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September 4, 2015

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The Turnaround:

At tarnished Mojave High School, seniors eye new direction with optimism

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Leila Navidi

For me, looking from the inside out, I can see that this school is something that the world, that Las Vegas doesn’t see.” - Caleb Dawkins, 17, a senior at Mojave High School.

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

Mojave High School is one of the Clark County School District’s most troubled schools, with among the lowest test scores and graduation rates in a system that already ranks among the nation’s lowest-performing.

The 15-year-old North Las Vegas high school has also seen its fair share of problems – gang violence, vandalism and fights – which have been exacerbated by one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history.

Last year, only half of the school’s seniors graduated – a devastating statistic that prompted the hiring of a new principal and administration and the turnover of about 80 percent of teachers and support staff. We spoke with 12 seniors at the “new Mojave” about their feelings about the turnaround process, their goals for the school year and their plans for the future. Audio clips and quotes have been edited for clarity.

Ashley Dooley, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Ashley Dooley, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Ashley Dooley, 17

“My goals this year are to pass all my classes, pass my math proficiency and graduate. I want to be a medical examiner. I want to go to University of Austin, Texas, and play volleyball for them, too.

“This year, we don’t have as many problems. I think people take more pride in the school because it’s like a better place to be. We have a lot more school spirit.”

Taylor Morris, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Taylor Morris, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Taylor Morris, 17

“At first, I didn’t think I was going to like (the turnaround). I was like, ‘They’re getting rid of all my favorite teachers,’ but I do like what they did with the school. The teachers this year seem like they care a lot more. The bathrooms are clean. At lunchtime, you see janitors just walking around, cleaning up. Usually, you would see trash that was left from last week still sitting in the corner somewhere. The new teachers I have seem really enthusiastic; I learn better. Before, I wasn’t really learning anything, I was just coasting, but this year, I’m actually learning stuff and I’m trying.

“The way I see it, they’re really serious about turning this around and making us the new Mojave. I think it’s going to work.

“One day, I’m going to open my own practice. I want to be a pediatrician or a child psychologist.”

Sandra Estrada, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Sandra Estrada, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Sandra Estrada, 17

“My goals are to pass my proficiencies — my two last ones that I need — finish up my classes and graduate. I know if I study hard, (if) I try, I will succeed and I will graduate.

“My motivation is just my parents and my sister. My parents didn’t really go to school because they come from a small town (in Mexico). Every day they tell me that school’s a big thing for you, that you need it to succeed in life. That’s why they came here. Nowadays, if you don’t even have a high school diploma, you can’t get a really good job. My parents, they don’t have high school diplomas and they have done so many things to have a good job. My mom is a cook and my dad is a manager. I hope to have a better life, to have more things that I want, to find happiness in life. In order for that, you have to get a good education.”

Jayla Lewis, 18, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Jayla Lewis, 18, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Jayla Lewis, 18

“I’m worried about the proficiencies because I don’t really understand math well. I have to pass the math, science and writing (proficiencies). We have to pass all proficiencies; without passing the proficiencies, you won’t be able to walk.

“After I graduate, I’m planning on going straight to college. I wanted to do sports and medicine, but many colleges don’t train for that, so if I had to choose, it’d be a pharmacist.

“Last year, it seemed like most teachers weren’t really organized and this year, they are. They already know what they’re going to do. It’s planned out. This year, we have advisory (period), which is cool because it helps most seniors to graduate on time. I’ve been here since my freshman year and I’ve seen a big change. This year, it’s actually awesome. It’s neat, it’s perfect, clean. There’s nothing wrong with Mojave High School.”

Kiana Spengler, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Kiana Spengler, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Kiana Spengler, 17

“A lot of people say we’re the ghetto school and that we’re all just bad kids, but we’re really not. People saw us as that because we didn’t have control. Now we’re under control and I think it’ll be better. Ever since the first day of school, I already could tell it will be a better year. Kids always talk about, ‘Oh, I like how it is this year.’ I think if kids like their teachers and like how things are going, then they’re going to behave a better way. They’re not going to just slack around.

“This year, I plan to do really (well) on my SATs and ACTs. Another goal is to achieve a 4.0 (GPA). My biggest downfall has always been math. That’s always been my problem, but I’m trying to fix that.”

Jermario Farr, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Jermario Farr, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Jermario Farr, 17

“It was kind of hectic last year. There were a bunch of fights after school. It was crazy, like, everybody doing their own thing. Not paying attention in school basically. The teachers and staff are more strict. But that’s a good thing because everybody is getting to class on time, doing the right thing. People are happy to come to Mojave now, so that’s a good process I guess.

“I’m planning to go to college for four years and I was hoping to play football in college. My backup plan is to be a lawyer but that’s kind of hard so I was just going to go to the police academy and join the SWAT team. They do a lot of moving and running around and I kind of like running around.”

Travis Cunningham, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Travis Cunningham, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Travis Cunningham, 17

“It’s way better than last year. We only had one bathroom unlocked last year. Now all the bathrooms are unlocked. The hallways are much cleaner. Teachers are willing to stay after to help you. The staff is nice. It’s just all around better.

“I want to graduate, and just succeed in life. I’ll probably join the military, and then find out what I want to do after that – either become something in law enforcement or a fireman.”

David Laurel, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

David Laurel, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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David Laurel, 17

“I heard it was a really bad school the years before, but it’s like a new school. I guess it’s pretty good because there’s some new rules. You could use your iPod before, like just walk out of class anytime, basically do whatever you want and now you can’t do that. You can’t be listening to music while you’re in class. You can’t be sagging your pants. They’re pretty strict now.

“My hope this year is to graduate high school and maybe go to college. I want to be a car mechanic. The math proficiencies are pretty hard but I’m trying to do my best on them. All my teachers are helping me the way they’re supposed to be helping me. So yeah, it’s pretty good being here.”

Bryant Lewis, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Bryant Lewis, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Bryant Lewis, 17

“Football has been like my life ever since like third grade. I want to see if I can make something out of it. If football (doesn’t) work out, I’m going to try to major in mechanical engineering or have a business major, probably health and fitness. This year, I hope we have a more successful sports program. I hope to get my GPA up a little higher. Right now I’m at a weighted 3.5, hopefully try to get it up to a 3.8, somewhere around there.

“I’m going to go to college. I’m still trying to work out my scholarship for sports and hopefully I can try to get an academic scholarship as well. Right now, I’m looking toward University of Washington, Arizona or Colorado. I have to work on taking my SATs and ACTs again, trying to get my scores a little bit better.

“Teachers take more of an interest toward students. I see that. They have lower tolerance for a lot of stuff. I think (the turnaround) will be successful because it’s bringing a lot of positive attention.”

"For me, looking from the inside out, I can see that this school is something that the world, that Las Vegas doesn't see." - Caleb Dawkins, 17, a senior at Mojave High School.

"For me, looking from the inside out, I can see that this school is something that the world, that Las Vegas doesn't see." - Caleb Dawkins, 17, a senior at Mojave High School.

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Caleb Dawkins, 17

“This school in the media has been looked down upon. For me, looking from the inside out, I can see that this school is something that the world, that Las Vegas doesn’t see. We have intelligent students. They want to be successful. It’s just that we didn’t have the push and the drive. Now that we have this turnaround school, this push and this drive is going to be great and surprising.

“My principal is great. Mr. Rael, he is one of the coolest principals I have ever met. The way he interacts with the students is amazing. Like, he shakes my hand, he knows me as an individual and that’s what we really didn’t get last year. It’s really wonderful. It’s really a turnaround school now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mojave is one of the top schools in the future.

“I want to be the salutatorian of my class. I’m trying to keep a 4.0 (GPA) this year. Pretty much I want to get into a nice college. I’m looking at USC, majoring in music production or business and finance.”

Denise Matias, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Denise Matias, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Denise Matias, 17

“My main goal this year is to graduate with my advanced honors diploma. I’m taking four AP classes — it’s very stressful. It’s a lot of work to do for the classes and there’s not as much time as I wish there would be to finish all my homework for all my classes. I’m pushing myself because for my family, I’m the first that’s going to graduate. I’m the oldest out of four, so I also want to set an example for them that they have to strive for the best that they can do.

“My parents have always told me to never give up on what I want. My dad, he works in construction. He’s been doing construction for about 20 years. My mom, she used to be a stay-at-home mom, but then as times got harder, she decided she also had to go out and work to help my dad with the payments. My mom works making store bags at a factory.

“I want my siblings to see that we can be the first generation to graduate and go off and do better things. I want to go off to college and have a career. I’ve always wanted to be a pediatrician. It’s going to be another long career of education. I’d have to be a full-time student and that would take another 12 years. Right now, I’m trying to help my parents with everything at home, helping raise my siblings and stuff. If I don’t (become a pediatrician), I’ve thought about becoming an accountant, working as a teller at a bank. That’d also be a good option for me.”

Alejandra Renteria, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Alejandra Renteria, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Alejandra Renderia, 17

“My sister dropped out, so I’m trying to be the good example now. I’m the first one in my family to get this far, so I’m planning on graduating. I’m planning on going to culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu. Me and my sister are both trying to open up our own bakery. I’m trying not to slack off anymore.

“I’m happy that they’re doing this whole new program here. I can see a big change, especially in the students. They may think they don’t like it and it’s not helping but I can see it.”

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