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the turnaround:

Teacher returns to her Western High roots to make a difference

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Leila Navidi

Elizabeth Meinhold teaches Honors English Literature at Western High School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011.

Western HS Teacher Elizabeth Meinhold

Elizabeth Meinhold teaches Honors English Literature at Western High School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Western High School

Students walk between periods during the first day of school at Western High School in Las Vegas on Monday, Aug. 29, 2011. Launch slideshow »

The Turnaround: Western High School

KSNV reports on Western High School and the challenges it faces in turning around student achievement, Aug. 31, 2011.

This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking efforts by the Clark County School District to improve student performance at five struggling schools.

Elizabeth Meinhold makes her way down the packed hallway, her short frame weaving through the crowd of students like a spaceship dodging a bunch of asteroids.

The 54-year-old English teacher — wearing a bright red shirt, black slacks and brown sandals — makes a beeline to room 315 and greets them one by one with a cherry “Hello,” a swift handshake or an occasional fist-bump.

“What are we learning today?” a tall boy asks Meinhold, who this period is teaching an honors English literature class.

“Your favorite subject, the Anglo-Saxons,” she says.

The boy flashes a big smile, rolls his eyes and walks right in.

Even though Meinhold is a new teacher at Western High School, she’s no stranger to the struggling central valley school. Meinhold is also a proud alumna, Western class of 1975.

It was a different time then. Las Vegas had only a few high schools, and Western was one of the better ones. Many graduates went on to college and became doctors, lawyers, pilots and business executives.

Today’s Western is almost unrecognizable to Harvard-educated Meinhold, who is adamant: “This Western is not the school I went to.”

The development of suburban high schools two decades ago changed the student demographics at Western. The makeup of the neighborhood became poorer and more diverse as wealthier residents migrated to the suburbs.

Western was slapped with a rough reputation by its students and rival high schools — a “ghetto school” fraught with discipline issues and plagued by some of the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the Clark County School District.

Alarmed by the downward trends, the district has implemented a “turnaround” plan at Western, replacing half of its teachers and securing federal stimulus dollars to help improve student achievement at the lowest performing high school in the county.

When Meinhold heard about the turnaround effort at Western, she jumped at the opportunity to help her alma mater.

“I went into teaching because I wanted to do something helpful for society,” she says. “I wanted to go to an inner-city school because they need the most help. And if I’m going to go anywhere, it’s going to be Western.”

•••

Looking about her class of 34 seniors, Meinhold is reminded how much things have changed at Western.

The white students are a minority in the class; the majority are Hispanic and black. The classroom is furnished with a digital projector, built-in ceiling speakers and a computer. Instead of a chalkboard, there’s a dry-erase board with markers. In the computer lab across the hall, students are typing on keyboards; Meinhold remembers taking a shorthand class when she was at Western more than three decades ago.

Meinhold’s lesson today is on Anglo-Saxon poetry from the early Middle Ages. As she introduces the week’s medieval poems — “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer” and “The Wife’s Lament” — eyes start to glaze over.

One girl in the front row is sleeping. A boy starts to doodle. A few students are paying attention, but several heads are on desks.

Reviving literature from the fifth to 11th centuries is no easy task for any teacher, let alone a second-year teacher such as Meinhold. To explain the concept of a ballad — a song or poem that tells a story — Meinhold turns to a more modern but folksy country song: “Long Black Veil” — this version sung by Johnny Cash’s daughter, Rosanne.

“You probably don’t listen to a lot of music like this, but listen, there’s a great story here,” Meinhold tells the class. “When you read literature, you’re going to read stories with different narrators. You need to figure out who’s speaking and what’s going on.”

The mellow voice starts singing. A few students giggle, but soon everyone’s listening.

“Ten years ago on a cold dark night

Someone was killed beneath the town hall light

There were few at the scene, but they all agreed

That the slayer who ran looked a lot like me …

“The judge said, ‘Son, what is your alibi?’

If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.

I said not a word, though it meant my life,

For I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife …”

•••

A self-proclaimed rebel, Meinhold couldn’t wait to graduate from Western in the mid-1970s. It was the era of civil rights and feminism, and Meinhold was eager to get out of the classroom and see the world.

“I was one of those kids who didn’t want to go to school,” she says. “Some teachers seem shocked students don’t want to be here. I’m shocked when they do.”

Meinhold was so eager to get out of school, she graduated in January — six months early — and began her adult life working odd jobs and traveling to Europe. By age 30, Meinhold had spent five months in England, worked the reception desk in the publisher’s office of the Los Angeles Times and graduated from Harvard University.

After securing her bachelor’s degree in English, Meinhold became a stockbroker with the Las Vegas office of a national brokerage firm in 1994.

For Meinhold President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 changed everything. His emphasis on education inspired her to change careers and go into teaching.

“When Obama was elected, there were exciting changes happening,” she says. “I saw he was a president who wanted to push education, and I found what I could do to help.”

In 2009, Meinhold completed a two-year teaching certificate at UNLV, and began teaching at the Advanced Technologies Academy — the School District’s highest-performing, Blue Ribbon school.

But when Meinhold was transferred last year because the district deemed there were too many teachers at her school, she jumped at the opportunity to work at Western — an unlikely development for someone who “hated” school.

“When I graduated, the very last place I thought I’d end up was Western High School,” Meinhold says, laughing. “Talk about the circle of life.”

Western Principal Neddy Alvarez is hoping to highlight some of Western’s notable alumni as part of her effort to turn the school around. The goal: Bring a sense of tradition and history to a school whose past has been forgotten.

Prominently displayed in the main office is a newspaper clipping about Western alumna Nicole Malachowski, the first female Thunderbird pilot. Later this year, Alvarez plans to highlight Las Vegas car dealer Cliff Findlay, another prominent Western graduate.

Following Alvarez’s lead, Meinhold shares photographs and stories about her Western years and life after graduation. Connecting with students is a challenge, but Meinhold is hopeful her story will inspire her fellow Western Warriors to graduate and pursue their dreams.

“I’m telling (my students), you can do anything you want to: Go to college, travel to England, even end up right where you started,” she says, smiling.

•••

The song ends, and Meinhold is asking students to recall the story being told through the lyrics.

A few eager hands are raised high in the air. One after another, Meinhold calls on the students, many of whom seem confused about a female vocalist singing a song from the viewpoint of a male narrator.

Finally, a boy in the back offers the correct answer.

“Good job, José,” Meinhold says. “This is good practice, because literature doesn’t spell out everything.”

The bell rings. As her classroom empties, Meinhold looks exhausted.

“It’s hard to make Anglo-Saxons exciting and fun,” she says. “I know the minute they leave, they’ll forget this. But I hope they’ll remember somewhere.”

Western needs to raise the expectations of its students or risk continuing to be the district’s lowest-performing school, she says.

As an alumna, Western’s turnaround effort is personal for Meinhold. It’s about trying to restore the high academic standards and school pride to her alma mater.

But as a teacher, Meinhold knows it won’t be easy. Too many of her students have fallen behind, and even her honors students are finding it difficult to understand literature.

Still, Meinhold is optimistic about the turnaround effort at Western.

“Will it work? I hope so.”

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