors and longer class periods will raise student performance.

Top district administrators recently met with all elementary, middle school and high school principals for a midyear review of academic performance, the first in about five years. High school principals brought their academic data and were asked some fundamental questions: What works? What didn’t? How do we make some adjustments?

“We always want to make sure we’re seeing progress, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Martinez said. “The turnaround takes time — it’s not going to happen in one year.

“In three years, we’ll be having very different conversations about these (turnaround) schools, talking more about AP and SAT statistics and how many kids are going to college and getting scholarships,” he said. “Right now, we’re talking about how many kids we can graduate and how we can get better teachers to come to these schools.”

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