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November 26, 2015

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The Turnaround:

Homecoming a Chaparral tradition worth preserving


Leila Navidi

Freshmen Cynthia Fountain and Shawn Daniel embrace while resting against the side wall at Chaparral High School’s homecoming dance at the school’s gymnasium Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011.

Chaparral Homecoming

Chaparral High School students take a limousine from Chaparral to Yard House at Red Rock Resort for a pre-homecoming dinner Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011. Launch slideshow »

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

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Roni Briones was doing her best to fight back the tears. She was proudly snapping photos, reminding her teenage son to have a good time at the Homecoming Dance.

He was one of a group of eight Chaparral High School students, all made up and ready to hit the town before the big dance — stylish dresses, classic tuxes and formal shoes.

“I want to cry. It’s very exciting,” Briones said as her son, Freddie, 16, stood with his date and friends before their rented stretch limo drove them to Red Rock Canyon for photos and a trendy restaurant for dinner ahead of the 7 p.m. dance. It was roses and chocolates for Freddie's date, and a couple of words of advice from mom. “Be a gentleman,” she told her son.

This is as traditional as it gets, the high school dance. For all the questions about student achievement and academic performance in the era of The Turnaround School, Chaparral’s Homecoming Dance might have taken you back to 1991, 1981 or 1971. The underage cool, the trendy chic, the adolescent awkwardness, it was all there. So too, the pride, the sort that comes with American high schools dating back to when dad was chasing mom.

It was the chance for young men and women to put their best foot forward, both figuratively and literally: Were those $200 wingtips? Is that a designer dress?

To be sure, Freddie and Nicole were the exceptions among the estimated 300 students who attended the Saturday night dance. Many borrowed their parents’ car to drive themselves and a date. Others caught rides with their friends. Grandma dropped off one young man. Grandma: “See you at 10, honey. Meet you out front.” A slight pause; then the grandson spoke: “I love you grandma, but could you meet me out back?” A gentle smile crossed the senior’s face. “Sure, sweetheart.”

The school dance remains the unifying force for a school, social circles, faculty and support staff. Assistant Principal Todd Peterson, whose boyish features make him appear as though he is not that far removed from his own homecoming dance, said students are more “economical” today than they might have been a decade ago. Chalk it up to the times, but fewer students appear to be renting limos or attending a show on the Strip. Also gone is much of the reverence of the homecoming king and queen. To be sure, it’s still done. The king, queen and their court were named at halftime of Chaparral’s Friday night football game with Valley High School. “Today, kids aren’t into the whole, ‘You’re the head cheerleader or homecoming king and queen,’ ” Peterson said.

In fact, the skin color, shapes and features of the Chaparral homecoming reflected inclusiveness of a school that has predominantly Hispanic students. Black and white youngsters were also represented on the court, as well as a special education student who was elected by his peers.

Music was the catalyst of the dance, a local DJ playing song after song with driving rhythms that kept students toggling between slow dances and pounding rhythms, noise reverberating throughout the Chaparral gym as chaperones walked the floor. They sniffed for the scent of liquor or signs of drugs; none was spotted.

The annual gathering was the latest to unify the 38-year-old high school, which is one of five Clark County schools designated for turnaround status, leading to the replacement of Chaparral’s principal and half of its staff as district administrators seek to improve academic performance. Homecoming was the latest event to help heal the school.

Bonnie Moses has taught high school for 40 years, half of that period at Chaparral. Her hair wrapped in a bun, the smiling Moses appears as though she is straight out of a central casting, the strict but kind educator. As she accepted tickets from students and their dates — $30 apiece, although exceptions were made for those who couldn’t afford them — Moses was philosophical about how today’s youngsters compare with those of when she began teaching.

“They’re similar because they’re kids dressing up,” she says. Then she offers a quick glance toward a particularly short dress worn by one young girl. “The attire has changed a little bit.” A little bit? she’s asked. “A whole lot,” she replies with a deeper smile.

Peterson offers his own take on rising hem lines and the changing standards of style. “If their parents let them leave the house like that then they’re OK,” he said.

Of course, nights like this are nothing without the organizing committee, the group of student activists who would have done Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney proud several generations ago. The nearly two dozen teens began decorating the school gym at 10 p.m. Friday after the end of the football game, called it a night at 3 a.m. and returned six hours later to work through 4 p.m., putting up posters, colored paper, setting up tables and creating party favors.

Yatzity Guerra, Mira Briseno, Valerie Barrios, Dawnesha Brinkley and Rachel Sunis were among the key players operating under the direction of government teacher and student council adviser Erin Hasley, a 2001 graduate of Silverado High School. They adopted a ship and sailor theme for the night, hosted a spirit day a month ago to boost the excitement level, held a variety of on-campus competitions to further get out the word and then worked through the night to get everything ready.

And why did they do it? “Our reputation was on the line. Our school is known for our student dances, and we wanted to do the best we could do,” Yatzity said. “It brings up the spirit and shows how much we care and love our school.”

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