Friday, June 1, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The Clark County School District recognized about 500 at-risk students Thursday for beating the odds to make it to their high school graduation.
Students from 10 of the lowest-performing schools in the School District overcame myriad adversities — family problems, teenage pregnancy and poverty — in their journey toward gradation.
“People say you can’t count on hope to be a strategy,” said Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones, addressing high school seniors who filled a ballroom at the MGM Grand Convention Center. “But sometimes, you need hope.”
In a city ravaged by the recession, hope was a scarce commodity. The School District has one of the worst graduation rates in the country.
At the start of the school year, about half of the 20,600 seniors enrolled in Clark County schools were at risk of not graduating. Some had dropped out of school.
“When we found out there were 10,000 students in jeopardy, we realized we had to ask for help,” Jones said. “And business leaders across our community said, ‘We’re not going to point fingers and assess blame.’ They stepped up.”
It was from this public-private partnership that the School District’s “Reclaim Your Future” initiative was born. The efforts to graduate more students were unprecedented, and specific results — yet to be announced — are highly anticipated.
Within the first few weeks of school, attendance and truancy officers made home calls to ascertain the location of high school students who may have fallen through the cracks in the past. The School District suffers from a high transiency rate, and thousands of students simply vanished from schools over previous summers, officials said.
Furthermore, about 300 community volunteers and school officials reached out to high school dropouts in the fall and winter, knocking on doors and rousing sleepy teenagers on Saturday mornings. These volunteers urged students to return to school and gave them options to make up credits and pass their proficiency exams.
“They needed to know that someone cared,” Jones said. “That has made such a difference.”
The School District also partnered with community organizations such as the United Way of Southern Nevada, Workforce Connections and Ready for Life to place graduate advocate counselors in 10 at-risk high schools: Chaparral, Cheyenne, Cimarron-Memorial, Clark, Del Sol, Desert Pines, Mojave, Sunrise Mountain, Valley and Western.
These counselors — sponsored by the nonprofits — met one-on-one with struggling students on a weekly basis, guiding them toward graduation. The School District also sought the help of hundreds of volunteer mentors, and pushed students toward several credit-retrieval and proficiency exam boot camps.
As a result, about 3,500 at-risk seniors from the initial 10,000 were on track to graduate by the middle of the school year. At Monday’s School Board meeting, district officials are expected to announce the preliminary graduation counts.
Already, the School District expects to graduate more students than last year and has experienced the highest retention rate in the district’s history, Jones said, crediting teachers and community members.
Still, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 seniors who aren’t going to graduate this year, Jones said. That’s why the School District is looking at systemic changes at the elementary and middle school levels to avoid being forced to have major interventions in the senior year in the future, Jones said.
“We need to intervene sooner,” he said.
Jones said he was appreciative of the community partnerships that have helped the School District provide opportunities for student enrichment in a time of budget cuts. From book donations to student prizes, mentors and volunteers, the School District can’t improve without community partners, Jones said.
MGM Resorts International sponsored the $75,000 catered event Thursday. Jim Murren, MGM chairman and CEO, told students — sons and daughters of many of his 50,000 employees in Nevada — to dream big and help rebuild Las Vegas in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
“We’ll invest in you,” Murren said, addressing the high school seniors on the cusp of graduation. “We’ll do our part, but this is what I expect of you.
“We need you to be engaged in the community … to take part in the democratic process … to show empathy and compassion by volunteering,” he said. “We won’t give up on you, but you can’t give up on yourselves.”
School Board President Linda Young thanked teachers and community partners for their efforts to help more students graduate this year. She said she was proud of the students’ accomplishment, but said graduating from high school is just the first step.
“Keep focus and keep your vision,” she told the students, encouraging them toward higher education. “Don’t ever give up.”
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“Turnaround” seniors share stories of overcoming adversity.
Rayvon Davis, 18, Chaparral senior
“It took a lot of hard work and dedication to get to this point. (School officials) came in the fall to my house. Man, that was a wake-up call for me. I was very surprised they showed up. I’m happy (they did.) I was getting Ds and Fs, but times change and I turned around. It’s heartwarming. I’m graduating with my class.”
Laneisha Hopson, 17, Chaparral senior
“It was hard for me, moving here from California. I struggled to keep up. But I knew if I worked hard and stayed focused, I would be able to graduate. My teachers really helped me pass my math, science and writing proficiencies this year. I was surprised I passed. I couldn’t believe it, but I’m graduating.”
Ileen Albarran, 18, Western senior
“I’m a mom. Ruben is 3 years old. I had him when I was a freshman, 15 years old. My mom takes care of Ruben while I go to school. It was hard in the mornings though, because my mom works nights as a hostess at Planet Hollywood. I missed first or second period a lot. I got a lot of credit denial notices because I was absent. I sometimes ditched class, and my GPA was 1.0. But my teachers saw something in me and helped me. They made me realize I have to graduate. I’m proud of myself. I feel good because my son later on in life will say, ‘I’m proud of my mom.’ That’s priceless.”
Carlos Silva, 17, Western senior
“I got expelled from Las Vegas Academy. I made a stupid mistake and stole some musical instruments from school. That ruined a lot of things for me this year. I thought all hope was lost. I stopped caring about school. I came close to dropping out. But I wanted to make my mother proud. She works two jobs: a bank teller during the day and a (casino) pit administrator at night. I boosted my GPA up and now I’m going to graduate high school and go to the Berklee College of Music in Boston next year.”
Ronnelle Hill, 18, Mojave senior
“I had to make up nine credits and pass my math, science and writing proficiencies this year. It was hard. I was more than a year behind on credits. I grew up. I realized that I have to graduate. My two older brothers didn’t graduate. My mom had my back, though. My girlfriend, she didn’t let me quit (school). Now, I’m the first kid in the family to graduate. I’m happy. I didn’t think I was going to make it, but I did.”
Alexis Weaver, 18, Mojave senior
“I thought I was going to be a fifth-year senior. I was low on credits. I was missing two math credits and an English credit. It was a huge obstacle because it was a lot of work. A lot of my friends wanted to hang out, and I had to deny them. My mom passed away my freshman year. She was 16 years old when she had me and didn’t graduate high school. But her voice was in my head, telling me ‘Don’t give up, keep pushing and don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do it.’ Now I’m the first in my family to graduate high school. If my mom were still here, she’d say, ‘Pooh, I’m proud of you.’”