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April 17, 2014

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the turnaround:

Western High girls’ basketball team captures spirit of school’s turnaround

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Sam Morris

Western forward Mylasia Smith laughs after crashing into coach Annette Megown while chasing a loose ball against Bonanza Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 at Bonanza High School.

Western High Girls Basketball

Western coach Annette Megown talks to her team during a time out in their game against Bonanza Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 at Bonanza High School. Launch slideshow »

This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking Clark County School District's efforts to turn around five failing schools.

With just 10 minutes remaining for practice, high school sophomore guard Jocelyn Jordan hustles onto the basketball floor, out of breath.

She’s late. Again.

Jordan had jogged from the city bus stop on Decatur Boulevard near the school, ending her daily two-bus, hourlong journey just in time to join the last minutes of a scrimmage. Some days, she arrives on time for the 2:30 p.m. practice; other days, at the mercy of the Citizens Area Transit, she’s late.

At some schools, the coach wouldn’t be flexible in tolerating such tardiness. At Western High School, that’s part of the challenge for coach Annette Megown in rebuilding the program at the inner-city school.

Western is one of three low-performing high schools pegged last spring by the Clark County School District to be turned around. With federal money, the district is trying to improve facilities, test scores and student morale — a sort of ultimate school makeover.

That turnaround effort is cited by the girls’ basketball players as one reason they’ve kept their heads high despite some tough losses this season. If nothing else, the program under Megown’s guidance is building character.

Jordan, a student at the Northwest Career Technical Academy, is allowed to play athletics for Western, her neighborhood school, because the academy doesn’t offer sports programs. With her working parents only able to provide rides on Mondays, Jordan knows the only way she can live out her basketball dreams is by finding her own way to practice.

But don’t feel sorry for her. It’s a choice she proudly makes to be part of the team, often doing homework on the bus in the constant battle to balance her schedule.

And she seems to be an overachiever, proud of her 3.7 grade-point average in an engineering program and smiling when talking about her college plans.

That doesn’t fit the stereotype of students at Western, saddled with a reputation as one of the valley’s worst high schools.

“I learned to keep my priorities in order,” Jordan, 15, said. “There are a lot of reasons why I could get sidetracked, but I don’t.”

For sophomore forward Tenaya Williams, having to ride the city bus is a different adventure.

When Western players arrived at campus around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday on a Clark County School District bus after a game at Bonanza, Williams knew her journey home was just beginning. After each practice or game, Williams takes the city bus to her home near Lake Mead and Rainbow boulevards. It’s a 3.1-mile trip — she measured it, and one night, she had to walk it.

Williams was reaching into her bag to grab $2 for the bus when a teammate’s family offered her a ride. On most nights, 15-year-old Williams battles the chill while waiting for the bus. She focuses on her homework to avoid awkward conversations with strangers in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood around Decatur Boulevard and Bonanza Road, where Western is located.

Williams, who is also on the student council and plays three varsity sports, refuses to ask friends for a ride because she is too proud.

“If you really care about something, you will walk 3.1 miles for it,” Williams said. “It’s cool. I don’t mind having to take the bus or walk.”

As part of budget cuts nearly 10 years ago, the district stopped its late-activity bus program. Without the program, students at every school across the valley are hindered, and some decide to pass on participating.

“I guarantee you a majority of the schools would get more kids involved if we had activity buses,” said Ray Mathis, the district’s executive athletic director. “There are a lot of kids in that situation across the district.”

That is especially true at Western. There are about 20 girls in the basketball program, not enough to field a freshman team. Just eight players were at varsity practice Tuesday when Jordan arrived late, making it tough to simulate a game.

In most years, that would spell disaster at Western, which Megown estimates hasn’t made the playoffs in seven years.

But this isn’t most years.

Megown, who coached Las Vegas High to a pair of state championship tournament appearances starting in the late 1990s, had been out of coaching for more than a decade when she was approached about taking over at Western as part of the turnaround project. A former college player at the University of Southern Colorado, the opportunity to influence inexperienced players and teach them life lessons through basketball was irresistible.

“Athletics helps build confidence with the kids, that they can have success not only academically but in extracurricular activities, too,” Megown said. “It allows us to get more kids involved when they see us winning games or making the playoffs. It brings up the morale of the school and brings in more participation.”

She’s embraced the challenges of the position.

Instead of working all practice on the strategy of the game, fundamentals such as dribbling, rebounding or making a layup had to be retaught. She also approached businesses for money to purchase uniforms and matching team sneakers — a rarity for any financially strapped urban school.

Megown “really pushes us and believes in us a lot more than other coaches have,” said senior Brittney Moreland, who twice this year has recorded more than 20 rebounds in a game. “The turnaround is really working. Our teachers have more interaction with the students and support our teams. They give us confidence that even if we are down, there is no point of staying down. We have to show people what we are made of, even by not quitting when we are losing.”

While they have just a 4-12 overall record and lost Thursday 62-23 to perennial power Bishop Gorman, the Warriors have a 3-2 mark in the Southwest Division and will be in position to break the program’s postseason drought.

Even through the adversity of orchestrating the turnaround, Megown’s positive attitude has spilled over with the players. In one game during a holiday tournament hosted by defending state champion Centennial, Western was limited to one point in the second half in a 59-7 loss.

It would have been easy for the players to lose their spirit and quit. But they didn’t.

“We didn’t let the score get to us,” said senior Mylasia Smith, who leads Western with about 13 points and seven rebounds per game. “We got blown out in a few games. So what? We didn’t put our heads down. We kept hustling and never gave up.”

A week after being blown out in the tournament, they beat Bonanza 60-40 in a league game, with four players scoring in the double figures.

“Nobody would have thought Western would have showed up and tried to compete at a tournament like that,” Megown said. “But we actually got invited to play again next year, and people were saying good things about us. We did it to just to open up their eyes to what’s out there.”

Other eyes are opening, too. Spend one afternoon in the Western gym, or with Williams when she waits for the city bus late at night, and it’s easy to see the turnaround is working, one basket, and city bus ride, at a time.

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