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August 22, 2014

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The Turnaround:

Principal hits streets in quest to bring students back to class

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Paul Takahashi

Mojave High School Principal Antonio Rael (right) and Dean of Students Nathalie Burgess (left) walk to an at-risk, “non-returning” student’s home during the Clark County School District’s “Reclaim Your Future” event on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011. The volunteer event encourages at-risk, “non-returning” students to come back to school and graduate.

Mojave "Reclaim Your Future"

Mojave High School Principal Antonio Rael and Dean of Students Nathalie Burgess drive to an at-risk, Launch slideshow »

Antonio Rael takes a deep breath and rings the front door bell.

Dogs start barking from within the house, the noise piercing the morning quiet. A few foreclosure signs dot the neighborhood around the single-story house two blocks south of Mojave High School.

It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, but Mojave’s new principal is hard at work, trying to win back the hearts and minds of 24 students who didn’t show up at the North Las Vegas school during the first two weeks of classes.

They are among some 2,200 “non-return students” in the Clark County School District — kids who were enrolled in the spring but failed to return in the fall. These at-risk students leave no paper trail, no transfer forms, no transcript requests, no re-enrollment applications.

They simply disappear.

But Rael is determined to find out what happened to his students. That’s why he is giving up his Saturday morning — along with more than 300 other educators, public officials and community members — to participate in the School District’s first “Reclaim Your Future” event.

Working in groups of three, volunteers visited the homes of some 300 students across the district who, for some reason or another, have slipped through the cracks. The goal: Engage students and their families in a meaningful dialogue about their future and what resources they have to help them graduate.

Rael waits patiently at the door, glancing around the house. After a few long minutes, the garage door opens and a man in shorts and a T-shirt steps out.

Rael walks over, introduces himself and says, “We’re looking for Steven. Do you know where he is?”

•••

Tracking the thousands of students who drop out each year is not an easy task for the School District, which has a 33 percent transiency rate, a calculation that measures student attendance based on enrollment, transfers and drops.

It’s not for lack of trying. The School District employs a staff of attendance and truancy officers who call and make house visits to encourage “non-return” students to come back to school.

For the inaugural “Reclaim Your Future” event, the district focused on 10 high schools: Canyon Springs, Chaparral, Cimarron Memorial, Desert Pines, Las Vegas, Legacy, Liberty, Mojave, Rancho and Western.

Prior to Saturday’s event, the district had identified about 1,400 students from the 10 schools who didn’t return this year. Through daily phone calls and check-ins, attendance officers were able to account for all but 289 students by Saturday. Some have moved out of the county or transferred to other schools while others didn’t enroll before the first day of school.

“We panicked,” said Pedro Martinez, deputy superintendent of instruction. “We said, ‘Oh my God, here we are at the start of the school year and we’ve already lost 1,400 kids. We can’t teach them if they don’t come to school.”

So, Martinez worked with School Board members Erin Cranor and Chris Garvey to implement “Reclaim Your Future,” modeled loosely after similar programs in the Chicago and Washoe County school districts.

Click to enlarge photo

Mojave High School Principal Antonio Rael speaks with a volunteer at the North Las Vegas high school after the Clark County School District's "Reclaim Your Future" event on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011.

The idea is that phone calls can only do so much to encourage at-risk students to return to the classroom. A 2007 grant-funded study by the district found that only a quarter of some 3,800 at-risk students targeted in a phone campaign could be reached. The majority of the phones had been disconnected, said Sue Daellenbach, the director of the district’s research arm.

“A face-to-face discussion is going to be a whole lot different than a phone call,” she said. “It shows a higher level of concern.”

•••

Rael learns that Steven had moved back to the East Coast over the summer, which explains his absence at Mojave this year. Rael is not surprised: Mojave has one of the highest transiency rates — 44 percent — among the 49 high schools in the district.

After a quick chat about his turnaround efforts at Mojave, Rael bids the man farewell, and drives off to his second house visit a few blocks away.

“It was still a good contact though,” Rael tells his dean of students, Nathalie Burgess, on the drive over. “More face time is always good.”

Rael parks his SUV down the street and marches down the street to his next destination. On the way, he sees a sign on a house emblazoned, “No solicitors.”

“I’m not soliciting,” he mutters. “I’m trying to change lives.”

This time, a short woman answers the door, her two small dogs scampering around Rael and Burgess. They explain their mission again, and ask to speak to the woman’s son.

He’s not home, but it doesn’t matter, the woman says. She knows better than to send her son to Mojave, pointing out the school’s previously graffiti-covered bathrooms and discipline issues. He’s now attending an online school run by the state.

Mojave is a completely different campus, Rael assures her. “If your son’s new school doesn’t work out, call us. Our door is always open.”

Rael is discouraged as he walks back to his vehicle. More than 1,000 students zoned for Mojave have enrolled in other schools, he said.

“It’s disheartening we can’t get past the past,” he says. “We’ve got change the perception of this campus, one child, one family at a time. We’ll get them back.”

•••

School Board members Cranor and Garvey spearheaded the “Reclaim Your Future” initiative after watching Washoe County receive an innovation award in April for its program to bring at-risk children back to school.

Click to enlarge photo

Mojave High School Principal Antonio Rael (back) and Dean of Students Nathalie Burgess (front) look for an at-risk, "non-returning" student's home during the Clark County School District's "Reclaim Your Future" event on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011. The volunteer event encourages at-risk, "non-returning" students to come back to school and graduate.

Washoe’s program has brought out U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and Gov. Brian Sandoval to encourage students to return, Martinez said. Cranor, Garvey and Martinez hope to expand Clark County’s program, inviting high-profile officials to participate and opening the initiative up to elementary and middle schools.

“By involving our policy makers, it gets them a close-up look at what’s going on in a lot of these kids’ lives,” Garvey said. “Some of these places have no air conditioning, let alone a desk or computer for kids to do their homework.”

Garvey tears up. She’s haunted by some of the things she’s seen going door to door for her School Board campaigns.

“I’ve seen students where their grandmother was taking care of them, mom and dad had drug issues and the kids were covered in bedbug bites because the only mattress they could find was out of a dumpster,” she said. “Some of the stuff kids live through, it’s bad.”

Cranor nods in agreement. Failing students contemplating dropping out of school often don’t know about the resources available to remedial students — online credit retrieval programs, after-school tutoring and proficiency exam boot camps, she said.

“It’s easy for kids to feel like no one cares,” Cranor said. “For us to come to their homes and say, ‘Here’s what we have to offer; here’s the path to success,’ they will see that we care, that our whole community does.”

“These kids just need to know it’s possible to graduate,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us to show them we care.”

•••

Rael pulls up to his third and final destination near the intersection of Craig Road and Lamb Boulevard, some five miles from Mojave. His Cadillac Escalade looks out of place in the trash-strewn neighborhood characterized by rows of two-story apartments.

“The majority of educators come from a middle-class background,” Rael says. “I think it’s paramount to see the pressures and struggles these kids live with every day.”

Click to enlarge photo

Mojave High School Principal Antonio Rael leaves a calling card on the door of an at-risk student during the Clark County School District's "Reclaim Your Future" event on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011. The volunteer event encourages at-risk, "non-returning" students to come back to school and graduate.

A few residents peek out from the balconies as Rael and Burgess make their way to an apartment complex peppered with eviction signs. Furniture and boxes of personal belongings are stacked outside the door of one apartment. Many of the apartments don’t have addresses clearly marked, confusing the search for the female Mojave student.

Rael starts asking residents for help. Rael — who is half Hispanic but grew up in an English-speaking household — regrets not knowing much Spanish in this largely Latino neighborhood.

Undeterred by the language barrier, Rael and Burgess begin knocking on doors. One neighbor tells them they don’t know the student but that a family recently moved out of the complex.

After a few minutes of asking around, they give up the search, leaving several calling cards on the metal doors. As the duo begins to leave, an observant young boy clutching a soccer ball yells out, “I’ll go to your school when I’m 14.”

“We’ll be waiting,” Rael answers.

Mojave had 30 volunteers on Saturday, reaching out to 24 seniors and juniors. Ten students were reached, three of whom committed to returning to school this week. The other seven students had enrolled in other schools.

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  1. I applaud this program.The dedication and concern that these administrators and volunteers show is encouraging. However,where does the schools responsibility end and the parents begin? The CCSD already feeds,provides transportation,and in some cases clothing and school supplies to students. At what point do we cease being a surrogate parent?

  2. Denali,
    Your point about parental responsibility is duly noted, and I won't argue with it. That said, as a society, we are the ones who suffer if the kids don't get educated. Uneducated people become tomorrows criminals and welfare recipients. It behooves all of us to encourage children - ALL children, to get an education.

    Western was a rough school when I attended in the mid-eighties. This principal has a tough row to hoe. I wish him all the luck and success he can get.

  3. I like the idea of going door to door. What's mind boggling is the lack of accountability from anyone who leaves the school system not making a 3 minute phone call to the school to inform them so they don't have to waste more time trying to find out. If you are in 8th grade and leave to go to another school...don't you have to have transcripts transferred? I don't understand the process. If I enroll at a school in another state there's no transfer of records??????

    And in another note, I simply can't comprehend, understand or fathom the mindset of anyone who already lives in poverty, on welfare, assistance of any kind making a decision to bring a baby into the world to join the poverty of that person. You can't support or take care of yourself financially. How are you going to take care of someone else? I really don't understand the mindset. Is going thru life single with no children, married with no children, being an aunt, being an uncle really that miserable of a life to the point that says "I need to breed"..regardless of the abject poverty aspect?

  4. TomD:

    "...who already lives in poverty, on welfare, assistance of any kind making a decision to bring a baby into the world to join the poverty of that person."

    Do you support Medicaid covering the cost of abortions? If you don't, then please retract your comment.

  5. I cannot believe these numbers !! The amount of kids NOT finishing High School in the Valley is staggering. The STATE should be burying their head in the sand over this.They can throw any NEW program they want at these kids.But they haven't given to the core issue...WHY? Why are so so many kids not even showing up. Worse yet?.....where the hell are these parents.They have no clue what the future holds for them...nor do they really care...that's the sad part !!

  6. I would rather see a kid, stay home, ditch school, or run with his loser friends, than go to school and cause trouble, fighting, cussing the teachers etc.. I believe these same kids, put into a trade school and taught a trade would be better off. Some kids can work with their minds others, need too work with their hands. I think you will find, the ones that require hands on teaching, would do much better in a trade school setting, than a classroom.

  7. Absolutely Nancy. I believe 15 states do cover. Let them all cover it. As bad as it sounds it's the practical decision. What's your point?

    Adoption is also an option