Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2017

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School reform plans scaled back in face of budget cuts

Budget crisis aside, district committed to innovation goals

Walt Rulffes

Walt Rulffes

Sun coverage

Among the school initiatives facing significant adjustments as a result of the state budget crisis is the empowerment program, which gives Clark County principals greater autonomy while holding them more accountable for results.

The goal was to trigger a seismic shift in how campuses operate and students learn, and it started at the top with the requirement that principals had to reapply for their jobs.

So did the rest of the staff — teachers, office personnel, even food-service workers and custodians. There was an emphasis on new instructional strategies and new money from corporate partners.

But with the budget cutbacks, expectations of campuswide overhauls have been downgraded. School reform will have to come without extra money to help pay for such things such as longer school days unless principals can win grants and tap businesses for financial support.

So for now, the Clark County School District is setting aside the vision of schools making quantum leaps to full empowerment and, instead, scaling back to a series of progressive steps toward reform, Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes said.

Last week, the district announced another 11 schools would be moving toward empowerment status.

Unlike the 17 empowerment schools in the program, the new campuses will not receive additional money from the district. Principals will have to prove themselves adept at handling a limited degree of autonomy with the funding already allocated. With each success — measured in areas such as student achievement and parental involvement — will come greater freedom, Rulffes said.

But for the most part, that freedom won’t extend to letting principals start fresh when it comes to choosing their teams.

Unlike the four elementary schools that launched the program in 2006, staff at campuses joining the program are no longer required to reapply for their jobs.

Reconstituting the staff had been a central tenet of the district’s empowerment model when it debuted in 2006. The reason: Everyone on campus had to demonstrate that they agreed with the direction the school was about to take, a prototype in autonomy.

The district chose Adams, Antonello, Culley and Warren for the program based on student demographics. Along with an increase in per-pupil funding, the principals would get more control over daily operations, including staffing, scheduling and budgets. In exchange, the schools would be held to higher levels of accountability.

At Adams, there was no dramatic change in staffing — Principal Rebecca Johnson was “rehired” as were most of the teachers, administrators and support employees. A few opted not to reapply and transferred to other campuses; others were reassigned. But as an exercise, getting campus employees to re-enlist was worthwhile, Johnson said.

“You had the opportunity for everybody to say, ‘Yes, we’re on board,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘We want to try this, and we’re with you.’ ”

The School District dropped the reconstitution requirement in 2007, citing complications of shifting personnel and complaints from union leaders that it was an unfriendly approach to campus reform. The district last year tried something new: Schools that wanted to join the empowerment program had to first survey the entire staff. If at least 80 percent were in favor, the application was allowed to proceed.

“For some school communities, scrambling the whole staff is extremely disruptive,” School Board Vice President Carolyn Edwards said. “That’s why we moved in direction of the survey. And so far, it seems to be working.”

The budget crisis makes additional money impossible at this time, Rulffes said, although individual campuses are expected to find corporate partners to help support enrichment programs and activities.

The district’s empowerment program might qualify for one or more new federal grants that have been announced in the past year to support school reform and innovation. If there were to be a windfall, the newest empowerment schools would be at the top of the list.

Johnson said little of the empowerment at Adams is tied to the extra funding.

“Yes, money helps because it allows you to add people and time, which is what students need to learn,” Johnson said.

At Adams, the school day is 34 minutes longer Monday through Thursday. The extra time is used to create a

40-minute instructional block when remedial students get extra help, as well as for the gifted and talented program.

“Even just adjusting schedules with what you already had can make a huge difference,” Johnson said.

(And the difference has been marked at Adams. Reading, writing and math scores have soared at all grade levels.)

Reconstituting school staff is considered by some educators to be a crucial factor in campus reform. The U.S. Education Department has made it a requirement for one of its approved models for the “turnaround” grant initiative, which could mean millions of dollars for the lowest-performing campuses in Nevada. Reconstitution amounts to litmus tests of sorts — those who are willing to embrace change are given an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment and possibly keep their jobs. Principals can build their teams from the start.

When Wallin Elementary opens its doors for the first time in August, it will be one of the 11 newest empowerment campuses. Principal Michael O’Dowd, who left award-winning Lamping Elementary to prepare for the new school’s opening, said he knows he has an advantage.

“People told me, ‘It’s a lot to open a new school, and it’s a lot to go empowerment — are you sure you want to do them both at the same time?’ ” O’Dowd said. “I feel very strongly that by putting empowerment in at the ground level, with that expectation in place from the very first day, it will mean this is really what everybody wants to do.”

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