Monday, May 7, 2012 | 2:01 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 of these 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.
A.J. Coleman wasn’t the ideal candidate to coach the Chaparral High School softball team.
He had no previous experience in the sport, and had never coached a girls team or held the job of a head coach. But it was three weeks before the season was to begin, and with the Cowboys still not having their first practice, Coleman couldn’t pass on a chance to mentor a group of teens he’s become passionate about during his first-year at the school. Two previous coaches had fallen through.
Coleman, who spent the entire winter coaching in the baseball team’s intramural program, was approached one afternoon during his prep period about taking over the softball team. The following day, he accepted the position.
The hours in between were spent watching YouTube videos on coaching softball. Nearly three months later, he coached the Cowboys to their first playoff appearance since 2004 — a feat even the most optimistic wouldn’t have predicted at the beginning of the year.
“I was on YouTube (until) literally three in the morning, got two hours of sleep, went to school and then conducted my first practice,” Coleman said.
Chaparral is the No. 4 seed from the Northeast Division and will play Southeast Division champion Foothill High School at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Sunrise Regional quarterfinals at Foothill. Whether they win or lose in the double-elimination regional, the season will be considered a success.
While they have won just seven games and went 0-6 against the teams ahead of them in the standings, they grabbed the final playoff spot. Not only will getting to experience the pageantry of the postseason be a reward for their efforts, it will serve as a springboard to future seasons. Coleman plans to stay on as the team’s coach.
“It’s awesome. I have been trying for four years in four different sports to make the playoffs,” said senior catcher and outfielder Peyton Hunton, one of Chaparral’s top players who also ran cross country and played soccer. “I’ve seen a lot of losing. It’s amazing this is my senior year and we are finally in the playoffs.”
Most teams throughout the Las Vegas Valley have rosters loaded with girls from the travel ball circuit who play virtually year-round. Chaparral only has three of those seasoned players. A good portion of the Cowboys’ roster had no varsity experience entering the season, and some of the players were as new to softball as their coach. Just two players started on last year’s team.
But instead of chalking the season up to developing his players or being content with simply going through the motions, Coleman’s attitude was one of a more veteran coach. From his first day on the job, his primary goal was making the playoffs.
“We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t put it our on shirts,” Coleman said of the goal to reach the playoffs. “The way we approach it is go out everyday and take care of your business in the games and practices, and you will find yourself in the right spot at the right time.”
Coleman, a math teacher, transferred to Chaparral from Liberty High School in Henderson to be part of the school’s “turnaround” project. Chaparral is one of three underachieving high schools in the Clark County School District’s project, receiving federal money to help upgrade the school’s facilities and resources with the goal of enhancing test scores and graduation rates.
Part of the change was a mandatory reshuffling of the staff. Coleman, whose parents are both educators, sought out their advice about making the ultimate audible in his career. Leaving Liberty would be a risky move, but the opportunity to make a difference at a school in a rebuilding phase was a once-in-a-career opportunity.
Just like his softball team, it was a perfect fit.
“I love this place. I absolutely love it here and love the kids,” he said.
On the diamond, the girls have shown a spirit that proves the project has made an impact. They are hard-working, respectful of the game, and most important, enjoying their high school experience through an after school activity. Winning, you see, has given these teens a major boost of confidence in themselves.
“We haven’t made it (to the playoffs) so long. We knew we could do it,” junior pitcher Lauren Lesniak said. “We just go out there and play hard. Whatever happens will happen. We can only control how we play.”
While Foothill, the defending Sunrise champions with a roster loaded with experienced players, appears to be a heavy favorite in Tuesday’s playoff game, don’t count out Chaparral. In the first game of the season, some three weeks after their first workout, they only lost 8-3 to Foothill.
“(The first time against Foothill) we played loose and played without hesitation. I would like to see that again,” Coleman said. “If we get beat, the reality is we got beat by a better team. But let’s get beat playing our best.”