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May 29, 2015

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The Turnaround:

Principal on a mission to get dropouts back in school

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Paul Takahashi

Western High School Principal Neddy Alvarez explains graduation options to senior Cesar Solorio, 17, who stopped attending classes in October. Western High School staff and about 35 volunteers went door to door on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, to encourage 56 students who have dropped out to return to school. The personal home visits are part of a district-wide graduation initiative targeting about 10,000 students at risk of not graduating in June.

Reclaim Your Future

KSNV coverage of Clark County School District's "Reclaim Your Future" event, Jan. 28, 2012.

Reclaim Your Future at Western HS

Western High School Principal Neddy Alvarez and volunteers go door-to-door, encouraging drop-out students to return to class. Western High School staff and about 35 volunteers went door to door on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, to encourage 56 students who have dropped out to return to school. The personal home visits are part of a district-wide graduation initiative targeting about 10,000 students at risk of not graduating in June. Launch slideshow »

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.

Neddy Alvarez nervously eyes two parked police cruisers as she drives down Lorna Place in the central Las Vegas Valley.

The red and blue flashing lights — visible even in the early Saturday morning light — has placed the Western High School principal and her two volunteers on alert. Their brief orientation earlier in the day has taught them to be wary of their surroundings as they try to win back the hearts and minds of 56 students who have seemingly dropped out of school within the first semester.

Alvarez is specifically searching for Cesar Solorio, a 17-year-old senior who has stopped attending the turnaround school since October. He is among some 10,000 seniors identified by the Clark County School District as at risk of not graduating this June.

Some of these students often attend school for weeks at a time, but suddenly stop coming. They leave behind no paper trail: No transfer forms, no transcript requests, no zone variance requests.

They simply disappear.

Still, Alvarez is determined to find out what happened to Solorio and others like him. That’s why she is giving up her Saturday morning — along with more than 300 other educators, public officials and community members — to participate in the School District’s second “Reclaim Your Future” event held Saturday.

Working in groups of two or three, volunteers visited the homes of some 300 students across the district who, for some reason or another, have slipped through the cracks. Their goal: To engage students and their families in a meaningful dialogue about their future and what resources they have — even midway through the year — to help them graduate high school.

“It’s never too late to graduate,” Alvarez says, echoing a phrase that has become the motto of the district’s new push to raise its graduation rates, which are among the lowest in the nation. “Word is spreading. If you don’t go to school, the school will come to your house.”

•••

Going door-to-door to find drop-out students is a seemingly Sisyphean exercise that often leaves educators with more questions than answers. Tracking the thousands of students who drop out each year has not been easy for the School District, a third of whose 309,000 students move to a different address each year — often without notifying school officials.

During the inaugural “Reclaim Your Future” event in September, Western was able to get commitments from four students to return to campus. Of them, only one remains at Western four months later. The others have seemingly vanished from attendance officers, locked up in juvenile detention or have formally withdrawn from school altogether.

“It’s sad. It’s really sad,” Alvarez says. “Some students think there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

More than 600 students district-wide promised to return to school this past fall. Many have, but some have relapsed, prompting a second “Reclaim Your Future” event, according to district officials.

Many school districts across the nation promote attendance early in the school year as they and state education boards allocate school funding. The more students a school has in its official count, the more money it receives in per-pupil funding from the state and district.

Once “Count Day” passes however, the focus on attendance often wanes in many school districts. Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones was adamant not to let that happen in Southern Nevada.

“We want to show the community we are really focused on graduating these kids, and send a clear message that students matter,” he said, after volunteering with Clark High School’s event on Saturday, coincidentally his son’s birthday. “We’re not going to give up on them.”

•••

Even though the pilot program hasn’t expanded past the initial 10 high schools this time around, the School District has redoubled its efforts to reach its “at-risk” students through myriad community partnerships and public service announcements.

The district is training about 2,000 volunteers to mentor students and steer them toward a variety of alternative high schools, credit retrieval and test prep options. Earlier this year, the nonprofit Workforce Connections — which focuses on helping unemployed and underemployed adults find educational and job opportunities — assigned a staffer to Western to help the turnaround school improve its graduation rates.

Daniel Topete is Western’s graduate advocate coordinator assigned through a partnership between the School District, Workforce Connections and the United Way of Southern Nevada. Topete has the difficult task of meeting with each of Western’s at-risk seniors twice a month to make sure they are on track to graduate.

Even though he has been at this job for a little over a month, Topete has already identified numerous challenges facing Western’s at-risk students.

The recession has ravaged their Meadows neighborhood, leaving behind scores of foreclosed and vacant homes. It’s not uncommon to check in on a student, only to find their house plastered with evictions signs, he said. Some students’ families are struggling financially amid the worst recession in over a half-century. Parents are working two, three jobs just to make ends meet, wreaking havoc on family life and forcing some students into the workforce before they can even graduate high school, Topete said.

Other students are single parents, children raising children. These groups of students are often the most difficult to reach, because they often miss class for doctor’s appointments and child rearing, he said.

Although many of these issues trouble schools across the valley, Western’s unique and diverse demographic poses yet another layer of challenges, according to Rosemary Flores. The executive director of the Family Leadership Initiative — a nonprofit group dedicated to helping Latino families navigate the school system — has been empowering immigrant parents to get involved in their children’s education at Western, which counts 65 percent of its population as Hispanic.

Through her monthly seminars, Flores has found that some immigrant families were often embarrassed to seek help because of language and cultural barriers. Sometimes, immigrant families are wary of government, even if it’s just school officials trying to help students. That’s why organizers at Western paired each “Reclaim Your Future” team with a bilingual speaker, and made efforts to look unassuming — no clipboards, for example.

Flores, who volunteered at Canyon Springs High School during the first event, said she sees Clark County’s graduation initiative not only helping its students, but also to connect and build relationships in a community too often criticized for being transient. In the past, nonprofits, businesses and schools worked separately. This year is the first time, Flores says, that she has seen a concerted, cooperative effort to change education in Southern Nevada.

“It’s about leveraging the capacity we already have,” she said of pooling limited resources amid multimillion-dollar budget cuts to education. “How do we not work in silos, but work together?”

Topete — who has four years of experience working with challenging youth in drug rehab centers and in probation — agreed with Flores’ analysis.

“The more the community knows what we’re trying to do here, it’s going to give a sense that we’re trying to make a difference,” he said. “That’s important for all of us, not just for students, but our entire community.”

•••

To help encourage students — especially Hispanic students — to finish high school and go on to higher education, the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce recently announced it will offer a $500 scholarship to any drop-out student who returns to high school and graduates. The chamber, which represents more than 1,500 member businesses, knows the importance of education in Nevada’s efforts to diversify and strengthen its economy. Since its inception more than three decades ago, the chamber has donated more than $2 million in scholarship money to Clark County students.

Rene Cantu, Jr., the executive director of the chamber’s foundation, said he sees the new scholarship as a “down payment on our future.” Cantu — who volunteered his time Saturday helping Western reach out to dropout students — knows this all too well.

The Texas native almost dropped out of high school between his sophomore and junior years. His parents had gotten a divorce at the time, and Cantu withdrew from his studies, racking up absences.

Right before his senior year, his guidance counselor quipped to Cantu that he might as well drop out of school if he didn’t plan to apply himself any longer.

“She was right; I was a screw-up” Cantu said. “I wanted to prove her wrong, so I worked hard and today, I thank her.”

Today, Cantu is one of five finalists to become the next state superintendent of education. He now hopes to spread his message to Western students who might be struggling in school like he once did.

•••

Alvarez — who is wearing a red T-shirt and tan sweater emblazoned with Western’s logo — knocks on the door of Solorio’s home, just a few houses down from the two police cars. Metro officers told Alvarez they are investigating a medical emergency nearby.

Still, Alvarez doesn’t know what to expect when the door opens. She’s been warned of wary occupants, dogs, even weapons. She breathes a sigh of relief when Solorio’s mother answers the door.

“Hola. Cómo estás?” Alvarez asks, quickly identifying herself and explaining her mission. She requests to speak with her student. “Donde está Cesar?”

The mother ushers the group inside her living room, where family pictures adorn the walls, bookshelves and end tables. Cesar ambles out of the back room, seemingly dazed by the presence of his principal inside his house.

“We want you to come back to school,” Alvarez tells the 17-year-old. “Don’t you want to graduate and have your career options open?”

Cesar mumbles yes, and nods. His mother explains he has been attending Desert Rose High School, the school of second chances for adults and high school dropouts. But it’s too far away, and Cesar just stopped going to school, she said. (Desert Rose is about seven miles away, and students do not receive bus transportation).

Jim Gans, a retiree who has volunteered to help Alvarez on Sunday, asks Cesar what he plans to do in his life. “To be an auto mechanic,” he says.

“You ought to go to Western for their new automotive class,” Gans tells Cesar, adding that he almost dropped out of Rancho High School when he was attending high school in the late 1950s. “Coming back (to school) was the best decision I ever made. It’s in your best interest.”

After a brief discussion about potential options and resources for Cesar and his family, Alvarez makes a proposition: “You need an education to be successful. I want to see you at school on Monday. What time are you going to be there?”

Cesar doesn’t remember what time school starts.

“7 a.m. sharp,” Alvarez reminds him. “I want to see you in my office. Do I have a commitment on that?”

They shake hands. As Alvarez returns to her 2002 BMW sedan — which looks out of place in this neighborhood characterized by older, single-story houses — she says she is hopeful for Cesar’s future.

“It’s now up to him to follow through,” she says. “But if I were a betting lady, I’d bet Cesar will show up on Monday.”

Western had 35 volunteers on Saturday, reaching out to 56 seniors and juniors. Seventeen students were reached, 12 of whom made a commitment to return to school this week. Family members were reached at 31 families, the rest of the homes were unoccupied at the time of the house visit.

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