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August 4, 2015

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education:

Superintendent to ‘stay the course’ to improve Las Vegas schools

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Justin M. Bowen

Dwight Jones, the Clark County School Superintendent, is photographed in his office Thursday, January 20, 2011.

The Clark County School District is moving in the right direction despite its mounting challenges, Superintendent Dwight Jones announced Thursday.

The second-year superintendent of the nation's fifth largest school district released his second white paper, which touted the accomplishments of the past year and foreshadowed his plans for the upcoming year.

Jones' phase II report — titled "A Look Ahead: Progress made and the next mile" — comes on the heels of a phase I report released last year that outlined new educational "reforms," such as reorganized school zones, a school ranking system and a different way to measure school improvement.

"Phase I was a giant step forward, (outlining) what we were going to do," Jones said during a School Board meeting. "Phase II really highlights how did we do … and what is ongoing that we’ll continue to focus on.”

In July 2011, the School District announced plans to reorganize its 357 schools into 13 "performance zones," grouping low-performing schools together into a "turnaround zone" and high-performing schools into a "autonomous zone." By doing so, the district better focused resources toward struggling schools and rewarded top schools with "empowerment" — meaning less oversight and more autonomy.

In August 2011, the School District unveiled the Nevada Growth Model of Achievement, which emphasizes student "growth" from year to year rather than just proficiency levels determined by standardized test scores. This growth model will eventually replace No Child Left Behind's stringent "adequate yearly progress" measure, which punished schools that made significant improvements, but failed to hit proficiency.

In February, the School District adopted a new school ranking system called the "school performance framework," which rated all schools on a one- to five-star scale. By identifying "pockets of success" in the large district, one- and two-star schools could learn from the top-performing, five-star schools.

These three major changes were executed this past year in an attempt to raise student achievement in one of worst-performing school districts in the nation. Expectations for students, teachers, schools and the district were to be raised — to ensure that all children were "ready by exit" to pursue post-secondary opportunities without remediation.

Some "reforms" were started, but are still in progress, Jones said.

These continuing changes include a new four-tiered teacher evaluation system, a "new schools division" to expand innovative school models and new ways to attract, retain and train better teachers.

The district is still working on expanding its technology offerings — such as iPads and online courses — and creating more public-private partnerships to study merit pay for teachers, create early-childhood programs and help launch the more rigorous Common Core State Standards curriculum.

The federal "turnaround" efforts at 11 of the lowest-performing schools in the district are also ongoing, Jones said. The first and second rounds of these "turnaround" schools have decreased their numbers of nonproficient students, Jones said.

Throughout these changes, Jones said he has learned several key tenets:

• The School District cannot excuse its demographics — high minority and high poverty students — for its lackluster performance. That's because similar major urban school districts such as Miami-Dade, Houston and Broward County all posted higher student achievement than Clark County.

• Academic success can be found within every school in the district, albeit in different amounts. Some top-performing schools thrive in high poverty areas as well — although a Sun analysis found these schools are in the minority.

Jones plans to take these reforms and lessons learned to guide the district toward his student achievement benchmarks, to be attained by June 2016. The district showed mixed progress toward reaching those goals, Jones said.

The district's preliminary high school graduation rate improved 6 percentage points to 65 percent. The district is well on its way toward boosting graduation rates to 75 percent within five years.

The rate of improvement for minority students grew modestly from the past year, especially among Native American and black students. That means the district is chipping away at the achievement gap between minority and white students.

However, there is still significant work to be done to achieve Jones' other five-year goals, including lowering college remediation rates, increasing Advanced Placement exam passing rates and college attendance rates, and increasing literacy and algebra proficiency rates.

That's why Jones said he will emphasize building on the reforms started last year, supporting teachers through more professional development and finding collaborative ways to foster innovations in education. The district will also focus its resources on programs that have the greatest "return on investment," Jones said.

"We will stay the course," Jones said. "I believe we’re on the right course.”

Sun reporter Brian Nordli contributed reporting to this story.

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