Las Vegas Sun

May 24, 2015

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District refuses request to release ‘turnaround’ schools’ graduation data

After agreeing to participate in a Las Vegas Sun project examining the Clark County School District’s three “turnaround” high schools, the district gave Sun reporters exceptional access to the schools and provided most of the news organization’s requests for data.

But despite its proclamations of being transparent with the community, the district has refused to grant repeated public records requests from the Sun for graduation data from the three schools.

Last year, the School District took part in an unprecedented national experiment in public education. Drastic measures were undertaken at three of the worst-performing schools in the valley — in a spirited effort to improve student achievement.

After being awarded $8.7 million in federal School Improvement Grant money, the district replaced principals and hundreds of staff at Chaparral, Mojave and Western high schools. Other major changes included new student programs and teacher trainings, lengthening the school day and cleaning up campuses.

The Sun was granted access to the schools as part of a yearlong look at the district's turnaround efforts. The findings — while largely anecdotal — were sobering, and illuminated the daunting challenges facing Nevada's education system and children.

For the past four months, the Sun has been requesting that the district provide a variety of student data to demonstrate quantitatively the gains made at the turnaround schools during the 2011-12 school year.

The district complied with most of the Sun's requests for data, such as the number of discipline incidents, teacher turnover and average daily attendance rates. However, it has declined to release a key indicator of the turnaround's success: graduation rates for the class of 2012.

Typically, there is a yearlong lag in reporting graduation data, because the state Department of Education takes the better part of a year to verify those numbers, said Leslie Arnold, the district's director of assessment, accountability, research and school improvement.

However, to illustrate the impact of the district's graduation initiative — "Reclaim Your Future" — and its turnaround efforts last school year, the Sun requested that the district release its preliminary graduation rate data ahead of the state release.

This was not an unusual request. The School District has released preliminary graduation data in the past.

In early June, it conducted a news conference at Clark High School to tout an anticipated 6 percent increase in its districtwide graduation rate for the class of 2012. The announcement was made before even a single graduation ceremony had taken place in the district.

When the state released its report card for the School District this fall, the verified district graduation rate — which included Clark County's first-ever August graduation — was actually 66 percent. That represented a 1 percent difference from the district's June estimate of 65 percent.

Ric Anderson, managing editor of the Sun, said the news organization was surprised and disappointed by the district’s refusal to release the individual schools’ graduation rates.

“We appreciate that the School District gave our reporters access to the turnaround schools and provided us with the vast majority of the documentation we sought. But we simply don’t understand why the district, after making a commitment to transparency, would choose not to share the graduation figures with the community,” Anderson said. “There’s no legal requirement for the district to withhold the information. In addition, we assured the administration we would explain to our readers that these are preliminary figures that would need to be verified by the state before becoming official. Yet the district wouldn’t budge. That’s unfortunate, because it creates a perception that the district has something to hide.”

Despite releasing preliminary graduation data in the past, the School District spurned repeated requests from the Sun dating to Aug. 14. After months of talks, the district summarized the graduation results in a Dec. 18 letter:

"We are proud to share that preliminary data from 2012 shows a significant increase in graduation rate at two of our turnaround schools, Western High School and Chaparral High School," the district said, without giving any specifics. "The third school, Mojave High School, also showed improvement, though not as significant."

The district also argued it was unable to make the preliminary data public "until they are verified" by the state Education Department.

"The information you requested is not required to be produced under Nevada's public records law as the materials are worksheets/workpapers, (and) are subject to the deliberative process privilege, and the balancing of interests weights in favor of non-disclosure until the results have been verified and finalized," according to the district's legal department.

The district's argument is "just absurd," said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association. Smith has testified several times before the Legislature as an expert on open meeting and public records laws.

"It's a real stretch to claim that this is some kind of work in progress," Smith said. "It's like saying you can't read a bill draft before the Legislature passes it, or look at a city ordinance before the city council approves it."

Moreover, the preliminary graduation rates — even if unverified by the state — still are public documents financed by taxpayer dollars, Smith said. Open records law specifies the district must cite a legal statute that exempts it from releasing public information.

"All records are perceived to be open unless there is a specific exception by law," Smith said. "(Graduation rates) are a matter of public record."

Although the School District claims it has no legal obligation to release graduation data because it considers them "worksheets/workpapers," nowhere in its two-page letter does it cite a state law that prohibits it from releasing this data, Smith said.

According to Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones, the district also was worried its preliminary graduation data could be incorrect because Nevada is changing the way it calculates the graduation rate.

"The state has a new graduation rate calculation … and I just want to make sure it's not confusing," Jones said in an interview before the letter of denial was released. "Doing a preliminary calculation has the risk of sending mixed signals to the community."

However, this means the School District could be using potentially faulty graduation numbers to issue star ratings to its 49 high schools this year, calling into question the credibility of the district’s school-ranking system.

Moreover, the Education Department has no issue with school districts releasing preliminary graduation rate data, officials said. The Education Department is verifying graduation data for all 17 school districts in Nevada, but ultimately, it's the district's data, said Diane Mugford, an education programs professional with the department.

State superintendent Jim Guthrie said he did not know of any law that prohibited school districts from releasing preliminary graduation rate data.

"It's amazing how people invent state laws when they don't want to give out information," he said.

Jones — who is in his second full year as superintendent — came to Las Vegas promising to bring transparency and accountability to the nation's fifth-largest school district.

He has made significant strides in this endeavor, notably by releasing report cards for all 357 schools, keeping an online journal and issuing annual white papers on the district's progress. However, the School District under Jones also has been increasingly criticized for being less than open with the community.

It took the School District nine months to release traffic citation data to the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian think tank that was investigating school police issuing tickets outside of their jurisdiction.

Even the district's school-ranking system — which was heralded last year for being a transparent way for families to see how their schools performed — was criticized for not clearly disclosing the fact that a school's highest rating stands for two years.

That meant Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy — a four-star charter school that dropped to two stars this year — remained a four-star school. That irked a couple of School Board members, who argued the district was masking its low-performing schools from the public.

"The fundamental reason for government transparency is to build trust among taxpayers, parents and constituents of a school district," Smith said. "All it takes is a little bit to erode that trust."

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