Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012 | 2 a.m.
What is a turnaround school?
The Clark County School District implemented the "turnaround" model at five of its worst-performing schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Four schools – Chaparral, Mojave and Western high schools and Hancock elementary school — received a piece of $8.7 million in federal School Improvement Grant money to improve test scores and for the high schools, graduation rates. As part of the turnaround model, the principal and at least half of the staff were replaced at each school, and schools were required to implement new programs and teaching methods to improve student achievement.
This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking Clark County School District’s efforts to turn around five failing schools.
The harsh florescent lights flicker inside a portable classroom behind Mojave High School where three students work in silence, their brows furrowed as they pore over their textbooks.
The small room they are in is largely barren, save a few desks, a couple of computers and a whiteboard. The ivory-colored walls are dotted with motivational posters; one of them belying the purpose of the room: “All things are difficult before they are easy.”
This is the seemingly bleak existence inside the turnaround high school’s StarOn program, which tries to rehabilitate misbehaving students through an expanded version of detention hall.
Schools Targeting Alternative Reform On-site was started in 2009 as a unique initiative designed to improve student retention and graduation rates among some of the worst-performing schools in the valley.
Participating students spend up to 20 days in the program, isolated from the rest of their peers. They are under constant supervision, escorted by a teacher aide to the cafeteria, physical education class, even the bathroom. Teachers rotate into the classroom to work with students, oftentimes one on one. No visitors are allowed. There is a required dress code: white T-shirts, tucked into khaki pants.
If it sounds like prison, it kind of is.
However, Mojave’s assistant principal Greg Cole sees the StarOn program as a last-ditch effort to help its most difficult students by keeping them on campus.
All too often, Las Vegas high schools expel their misbehaving students, tossing them over to another school like a game of hot potato, Cole said. Shuffling students to behavioral schools may absolve a school of its “problem” students; however, it’s a solution that often backfires — especially among students with more minor offenses, he added.
StarOn is meant for students who have violated school codes but not necessarily for offenses that would get them expelled. Mojave students have been sent to StarOn for a variety of reasons: cursing out a teacher, fighting, going to class high on drugs, bringing a pocketknife to school, even piercing another student’s lip.
These students — who are caught with minor offenses — are more likely to fall behind on studies as they wait for openings at tough alternative high schools. And once they’re out, these students often return to campus with greater behavior problems than before, having learned more disruptive behaviors, Cole said.
“Because of StarOn, we’re not letting them be another school’s problem,” he said. “We’re not washing our hands of our problems.”
Mojave is one of three high schools participating in StarOn this year. The School District funds one portable classroom, one teacher aide and teachers for seven class periods to support each pilot program at Legacy, Mojave and Valley high schools.
The School District’s preliminary evaluation of StarOn in July 2011 found that students participating in the program had higher grades and fewer unexcused absences and expulsions than students who attended behavior school. The report attributed the improved student conduct figures to StarOn’s ability to maintain “a sense of place … and belonging” for its misbehaving students, instead of alienating them by sending them away from their zoned school.
StarOn complements Mojave’s “turnaround” efforts, which saw the replacement of its principal and more than half of its staff, Cole said. The radical measure was undertaken last year to fulfill requirements to receive a $2 million federal School Improvement Grant to improve student achievement.
Under the new administration, fights and other behavior problems have dropped dramatically at the North Las Vegas high school, Cole said. Mojave’s staff has kept the campus clean and instituted harsh consequences for misbehaving students, he said.
Sagging pants and other dress-code violations are not tolerated. Tardy students are automatically sent to detention. Graffiti and vandalism incidents are reported and dealt with immediately. And habitual offenders are sent to StarOn, where they are greeted by Laurie Dufrene.
As the in-house suspension aide, Dufrene’s job at StarOn is part warden, part counselor. She is charged with overseeing the six to 12 students who land in StarOn every month.
Dufrene is an omnipresent figure in her students’ lives for the 20 days they are in StarOn. Dufrene is with her students every moment of every day, watching over them as they work with licensed teachers. She walks them to the cafeteria for lunch, the gym for their physical education class and the bathroom. Dufrene’s presence is so ubiquitous, she has been dubbed “the warden” by some of her students.
Dufrene laughs, but turns somber at the ironic comparison. Studies repeatedly have shown that high school dropouts have a greater likelihood of being incarcerated, unemployed and on the welfare rolls than those who graduate, she said.
“I want to help kids get back on their feet, get their grades up and stay on the right track,” Dufrene said. “Here, they get a second chance. They get to learn from their mistakes.”
Dufrene is no stranger to the issues her students face: poverty, drugs and gangs. She said she faced them too, growing up in Las Vegas. A born-again Christian, Dufrene said she found her new calling in education when she was laid off from her construction-managing job in 2007. She previously had worked as a church counselor before she became a teacher’s aide four years ago. This year is her first at Mojave.
“I’ve always had the idea to work with troubled kids. My heart is with these kids,” she said. “They come from a very tough background. Some kids aren’t wanted by their parents and they know it. That’s heartbreaking.”
Dufrene routinely shares with her students her personal struggles with drugs and alcohol, now a cautionary tale, she said. She tries to teach her students to be good people but doesn’t preach or proselytize, she said.
“I’m a very moral person, and that’s what I try to show them,” she said. “I get in their faces and tell them about the drugs and alcohol I used to abuse. I think I’m able to relate to them because they know I’ve had a rough life, too.”
In turn, Dufrene’s students have begun to open up as well, she said. Though Dufrene doesn’t have a teaching license in English or math, she schools her students in proper manners and professionalism. And she routinely does.
“You need to hold open the door,” Dufrene scolds one of her students, who bounded out of her classroom on his way to the gym one recent afternoon. The boy gives a sheepish smile and mumbles an apology before he dashes off to play basketball for physical education class — arguably the most fun part of the school day in StarOn.
“Jacquez, did you put your phone away?” she asks another student when they return to class. The tall boy points to his pocket. “It’s going to stay there, right?” she asks.
While most of Dufrene’s day is spent enforcing school rules, she said she tries to spend time advising her students on their goals and aspirations. Occasionally, she also gives relationship advice.
“You need to be a standup man,” she tells a lanky 15-year-old who was sent to StarOn for talking back to a teacher. “Treat your girlfriend well. You’ve got to compliment her.”
Many StarOn students seem to have taken to Dufrene and her program, some sending her letters and notes thanking her for setting them on the right path.
“She taught us it’s not worth getting in trouble again,” said Jordan Lewis, an 18-year-old senior who graduated from the program earlier this year. “This was a wake-up call. I can’t afford to go to Opportunity School (a behavior school). I want to graduate.”
StarOn isn’t without its critics, however. Some students expressed reservations about the program at first; others were downright antagonistic. They said they missed their friends, boyfriends and regular classes. They resented how they were called “convicts” by the rest of the school, even if it was done jokingly.
“It’s so boring, I don’t think I’m going to last 20 days,” said Chas Cobb, 15, who was sent to StarOn for talking back to a teacher. “It makes me feel like I’m in jail. I wouldn’t want to come back here.”
Eventually however, many students seem to warm up to the program, Dufrene said. After doing their time, StarOn students are released back into the student population. The majority of students — about 80 percent — have improved their grades. Behavior problems, such as anger issues, seem to have subsided, Dufrene said.
“Seeing these kids change and their grades go up, it makes everything worth it,” she said. “Because I’m with them all day, I become attached to these kids. They’re my babies, my kids. If they all walk (across the graduation stage in June), I’m going to be crying happy tears.”