Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011 | 2 a.m.
About the author
As we launch our yearlong series “The Turnaround: Inside Clark County Schools,” it only made sense to ask Emily Richmond — the dean of Nevada’s education writers — to weigh in.
Richmond was our education reporter from 2002 through last summer, and her distinguished writing was recognized by the Associated Press News Executives Council of Nevada-California and by the Nevada Press Association, which named her outstanding journalist of the year in 2007.
Last year she was awarded the prestigious Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she examined the resurgence of gender-segregated classrooms in public schools.
Richmond no longer works for a newspaper, but helps many. She is an editor for the National Education Writers Association, where she provides training, guidance and resources to education journalists across the country.
We asked her to write one more essay for us, reflecting on the state of education in Nevada based on her eight years on the school beat.
We were gathered near an elementary campus for the Clark County School District’s annual back-to-school traffic safety event, where students would demonstrate the proper way to navigate a busy intersection.
Reporters were interviewing motorcycle cops and TV cameramen were shooting backup video of police cars stationed up and down the street.
And the demonstration began: The crossing guard raised his hand-held stop sign and the children stepped off the sidewalk.
Unbelievably, a motorist — oblivious to the flashing traffic lights, the police cruisers and motorcycle cops — blew right past the crossing guard.
If you think that was an isolated incident, the scene was repeated last week at Rundle Elementary School. During this year’s crosswalk-safety demonstration for the media — complete with flashing yellow lights and the presence of police cars — police issued nine speeding tickets in 30 minutes, including to one woman going 50 mph in the 15 mph school zone. Really, you can’t make this stuff up.
These episodes provide a dramatic metaphor for the sorry state of public education in Clark County: people focused on their own agendas, with little interest in schools and oblivious to the warning signs of troubled classrooms.
And that indifference couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.
Beginning in 2002 when I began covering schools for the Sun, one theme consistently surfaced above all others: the School District’s challenge to keep up with the region’s unprecedented, astronomical growth. Nearly every month, ground was broken for another campus. Recruiters were canvassing the country — as well as internationally — for thousands of new teachers. A huge influx of English language learners had educators scrambling to provide appropriate instruction.
At the same time, schools here and nationwide were adjusting to a new yoke of federal requirements for student achievement and accountability. The name of the Bush administration’s initiative sounded noble: No Child Left Behind, memorialized as law by Congress to poke school districts to improve student performance.
When Clark County student test results fell below expectations, growth became a scapegoat. Even though more students meant more money for schools, it also meant focusing more on the quantity, rather than the quality, of instruction.
When the recession hit late in 2007, no public entity in the Las Vegas Valley felt the pain on more fronts than the School District. The $2.2 billion budget was slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars. The district cut many successful programs, including remedial help for struggling students and college preparation initiatives. At the same time, more and more students — and their families — were feeling the effects of a failing economy.
Compounding the stresses: There is a direct correlation between economic downturns and risky behavior among teens. In 2009, breaking a near decadelong trend of steady improvement, the number of Nevada students who said they smoked cigarettes and had used marijuana increased, along with those who reported they were sexually active. (The survey was conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which compiles data from every state into a profile of American youth.)
The survey also found an increase among middle and high school students who said they were experimenting with drugs and sex, as well as those who were depressed enough to have considered suicide.
These students are the Recession Generation. They will be distinguished — economically, socially and physically — by their experiences during the Great Recession just as their great-grandparents were by the Great Depression 80 years ago. Funding cuts to the School District and the social service agencies and organizations that support it mean cutting back on help at a time that more students desperately need it.
We have reached the point in this story where someone inevitably asks why this is the School District’s problem. Shouldn’t educators be focusing on academics, not trying to fix their students’ home lives? Too many parents have abdicated their responsibilities to the schools, cynics argue.
The hard truth is that these are the School District’s problems. Here’s a harder truth — it’s going to take more than just the School District to solve them.
Clark County has long struggled to build a sense of community. Developers built hundreds of neighborhoods that, with their compoundlike cinder-block walls, did little to encourage neighborliness. Many people see themselves as visitors — passing through town, stopping long enough to capitalize on well-paying construction or hospitality jobs before cashing out and moving on. Such attitudes explain the poor turnouts on back-to-school nights.
There are, of course, sterling examples of people working hard to help. Volunteers at the Three Square Regional Food Bank fill backpacks with nutritious snacks for students who might otherwise go hungry over the weekend. Communities in Schools, which operates several campus health clinics, provides basic medical care to at-risk students. Through the Las Vegas Assistance League’s Operation School Bell, needy students get clothing, winter coats and toiletries.Hundreds of local businesses have partnered with individual campuses, providing funding, classroom volunteers and other support services.
So why does it feel that Nevadans are not committed to education — although there is no dispute that the health and wealth of a community depends heavily on its public schools?
Consider this: The Brookings Institution, the venerable Washington think tank affiliated with UNLV, compared the recession’s effects on a handful of similar cities in the Mountain West. Researchers found cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs had rebounded much more quickly than Las Vegas, in part because of their more highly educated populations.
Want more reasons to fight for the best public education possible? High school dropouts are more likely to end up in jail. The less educated an individual, the more likely he will require public assistance and use emergency rooms for basic medical care. The taxpayers’ tab: billions of dollars. By comparison, investments in education would seem to pay for themselves on multiple levels.
This is the tricky part. For investments to be fruitful, you need money and patience. When it comes to public education, Southern Nevada has offered too little of both.
The district argues that it’s the state’s outdated and insufficient funding formula for schools — Nevada ranks near the bottom nationally for per-pupil spending — that hampers achievement. Critics of the district say there is plenty of money, it’s just being spent wrong.
The public’s frustration is understandable. How is it possible that more than 85 percent of middle and high school students failed to pass a districtwide math assessment test in 2010? Even if the failure rate would likely be as high in many other districts (if they were brave enough to try and measure it) those results are stunning. This month the School District was placed on the state’s “watch list” after falling short of the student performance requirements of No Child Left Behind. Although there’s plenty of room for debate as to the fairness of the benchmarks (which are being revised as the law faces congressional reauthorization), the fact remains that too many students can’t read, write or do math well enough to satisfy the state or the feds. Clark County shouldn’t be satisfied, either.
Superintendent Dwight Jones, 11 months into the job, has his own plans for reform, ranging from the creative (letting teachers share their best lesson plans online with peers and receive a small stipend when they are downloaded) to the downright brave (let’s see if the teachers union actually agrees to a new job evaluation model that will rate at least some of its members as “ineffective”).
Let’s be clear: Teaching is not easy work. Many, many teachers (and administrators) work longer hours and more days than their contracts require. But it’s also probably true that some teachers are not as effective in the classroom as they could be because of a host of influencing factors: inadequate training, unclear expectations and a student population that arrives for school ill-prepared for academic challenge. A successful teacher evaluation model will be more than punitive; it will actually help teachers do a better job.
Jones wants to reduce the percentage of the district’s graduates who are required to take remedial classes at the state’s colleges and universities, a priority his predecessor Walt Rulffes shared. It’s also an understandable priority for UNLV President Neal Smatresk, given that the School District delivers more than 80 percent of his incoming freshmen. Efforts are under way to let high school juniors know if they are on track for the academic expectations of their first year of college. If they’re not, they could make up the work when they are seniors.
The district does some things very, very well — including designing and building green campuses, developing digital learning opportunities (the School Board holds the license for Vegas PBS) and creating award-winning magnet programs.
The district produces a fair share of National Merit Scholars (many of whom leave Nevada for colleges elsewhere). The fine arts program is nationally recognized. Clark County is also ahead of the curve in committing to career and technical education (another legacy of the Rulffes era). The district’s network of career and technical academies prepares students for high-skills trades and professions as well as college. The dropout rate at those academies hovers around 0.5 percent, compared with the districtwide average of about 4.5 percent. Is it any surprise that when students are engaged and interested in what they’re learning, they are more eager to come to school?
But here’s the rub. However you want to measure it, the district’s graduation rate is dismal. The career and technical academies aren’t enough to solve the larger problem of disengagement at the secondary school level. High school teachers say they are forced to waste class time reteaching students material they should have mastered in middle school. Middle school teachers find themselves helping students with basic skills that were part of the elementary curriculum. Perhaps Jones’ biggest challenge will be to figure out how to stop that first domino from falling.
It sounds simple, in theory: Find the root cause and address it. But too often, school reformers are forced to respond to the latest crisis in public education with a quick tactical fix, at the expense of pursuing a long-range strategy. Fixing what’s broken (without sacrificing what’s working) won’t happen overnight. It also won’t happen with top-down mandates from the executive suite at 5100 W. Sahara Ave. Teachers are going to have to agree to change. So are principals. And support staff. And students. And their parents. And the rest of Nevada, if it cares about its future.
Otherwise, those children in the crosswalk don’t stand a chance.
[email protected] / @EWAEmily