Monday, July 27, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Valley High School
When Ron Montoya first arrived at Valley High School in 1999, he was known for his catchphrase — “You’re the best” — which he uttered nearly every time he crossed paths with a student. As he set about leading what would become one of the biggest turnarounds in the Clark County School District in recent years, Montoya settled on a different phrase — “You’re smart.”
For some students, “it’s the first time anyone has ever said that to them,” said the principal, who is in his 35th year as an educator. “They start to think about themselves differently.”
Valley High School on Thursday was designated as a “high-achieving turnaround” school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a distinction reserved for schools that had failed to meet the law’s academic requirements for three years before demonstrating high achievement.
Valley is the first Clark County school to earn that title.
Five years ago, only 44 percent of Valley’s juniors passed the state’s math proficiency test. This year nearly 80 percent did. Gains in reading and writing have been equally strong, with 92 percent of Valley’s juniors meeting or exceeding the standards this year, compared with about 54 percent in 2004.
The changes at Valley were, of course, brought about by more than a new catchphrase, but Montoya’s enthusiasm and improved morale among staff were part of the formula, according to teachers, students and administrators. The other factors that led to the improvements, they said, were after-school tutoring, more individual planning for students who need help and a greater emphasis on literacy, fundamental skills and the state proficiency exam.
From the inception of the federal No Child Left Behind law, in 2002, through 2007, Valley was unable to make the grade on standardized test scores. Last year the school made “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, and needed a second consecutive year of good scores to get off the state’s “needs improvement” list.
But the results this time around were better than anyone expected.
“When you’ve been working as hard as you can these last five years, you’re just hoping to make AYP,” said Jill Pendleton, Valley’s assistant principal of curriculum. “To be ‘high achieving’ is just icing on the cake.”
Montoya said a key change at the school came five years ago when he restructured the campus on Eastern Avenue, north of Desert Inn Road, into smaller learning communities. Students at each grade level are divided into groups of about 150 and assigned the same team of teachers for English, math and social studies. (Other district high schools use a similar model.)
“The advantage is that all of the teachers know the kids, and it makes it easier to share information and ideas about what’s working and what’s not,” Montoya said. “It’s all about intervention, and making sure we meet every student’s needs.”
The school made improving performance on the state proficiency exams a top priority, not because it would help Valley’s ratings but because students need to pass in order to graduate, Pendleton said.
The tutoring sessions, after school and on Saturdays, and vacation boot camps helped prepare students for the exams. The individual plans that teachers crafted for remedial students helped ensure the classes they were enrolled in would address their deficiencies.
“We relied on teachers’ professional experience in the classroom to tell us what would really work to reach the kids,” said Pendleton, who in August will become principal of Clark High School, one of the district’s top magnet campuses.
Teachers apparently liked the changes.
When Montoya arrived, staff turnover was high, with 30 to 40 teachers departing each year. The school now loses “maybe 10” each year, Montoya said. His administrative team has been almost unchanged for five years.
Staff stability has been key to the turnaround, said Kelly Bucherie, academic manager in the district’s Superintendent’s Schools Division, which includes Valley.
“Morale over there is high — people want to be there,” Bucherie said. “It’s a very positive atmosphere.”
Since 1996, Valley has offered a magnet program in hospitality and tourism, which accounts for about 300 of the school’s 2,800 students. Another 300 students take part in advanced academic classes through International Baccalaureate, which became a full magnet program in 1995.
As the school was improving, the demographics of its student body were changing.
Since 2004, the share of Hispanic students has doubled, to 60 percent. White students, who made up 50 percent of the student body, now account for 15 percent. The percentage of black students has increased slightly, to 13 percent from 11 percent in 2004.
Michele Rey-Morales, who graduated from Valley in June, said she noticed the academic improvements between her freshman and senior years, including the greater emphasis on the proficiency exam.
“It wasn’t just getting ready before the test,” Rey-Morales said. “Right after, if you didn’t pass, there were teachers looking at the areas where you needed more help for the next time.”
Pendleton said Valley’s turnaround was the result of steady, sustained improvement, which means it will likely be long-lasting.
And for that, students said, Montoya deserves a lot of credit.
Some students considered his “you’re smart” pep talks “a little corny,” said Rey-Morales, who is taking classes at the College of Southern Nevada and plans to become a teacher. “But it did help a lot of people. It put you in the mind-set that no matter what was going on with you at school or at home, that you were capable of passing any obstacles in your way.”
“The school told us that every day. It gave us a lot of motivation,” she said.