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October 30, 2014

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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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  1. Mr. Takahashi: I suspect the District's hesitancy for transparency is that their performance has been so abysmal. Taxpayers have been dumping fortune after fortune of our tax dollars into a broken K-12 yet they cry for increases so they can do more of the same. Can you find out this: can the District show that the "average" student gets anything out of K-12 that s/he wouldn't by just subsisting elsewhere say on her/his own at the public library for 6-7 hours a day? I'm not suggesting we do that but it is so apparent that K-12 is NOT DELIVERING much of anything--other than a breeding ground for everything but education. We are ignoring and destroying our children by continuing this absurdity.

  2. First, thank you LV Sun for actually doing your job, attempting to keep the public informed. But @cnev, why the teacher bashing? It's not the teacher's smoke and mirror show. It's Mr. Jones' show. Or rather, his refusal to perform. Can we ever have a sincere discussion in this community about education without teacher bashing?

  3. I wasn't teacher bashing, mykids, I guess I wrote my comment in a way that could be misconstrued. I meant welcome to our world at CCSD, as teachers all we get is the District's smoke and mirrors show. I was welcoming the Sun to the same lack of transparency teachers get from Jones and CCSD day in and day out.

  4. CCSD won't cooperate? Any ideas why CCSD teachers aren't interest in race to the top? Accountability? Performance? It should take LESS MONEY to identify kids EARLY and take corrective action in the same school year. Put teachers on full time: change 7-hour days to 8-hour days. Change 184 work days to 240 work days. Teachers must be available for the remedial classes which are necessary due to their inability to identify those who have not been reached in their class rooms. We have literally hundreds of school buildings sitting empty part of every year. We have teachers who have 9-month schedules. We have students who need to be in those school buildings (class rooms) with EFFECTIVE teachers.

  5. The graduation rates in this town are beyond anything I can comprehend, grasp on to or understand. It's on another planet. 156 in my class. Everyone graduated. There was never a question that anyone would drop out. The stuff that goes on here is abysmal...to say the least. It's not the teachers. It's the parents front and center.

  6. I guess I should say "parent" or "grandparent" or "girlfriend or boyfriend" instead of parents as the family unit has simply disintegrated.

  7. Parents have to devote time and energy to their children's school work. Do their math homework with them. Help in making sure they can read and write. Those that ship their kids off to school thinking "they've done their job" will be the parent of a drop out and or underperformer. Parents need to go over their kids homework every night and make sure it's done right. If mom and dad can't read or write then their kid better be self motivated. Teachers are NOT solely responsible for your child's education.

  8. Sorry @cnev. In the future, I promise to finish my morning coffee before commenting. I reread your post. I admit my comment to you was a defensive and eager one. Two days after the horror at Newtown, there were members of this LV Sun community bashing teachers and I may have been a bit too eager (and cranky) with my response.

    Stories abound and people believe them. There is no public forum having an informed discussion, just education blogs. On this (and many more sites) the bottom line, more often than not, is to blame the teacher. And for this, and this alone, I do blame the teachers. Blame us for being quiet and not speaking up while these stories begin to snowball. It's time to speak up, after the coffee.

    http://dennissparks.wordpress.com/2012/1...

  9. @roslenda you're sort of correct about one thing.

    "I suspect the District's hesitancy for transparency is that their performance has been so abysmal."

    Maybe, maybe not. We won't know until Mr. Jones follows through on his promise to assure transparency and releases the data being requested. If you are right, then how would this look for him and CCSD BOD? There's an abundance of evidence showing that "turn around schools" are not only NOT improving public education, but are destructive to the community they willing serve. Yet it's CCSD's magic bullet and MAIN goal of the effort to privatize education and put it in the hands of large corporations, such as the Edith and Eli Broad Foundation (and many others) Mr. Jones is a graduate of the Broad Foundation Superintendent Academy. You don't need 6 hours in the library to find out what is going on Roslenda. 30 minutes on google will suffice. Educate yourself. You make valid points.

  10. How do you "change the way to calculate" a graduation rate?

    100 students start 12th grade on Sept 1, 2011. On June 1, 2012, 95 of these students receive a high school graduation diploma. The "rate" of graduation is 95/100 or 95%. As my little boy says "easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy."

    So, Mr. Jones, what is the issue? Even my 7 year old kid can calculate the "rate" of graduation.

    (postscript : yes, I know that some students transfer out and others transfer in, but that's academic in this context - the point is that CCSD already has exact and verifiable numbers - you don't use formulas (or tweak them) to determine rates when you already know how many parchments you printed and handed out at graduation time.)

  11. Test_Guy: Ask the Nevada Department of Education if graduation rates are not subject to changes in calculations. It has been shown, over and over again, that SD's are "creative" in reporting graduation rates. I wish they'd get over the long-term effort to place poorly--seems they think they'll get more and more and more funding if they produce negative results. Let's stop that. Divert funding to charter schools, private / parochial schools, home school financial support....

  12. Schools are a lynch pin in Unions and Democrat / Progressive Politicians along with Third party leaders in working on a planned economy where they get to choose who wins and who goes without. Kick them out.

    The fix is simple. Remove unions from the schools and use only local taxes to fund education. Remove the state completely. The unions stack the educational boards with those who are Union friendly so they can wreak havoc on your children's education. Cut school regulations by 80% and administrative staff by 80%. Review and correct any curriculum that reenforces that government knows best, it is worthless and a lie. Get rid of school breakfasts and dinners. School is not to be mother and father. Quite giving access to groups that encourage dependency or preach that it is OK for immoral behavior. In short the schools are doing just about everything they are not supposed to do and not carrying out their primary mission. Education. Teachers are not social workers and should not have those duties.

  13. So most of the teachers at these turnaround schools were reassigned a couple of years ago, to be replaces by a hand-picked crew of the new administrators. The schools are still not showing improved grad rates. I'm sure the district and its toadies in Amanda Fulkerson's office will still be able to spin this as being the fault of the teachers and their evil union. I mean, looking at the comments here, the public is so willing to grasp at that even in the face of evidence here to the contrary. Oh, wait, administrators have their own union, too. But, no, they wouldn't hide failures to promote their agenda. Only the evil teachers do that.

  14. Maybe the Union and the Dept of Education won't let them. Cover-up?

    Hope the Union bosses are doing well with their $200,000+ salary and the Dept. of Education is doing well in DC with it's billions of dollars being flushed down their toilet. ObamaVille.

  15. Jeremiah, you seem new here. I've been harping on "teach our children to read." While, the teachers feign innocence. Now I here the SD's are saying it's "everyone's" responsibility to ensure reading at grade level--so sounds like the innocent teachers need to clean up their acts. As I've indicated re adult ed--why didn't the highly educated teachers in 5th - drop out date figure out Jose can't read above 4th grade level???? Huh? The teachers claim they are smart, educated and concerned but they don't notice that half their students can't read? And they think we should increase their compensation so they can dump more of the same faulty logic on us? Privatization of K-12 seems the only feasible option. Save our kids from the teachers.

  16. The Nevada tax payers need to wake up and quit paying the ridiculous overhead of administrators in both Clark and Washoe County. The thousands of dollars for salaries need to be redirected to students and learning!