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May 5, 2015

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Top-rated schools found in wealthier areas, but School District vows change coming

Neighborhoods with median home values exceeding $128,000 guaranteed to have three-star or higher elementary, middle schools

Interactive Map: Each dot represents a Las Vegas elementary or middle school. The darker the dot, the higher its school ranking. Each polygon represents a ZIP code in Las Vegas. The darker the shape, the higher the area's median home price (4Q 2011). Click on each element to see how many stars a school has, or how much the median home values are in a neighborhood.

Ranking schools

    The Clark County School District has a new school-ranking system – the School Performance Framework — for its 217 elementary and 59 middle schools. Schools are assigned a numerical score based on a number of categories including academic performance, student growth and engagement.
  • Five stars for highest-performing schools
  • Four stars for well performing
  • Three stars for schools that are meeting but not exceeding academic standards
  • Two stars for schools close to meeting minimum standards
  • One star for low-performing schools

Sun editorial

Read the Sun's editorial on the new school ranking system "A five-star system."

Looking to purchase a home in Las Vegas and wondering what neighborhoods have the best schools?

No big surprise: The more affluent neighborhoods are generally more likely to have the best schools in the valley, according to a Las Vegas Sun analysis of Clark County school ranking data released last month.

If you buy a house in the most affluent neighborhoods in the valley — the top quarter of ZIP codes where the median home price exceeds $132,250 — you’ll have nearly eight times the odds of having a four- or five-star school in your area than the poorest neighborhoods in the valley — the bottom quarter of ZIP codes with median home values under $68,106.

Further, if you’re among the half million Las Vegans living in a ZIP code where the median home price exceeds $128,000, you are guaranteed to have at least a three-star or higher elementary or middle school in your neighborhood.

“We have long argued that there is a strong association between neighborhood-level socioeconomic status and academic performance,” said UNLV assistant sociology professor Shannon Monnat, who has studied societal inequality for more than a decade. “As housing values increase, the number of stars increases as well.”

The Clark County School District became the first district in Nevada to institute a school ranking system in late February when it launched its “School Performance Framework.” The framework ranks Las Vegas elementary and middle schools on a one- to five-star scale, with the highest performing five-star schools showing the most academic growth and proficiency. (High school rankings are expected to be released next month.)

Although there are a few four- and five-star schools in poorer neighborhoods — schools such as five-star Hewetson Elementary — the county’s highest-performing schools are less prevalent in these areas than in more affluent neighborhoods.

The median home price for the entire Las Vegas Valley is $107,000, meaning half of the homes cost more than that, the other half less.

Of the 170 elementary and middle schools in ZIP codes where the median home price is less than the valley median, just 18 percent are four- or five-star schools.

In contrast, there are 108 elementary and middle schools in ZIP codes where the median home value exceeds $107,000. Nearly half – 46 percent – of those schools are four- and five-star schools.

A caveat: School attendance zones don’t match up with ZIP codes. The Sun used ZIP codes because there are no data for median home prices for attendance zones. Students also have a form of school choice with open enrollment programs, magnet and charter school options, but most Las Vegas children attend their neighborhood schools.

Nevertheless the lack of access to high-quality schools for families living in poorer neighborhoods concerns Ken Turner, special assistant to Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones. Turner was the lead architect behind Clark County’s school rankings, which were modeled after a similar ranking system Turner and Jones developed in Colorado.

The lack of access to the highest quality schools among the poorest families in Las Vegas is troubling, he said, because these students are the ones who need the best schools in order to escape from a life of poverty.

“All kids should benefit, but those who have been traditionally underserved should benefit more,” he said, adding that they are now asking in light of this data, “How can we help kids who are underserved?”


The majority of the School District’s top five-star schools are in the wealthier, outer suburbs of Las Vegas, in neighborhoods such as Summerlin and Green Valley. Fewer five-star schools are in the older, urban core of the valley.

Many of these older, urban schools were once high-performing, many of their graduates going on to become doctors, lawyers and business executives. However, the development of suburbs since the late 1980s has pulled wealthier families toward the outer edges of the valley.

Newer schools were built in these suburbs to address Las Vegas’ massive population growth. These suburban schools attracted more affluent families with the resources and time to help their students succeed in school, and the schools quickly became some of the highest-performing in the district.

As wealthier families moved outward, poorer families moved into the urban core. These older schools gradually became some of the district’s worst-performing.

The disparity between some of the oldest and newest schools is stark.

Bonner Elementary School in Summerlin is the district’s highest-ranked elementary school. That’s why School District officials chose the school to unveil its new ranking system last month.

Bonner students study on a campus a little more than a decade old. Many go home to supportive families; 95 percent of Bonner parents are engaged with the school, according to the school’s accountability report.

On the other hand, J.D. Smith is the oldest middle school in Clark County. It’s in one of the poorest neighborhoods with a median home price of $38,000. Not surprisingly, the North Las Vegas school’s ranking is two stars, Monnat said.

Students at Smith work in classrooms with leaky roofs and failing heating and air-conditioning units. Most go home to families facing unemployment, even homelessness.

“This makes it harder for these children to concentrate on school work,” Monnat said. “Combine that with fewer technological resources and outdated classroom equipment, and you can see how these schools are at a real disadvantage.”

Monnat commends the four- and five-star schools in poorer neighborhoods for their high performance despite their odds. She would like to see the School District weigh academic gains made at schools in lower-income neighborhoods higher than schools in higher-income neighborhoods.


Systemic inequality is difficult to overcome, but this new data is “clarion call” for change, Turner said. Under Jones’ administration, Turner said the hope is to mitigate these inequities between the haves and have-nots.

“This data tells you everything about the past but nothing about the future,” Turner said. “This picture doesn’t really dictate that’s the way we’ll always be.”

One of the School District’s guiding principles is to allocate resources based on need. The school ranking system was the first step toward determining which schools needed the most resources, Turner said.

“(Change) starts with insight,” he said. “We want to see where things are working and flow resources to needs... What we’d like to see is every child willing to work hard feel entitled to success after high school.”

The new rankings will not be used as a punitive measure or a “sorting hat” but a “support system” for low-performing schools, Turner said. Two- and one-star schools will be given priority for new teacher hires and receive additional professional development to help teachers engage better with students, he said.

There is also a greater push to attract and retain high-quality teachers at some of the worst-performing schools in the district, Turner said. The School District worked with the teachers union to negotiate incentives — protected job status and signing bonuses — to entice effective teachers to the five “turnaround” schools.

Further, the School District hopes to expand its online course offerings so that factors such as the median home price of one’s neighborhood are no longer barriers to a quality education, Turner said. By 2015, he hopes to see more than 100,000 students taking virtual classes.

“We can use technology to leverage and enhance the education of young people,” Turner said. “That’s why we’re trying to put that on steroids.

“This is a wonderful time to see what we can do,” he continued. “If we’re headed in a new direction where we’re building capacity (of teachers and students), that’s a good thing.”


But going back to our question earlier: What neighborhoods have the best schools in the valley?

Two neighborhoods – in Henderson and Spring Valley – each have three five-star schools, the most of any area in the Las Vegas Valley.

Henderson ZIP code 89012 has five-star elementary schools — Lamping, Twitchell and Vanderberg. The median home price in this neighborhood is $160,000.

The cheaper alternative is southwest Valley ZIP code 89147, which has five-star elementary schools Bendorf, Hayes and Roger Bryan. The median home price in this neighborhood is $115,000.

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  1. since when does hard work entitle someone to success? access to success? sure, that should be the hope and perhaps expectation. but entitlement, no place but in fairy tales. world just ain't built that way...

  2. The big 'Star System' is a JOKE...

    And Mr. Sun bought it, hook, line & sinker.

    Anyone who thought that Socioeconomic status wasn't going to be a HUUUGE factor in this system was seriously deluding themselves.

    Anyone who believes that a school in a particularly low income, high minority area that has miraculously achieved a 'high ranking' has done it on it's own merit is also highly delusional.

    When can we deal with the cold, hard FACTS, instead of this silly feelgood, for show, 'to make adults feel better about themselves' Dog & Pony show?

    a '5-Star Rating System'!
    Oh, please.
    Mr. Jones, is that all ya got???

  3. So you get it that family income has a high correlation with school performance? So please do your civic duty and speak out loudly and clearly against the Republican push to pay teachers according to "student performance."

  4. gmag39,

    Please see Coolican's column (if you haven't already):

    He points to an amazing exception to the data above. There is more than a hint that the school he talks about is doing something that is significantly different than what occurs elsewhere. Whatever it is, it needs to be identified and exported to other schools.

    (I got the distinct impression that the school staff made a decision to unofficially "compete" against others and prove they could be the best despite their given environment.)

  5. Yeah, if we could take all that money from the "rich schools" (code for white) and give it to all those "poor schools" (code for black and hispanic) everything will magically turn around, sure it would. Well, you could build schools that look like palaces in these poor areas but what good is it when the mindset of a lot of these students and their parents when it comes to an education stays the same?

  6. It should come as no surprise that heavy parental involvement, stable family lives, and not having to worry about food or healthcare correlate to higher student achievement. Those kids don't have to worry about anything but their studies. It's been that way for decades now. Few people involved in the education policy debates what to admit what a gigantic role poverty plays in the educational achievement of students. Hopefully the district will be able to distribute the resources to the areas of need.

  7. Faulty study, it is not that schools in richer neighborhoods are better, the students in richer neighborhoods are better. This is because parents that have a higher earning level place more importance on education than do low income parents, the parents raise their children to share their educational standards. Here is a true scientific study: take all the students from the highest income area and swap them with all the students from the lowest income area. Keep all teachers and school staff where they are. Surprise, now the higher performing school is in the low income area!

  8. @leemort: I think that's the point the author was trying to make in the article. At least that's what I got out of it. The areas where wealth is concentrated and families are most stable will generally produce the highest rates of student achievement, the stable home life being the most essential part. It just always seems that this surprises people who run school districts, though it's been known for a long time. The question is how much can the school district do about that.

  9. It has always seemed unfair that funding is based on neighborhood property taxes. I would like to see equal distribution on a per student basis throughout the state. Higher income areas have more to offer the students both at home and as benefactors but in the spirit of upper mobility all goverment distributions should be equal. No single solution will improve school performance but this might be a step in the right direction.

  10. I don't believe the 'funding' has all that much to do with it - I would have to agree with leemort and his idea of moving the kids and see what happens - no amount of fanciness to a building or higher end computers will make diddly squat difference if neither the kid NOR their parents care about education and use the well-equipped nicer school to their advantage. I think RHG58 also has it correct - giving the money to the poorer schools will NOT make a difference until both the student and their parent(s) begin to see the value in what getting a good education will do for them in their future undertakings.

  11. There are a few people who stumble bass ackwards into wealth/success. But really, is it okay to suggest that people who live in wealthier neighborhoods live there because they are successful and their children are successful because success is a learned behavior?
    My kids are more likely to do well in school because my wife and I did well in school. Why, you ask? Who knows. Genetics? Role modeling? Higher expectations? Stay-at-home mom?
    My point: there is very little teachers and schools can do to make kids succeed. There is a lot they should be doing to try. But I believe that parents are the biggest controlling factor in school success.
    STOP punishing teachers, and STOP looking to schools for answers.

  12. When all the new data points are plugged in you will see the same thing...teacher performance, administrator performance, etc. Consider....CCSD opens a new school as population grows, requiring a new principal and staff. A tested and successful principal is offered the job and is given the opportunity to select staff. He/she picks staff who are proven to be good and loyal, they happily follow. The school they leave now picks from the ranks of whatever is leftover while the top ranked go to the new school. Teachers and Administrators are not fools, given little or no opportunity to increase wages, they will look to better working conditions. You pick...Western or Green Valley? Desert Pines or SWCTA? Multiply this scenario by 75 or 100 new schools in the last 10 years and you've identified another piece of the puzzle. Educators are not selfless idiots always ready to throw away their quality of work life for the sake of disadvantaged children.

  13. It has long been known that the greatest determinator of success in schools is socio-economic status. Until we find a way to increase the wages and improve living conditions for those in poor performing schools things will not change.

  14. Call me what you want, but I live in 89012, home of 5 five star schools, and all I see is hard working mainly white families in average homes. There is no way putting above average teachers in slummy neighborhoods is going to change the status quo when the parents could care less about their child's academic success, or lack thereof.

    You can't teach smart, and you can't teach dumb. It arrives at the schoolhouse door daily. Deal with it...

  15. It is clear that you can have a five star school in a low socio-economic area. A few are one-shot wonders based solely on quirks in data but some are for real. Paul, you should visit those schools, compare them with one star schools and find out what makes them successful. My guess is that the successful schools in these areas have principals and staff who pay little attention to the central office pointy-heads, snufflers and grubbers who descend on the school bearing studies, regulations, rulebooks and calipers to measure the heads of the little charges. I'll bet that play is encouraged as is discovery, manners and exploration.

  16. Jeff,

    I agree with the early start. That said, there is a very thin line between educational motivation and indoctrination. I am generally opposed to school uniforms for that reason. Dress codes, fine. Officially approved uniform attire, hell no.

    As for "the hormonal influenced teens" I have a theory. A child's brain ceases to function correctly sometime in the "tween" years and doesn't fully return to normal operation until age 25. However, you can sometimes find a temporary "reset" switch by applying a swift kick in the @ss.

  17. samjung23,

    I do not teach my children to defy authority, I teach them to question it.

  18. It's good to know a well-balanced change is coming. Pros and cons of both side, right and wrong. Too bad I didn't had my way a long long time ago, I'd been living in Mars for twenty years by now.
    New man and new chance to grow.

  19. Let's stop making assumptions about entire groups of people and neighborhoods who are down-and-out. This doesn't need to be a competitive, finger pointing issue. Leaders are talking about laying the foundation for children to grow up and become educated and productive citizens through higher performing schools in all zip codes, regardless of income. They're seeking to improve all schools, if they can. That's a worthwhile goal to aspire to, right? And why not? What would be the disadvantage of seeking to improve education across ?