Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2019

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47 employees minus 24 staff members, 1 principal = More federal funding?

The math is simple in the view of the U.S. Education Department: Serious changes must be made for low-achieving schools to qualify for ‘Race to the Top’ money


Tiffany Brown

Teachers head into school Wednesday at Carson Elementary, where many staff members will be removed. They may seek voluntary transfers to other schools this month rather than waiting to be reassigned based on seniority.

Click to enlarge photo

Students play while waiting for school to start at Kit Carson Elementary in Las Vegas on Wednesday, April 7, 2010.

Kit Carson Elementary School


A looming staff restructuring at Carson Elementary School, which has a long history of underperforming, might be enough to win over federal education officials who make funding decisions. Carson is one of two struggling campuses, along with Rancho High School, that the Clark County School District is revamping in its pursuit of “Race to the Top” grants. Nevada is eligible for about $22 million in grants this year that will go to schools that commit to dramatic overhauls.


In addition to the reassignment of Carson Elementary’s principal, Carolyn King, and many teachers, one option under consideration as a way to turn the school around is to convert it to a magnet program, which would draw students from throughout the district to its specialized offerings. District officials say the magnet status would serve Carson well, as the West Las Vegas campus, currently under capacity with 226 students, would have plenty of room for newcomers.

In its attempt to win millions of dollars in federal money, the Clark County School District has to show it is serious in its effort to make dramatic changes at its most beleaguered campuses.

How dramatic?

The district could close one of its worst schools and transfer students to a more successful campus.

Officials aren’t doing that.

But they are taking the next-most harsh action by replacing the principal of the struggling Carson Elementary School and at least half its staff and bringing in new leadership and fresh rank-and-file workers in an effort to turn around the campus when classes begin in August.

The action has triggered anxiety on campus, but that’s part of the price, the U.S. Education Department says, if the district wants to show it is making a good-faith effort to improve a school that has a history of underachievement.

“I love my kids. I don’t want to leave them,” said one teacher, who hopes to be rehired at Carson and who, like others interviewed by the Sun, did not want to be identified.

Parents expressed strong support for Principal Carolyn King and the staff Tuesday, as they picked up their children at Carson’s campus on D Street at Lake Mead Drive.

King declined the Sun’s request for an interview, and district officials said no decision has been made on her new assignment.

Carson is one of six elementary schools in the “Prime Six” program, a legacy of the phaseout in the 1990s of a federally mandated busing program. Instead of encouraging campus diversity and providing expanded opportunities for West Las Vegas students, the Prime Six campuses have been left isolated by ethnicity, poverty and low achievement, according to an unsparing report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project researchers.

Carson is significantly under capacity with just 226 students — 60 percent black and 38 percent Hispanic. Nearly 80 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price meals. Four of every 10 students are English-language learners. Student test scores are consistently below the districtwide averages, as well as other campuses with similar student demographics.

One option under consideration is to convert Carson to a magnet program, which would draw students from throughout the district to its specialized offerings. The district’s existing magnet programs are hugely popular, and Carson’s underused campus would have plenty of room for newcomers, said Billie Rayford, associate superintendent who supervises the campus. There will be opportunities for community input before any decisions are made, said Rayford, who emphasized that the district is intent on a collaborative process.

At least one Carson parent supports the turnaround plan, even though she regretted it meant the principal would lose her post. Triana Jones, who has two children at Carson, said King has been particularly helpful to her family.

“We hate that she’s going to leave,” Jones said. “It doesn’t seem like they’re (the district) being fair.”

Like many of the parents and grandparents picking up students Tuesday, Jones attended Carson. The school has long served as a community center for the historically black neighborhood, which has seen a sharp increase in its Hispanic population since 2003.

“I’ll do anything to help this school,” Jones said. “It has to be more than just a new principal. The parents have to get involved.”

Carson’s staff have the option of looking for new positions during April, when teachers can seek voluntary transfers to other schools rather than waiting to be reassigned based on seniority, said Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association.

At stake in the turnaround effort are federal grants connected to the “Race to the Top” competition launched by the Education Department. “But there are strings attached to that,” Murillo said. “We wanted teachers to know that it’s going to be a lot of work if they remain there.”

Nevada is eligible for about $22 million in grants this year that will go to schools that commit to dramatic overhauls. Competing districts were required to identify their lowest performing campuses based on factors such as student test scores, dropout rates and graduation rates. The first round of grants will go to schools already receiving federal funds based on their high-need student populations. Using that formula, the Clark County School District identified Carson, Fitzgerald and Hancock elementary schools; and Desert Pines, Mojave, Rancho and Western high schools.

Although Carson would be the first turnaround school, Rancho in North Las Vegas would become the district’s “transformation” campus, following a federal blueprint to remake how the campus is used. The staff is allowed to stay, pending certain conditions. The district isn’t required to replace Principal James Kuzmaa because he’s been at Rancho’s helm fewer than two years, the feds’ required cutoff point, said Rayford, who also supervises the high school.

The transformation model requires schools to use multiple measures to track teacher performance, and then determine who from the staff is allowed to stay for the program’s second year, said Marcia Calloway, a Nevada Education Department consultant who is coordinating the grant program. Additionally, transformation schools must replace stagnant programs, improve professional development for staff and find ways to expand instructional time.

Kuzmaa, who is finishing his first year at Rancho, said his staff is excited by the prospect of the transformation grant. None of his 150 teachers has opted to voluntarily transfer for the fall.

Rancho is home to several of the district’s top-rated magnet programs, including the aviation academy, which draw students from throughout Clark County. For the magnet students, graduation rates typically top 90 percent. But students assigned to attend Rancho based on their addresses fare much worse, with a graduation rate of 52 percent in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available.

Kuzmaa’s goals for Rancho — with or without the transformation grant money — are to improve opportunities for area students to take elective classes that interest them in addition to the required core academics.

The district is limiting its first-round grant applications to Carson and Rancho, said Lauren Kohut-Rost, deputy superintendent of instruction. The uncertainty in the district’s workforce, with potential layoffs possible as a result of budget cuts, was a factor in that decision, Kohut-Rost said. Additionally, the government has not yet provided application details to the Nevada Education Department, which will make it difficult to complete the paperwork in time for the 2010-11 school year.

But even without the prospect of grant money, that doesn’t mean raised expectations aren’t in place for the other five campuses identified as persistently low achieving, as well as other struggling district schools, Kohut-Rost said.

“There will be heightened oversight and expectations,” she said. “Some of those campuses are already showing positive growth, and we want to continue on that trend.”

The $546 million grant program for the nation’s lowest achieving schools is under way nationally as the federal No Child Left Behind Act is up for reauthorization. Education researchers say President George W. Bush’s sweeping reform of public school funding and oversight has had mixed results, with no marked improvement in student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says he wants to refocus the spotlight on the bottom 5 percent of the nation’s public schools, which he argues are contributing disproportionately to the nation’s academic woes.

The Clark County School District has some experience with successfully turning around a low-performing campus. In 2005, the district reconstituted the former Charles I. West Middle School in West Las Vegas, firing the principal and requiring staff to reapply for their jobs (fewer than 20 of the 70 teachers were rehired). Since then, Principal Mike Barton has added a high school and elementary school program, and student achievement has soared.

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