Las Vegas Sun

December 9, 2018

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Education:

Collaborative effort aims to help at-risk students graduate from high school

Project REACH targets disadvantaged children in public housing and impoverished neighborhoods

Project Reach: Community In Schools

Christopher DeVargas

Math teacher DeAnna Stay, pictured here Tuesday, June 26, 2012, works with students who are preparing to take the High School Proficiency Exam in July.

Project REACH: Community In Schools

DeAnna Stay, a math teacher at Canyon Springs High School pictured here Tuesday, June 26, 2012, quizzes students who are preparing to take the final High School Proficiency Exam in July. Launch slideshow »

Technically, Kent Berlint didn’t graduate from high school earlier this month.

Although she enjoyed all the trappings of a traditional graduation ceremony, the 17-year-old Rancho High School senior only received a certificate of attendance, not a diploma.

The certificate signified that Berlint had earned enough credits to graduate but didn’t pass all the sections of the High School Proficiency Exam. All that stood between Berlint and her diploma was 10 points on the science section of the high school exit exam.

“I was sad,” Berlint said, recalling her test results. “I thought I had passed it, but I didn’t.”

Instead of despairing, Berlint and nearly 20 other Rancho students have turned this summer to Project REACH, an unprecedented collaborative project aimed at helping at-risk students graduate from high school.

Located inside a metal-barred, one-story brick building inside one of Las Vegas’ oldest public housing complexes, Project REACH — which stands for Raising Educational Attainment within Community Housing — targets disadvantaged students living in public housing and impoverished neighborhoods.

The walls inside this academic center are covered with handmade posters, covering topics from biology and chemistry to advanced algebra. Aside from a bank of computers, the furnishings are simple: two large tables, some chairs, a couch and a whiteboard on wheels.

It doesn’t seem like much, but this makeshift classroom represents a fundamental shift in how educational services are being delivered closer to home for at-risk students, said Florence Aitken, school "turnaround” leader for the Clark County School District.

Aitken — who oversees the implementation of a multimillion-dollar federal School Improvement Grant — wanted to find unique community partnerships to help the district’s six turnaround schools reach out to their most disadvantaged students.

One of those schools, Rancho, serves a particularly challenging student demographic, Aitken said. The northern valley high school serves a large population of minority, low-income and even homeless students, she said.

Children living in low-income and public housing don’t have access to the same resources to succeed in school as their more affluent peers, Aitken said. Financial struggles, family troubles and low educational attainment all contribute to a cycle of poverty within these communities that can be challenging to break, she said.

“There are so many needs,” Aitken said. “Our schools can’t do it alone.”

•••

Project REACH seeks to bring social and educational resources — computers, tutors and food — to students living in public housing, Aitken said. It’s a radical philosophical shift from having those students receive those services at school, she added.

Through a unique collaboration with the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority and the nonprofit Communities In Schools, Aitken helped found an academic center at the Archie Grant public housing complex, right across the street from Rancho.

The Project REACH center, which opened nearly a year ago, was a welcome addition to the 48-year-old senior housing project, which until last year had been vacant for several years, said John Hill, the housing authority’s executive director.

Click to enlarge photo

John Hill, executive director of the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority, discusses ways that the community is helping at risk students graduate, June 26, 2012.

The center would pull in students living in the nearby Vera Johnson housing projects by giving them a safe place to study, he said. More than 100 families with children — including 32 Rancho students — live at the Vera Johnson complexes, he said.

“You can’t improve the quality of life (inside public housing) if you don’t improve the quality of education,” Hill said.

Communities In Schools is staffing Project REACH with teachers and mentors who work with at-risk students in small groups to help them pass their classes and proficiency exams. The center is open from 2 to 6 p.m. during the school year and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the summer months.

The nonprofit group also operates a summer food program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local nonprofit Three Square. Children living in public housing often lose access to the federal free and reduced-price lunch program when school lets out. Anyone age 2 to 18 can stop by Project REACH for free breakfast and lunch.

Project REACH represents a change for the nonprofit group, said Tiffani Lloyd, Community In Schools’ director of site services. Instead of bringing community help to schools, Community In Schools is now helping to bring schools into communities, she said.

“You can take (students) out of their home environments for eight hours (of school), but then they go back to that environment,” Lloyd said. “This is about leveling the playing field.”

During its first year, Project REACH at Archie Grant served about 75 students. A second Project REACH center opened earlier this month at the Marble Manor complex.

Eventually, the initiative hopes to expand to all 24 public housing developments in Las Vegas to reach more students, Hill said. The only barrier so far is finding the funding, he said.

“This is just the beginning,” Hill said. “We need to think of different and innovative ways to impact kids. We need to do a better job of reaching out to these students’ homes and creating higher expectations.”

Click to enlarge photo

High school students study at the Archie Grant Center to prepare themselves to take the final High School Proficiency Exam in July, photographed June 26, 2012.

•••

Project REACH tutor DeAnna Stay stands in front of the five students enrolled in her math test prep session.

Stay — a Canyon Springs High School teacher during the school year — has just 10 days to help prepare her students for the final examination of the high school proficiencies in July.

“What is the exponent on this one, Jesus?” Stay asks, pointing to an algebra “puzzle” on the dry-erase board.

“A to the eighth power,” Jesus replies, looking up from his notepad.

“Good,” Stay says. “Expect a quiz on this tomorrow.”

Although school has officially let out, Stay is not giving up on her students, some of whom were just a few questions away from passing the proficiencies and graduating.

Stay is hoping to give her students the extra boost and confidence to pass their proficiencies. That’s why she has signed up to teach math and science this summer at Project REACH.

“I totally believe in this program,” Stay said. “We feed them, we love them and we mentor them. It’s exactly what this demographic needs.”

However, the task of preparing these high school seniors to pass their final test is daunting, Stay said. After all, these seniors have taken — and failed — the proficiency exams six previous times.

After her math session ends, Stay directs her students to close their eyes and visualize passing the exam.

“Think about walking into that test room, taking a deep breath and thinking, ‘I can work through this,’” Stay instructs her students. “‘I am in control of this test. This test is mine.’”

For Berlint, that extra encouragement is what keeps her motivated and upbeat about her final shot at graduating high school with an actual diploma. For the past several weeks, Berlint has walked an hour round trip to the Project REACH center to cram for her science exam.

If she doesn’t score at least a 300, Berlint won’t pass. She won’t get her diploma and she won’t be able to go to cosmetology school, a dream of hers.

“I feel like I’m getting better and better,” Berlint said. “I’m hoping I’ll pass it this time. I really want to get my diploma and move on.”

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