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September 15, 2014

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The Turnaround:

Elizondo’s new principal empathizes with struggling students

Image

Leila Navidi

Principal Keith France visits a classroom during the first day of school at Elizondo Elementary School in North Las Vegas Monday, August 29, 2011.

Elizondo Elementary School

Principal Keith France tries to organize a room full of school materials in preparing for the first day of classes at Elizondo Elementary School in North Las Vegas on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011. Launch slideshow »

The Turnaround: Elizondo Elementary School

KSNV reports on efforts to turn around struggling Elizondo Elementary School, Sept. 1, 2011.

Map of Raul Elizondo

Raul Elizondo

4865 Goldfield St., North Las Vegas

Elizondo Elementary: First Day of School

Elizondo Elementary School kindergartner Jakhi Dennis, 5, eats a pancake on the first day of school, Monday, August 29, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Keith France raises his hand in a peace sign high above the crowd like a conductor about to lead an orchestra through a Mozart symphony.

The cacophony from nervous kindergartners and camera-carrying parents subsides. All is quiet on the asphalt blacktop baking in the blistering August sun.

It’s the first day of school and the tall, goateed principal is welcoming his youngest students to Elizondo Elementary School. Months of preparation — hiring staff, cleaning the campus and setting up curricula — have brought France to this day.

Now begins the hard work to turn around this struggling North Las Vegas elementary school, near the industrial outskirts of town.

Elizondo, a 13-year-old school named after a fallen North Las Vegas police officer, is one of five “turnaround” schools ranked among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the Clark County School District.

Less than half of the students at Elizondo are proficient in math and reading. Only 17 fifth-graders — 18 percent — passed the writing portion of the Criterion Referenced Test last year. Elizondo has failed to meet federal standards under No Child Left Behind for the past six years.

France was shocked by the students’ poor performance. “The kids here weren’t getting what they were supposed to,” he said, his voice rising. “Something’s wrong here.”

•••

The School District chose Elizondo to be among the five schools to benefit from a federal grant program to improve troubled schools. Although the district received $8.7 million from the School Improvement Grant, it was to help only four schools. Elizondo was left in the lurch.

No matter. District officials were adamant about fixing Elizondo. The School District footed $150,000 — less than half of what Hancock Elementary received from the grant — to implement the turnaround at Elizondo.

As with most turnaround schools, the principal was replaced, and staff had to reapply for their positions. No more than half of them could be rehired. Teachers were given $1,750 signing bonuses — an incentive to work at a challenged school.

France, a former principal at Lincoln Elementary, replaced 26 of 40 teachers and most of the support staff. He wanted more than teachers: Strong leaders who could collaborate and innovate new ideas to improve education.

“I’m very optimistic because the staff is so strong and so ready,” he said, calling them his “dream team.” “They really have that desire to move these kids up.”

•••

Connecting with students and parents at a school with a high transiency rate and a high Hispanic population will be difficult, but France is determined. Only a half-dozen parents showed up for the two meet-the-new-principal events this year, although hundreds of parents and students showed up for an open house last week.

The former music teacher — who always has jazz, rock and classical music playing in his office — has been learning Spanish. It’s hard, but he wants to be in tune with his school’s Hispanic population, about 45 percent. Translators will be at every school meeting and in the main office. Previously, no one answering phones spoke Spanish, France said.

“The Hispanic community had a hard time in the past because they didn’t get translators,” he said. “They basically had to figure out what (teachers and principals) were saying. It was very uncomfortable for (parents), and I will not let that happen this year.”

Many students come and go as their family life and financial situations change, France said. “The transiency rate is so bad here that just as you start to build trust with parents and students, they’re gone — replaced by new people who don’t trust the school.”

France knows all about the transient life, having grown up with it. When his father fell ill, he lost his trucking job and then the family home. France lived with his grandmother in a trailer, bouncing from school to school like a pinball. His family’s struggle with poverty drove him to go to college, France said.

“When I talk to parents and students, I know where they’re coming from,” he said. “When I hear stories about having to choose between new school clothes and putting food on the table, believe me, I understand that. I’ve been there. I know what that’s like.”

Over the years, some Elizondo students have acted out frustrations stemming from their economic differences and struggles, vandalizing the restrooms and bullying other students, he said.

France is implementing a uniform policy this year, something he picked up during his travels abroad to South America. Lunch breaks will be staggered, and students let out of school at different locations around campus by grade level. France hopes these measures will curb bullying.

Elizondo isn’t just a turnaround school. This year, it became one of seven Clark County schools managed by EdisonLearning Inc., a controversial New York-based for-profit education company that has had mixed success. The district forks over all of a school’s per-pupil funding to Edison, which implements its curriculum, adopts a longer school day and conducts frequent student assessments at select district schools. Edison, which will use district teachers, also provides professional development for them: training, feedback and daily opportunities for collaboration.

Elizondo will still abide by the district’s academic standards and policies, but the arrangement with Edison gives France more autonomy in trying to turn around the school.

•••

Back on the blacktop, a sweaty, but jovial France finishes leading the Pledge of Allegiance and ushers the kindergartners into school. Tears are shed, hugs are given and one small boy is dragged away from his parents, bawling.

The day is all about new beginnings, not only for students but also for France. “This turnaround is like opening a brand-new school, and I’ve never opened a school before,” he said, smiling.

It’s been a long summer. France has been working nonstop — weekdays and weekends — forgoing overtime pay. He seems stressed about the “new” school, losing sleep over new teachers, new students, a new year. The school even has a new logo — a fierce-looking bulldog that represents the bold changes happening at Elizondo.

There’s a lot expected from France and his “dream team”: Academic gains of 15 percent, an increase in parental participation and a successful implementation of a new curriculum. He’s got to make it happen, France said.

“What’s the purpose of a dream team?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s to beat everyone else and be high scoring. That’s what I expect.”

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  1. When reading this article one can tell that the new principal of Elizondo is passionate and committed to his task of improving test scores, and therefore, AYP status of the school. Elizondo, along with four other schools, went thru the turn around process. Elizondo had reached a Needs Improvement Year 5 status when the decision to turn it around was made. However, the former principal had only been there for three years. This would mean it could not simply be the result of previous leadership or direction. One would have to go farther back, at least 5 years, in Elizondo's history to fully explore their history of lower than expected test scores. In the course of the 5 years that led up to the Needs Improvement Year 5 status Elizondo went thru more than six different administrators. For those unfamiliar with the educational community, this means six different ideas and approaches to education that the staff at Elizondo worked to mold themselves to while always working towards the goal of improving student learning as could be evidenced by a multiple choice, fill in the bubble test. The principal before Mr. France was a first time principal, who had only been there the last three years. Meaning, Elizondo was already a struggling school when the district made the decision to have the school led by a first time principal rather than a principal with a history of success leading teachers who work with struggling students. What I have yet to see is the district explain that decision. Instead, the district has allowed the teachers who worked at Elizondo, and the other four schools, become the scape goats in this situation to avoid being held accountable for not providing the proper support to those 5 schools in the first place. Best of luck to the students of Elizondo and the other 4 schools this year.