Friday, May 4, 2012 | 2 a.m.
What is a turnaround school?
The Clark County School District implemented the "turnaround" model at five of its worst-performing schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Four of these schools — Chaparral, Mojave and Western high schools, and Hancock Elementary School — received a piece of $8.7 million in federal School Improvement Grant money to improve test scores and for the high schools, graduation rates. As part of the turnaround model, the principal and at least half of the staff were replaced at each school, and schools were required to implement new programs and teaching methods to improve student achievement.
This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking efforts by the Clark County School District to improve student performance at five struggling schools.
When Jeff Sylvester saw a Facebook post from Western High School alumni seeking donations for a baseball scoreboard dedicated in his brother’s memory, he made a phone call and said he’d pick up the cost.
The Gregory Sylvester Memorial Field had been dedicated in the early 1980s with a small sign behind the backstop honoring the former Western player who was stabbed to death months before his senior season in 1981.
But through coaching changes, a decline in the program and school, and the field being constructed in a different direction over the years, third-year coach Tommy Krier didn’t realize the field was named after someone.
Not only did Jeff Sylvester pay for the scoreboard, he attended this week’s dedication and talked to the players about living a respectable life. He told the players that his brother was stabbed four times in the parking lot following a dispute after a state basketball game in a random act of violence.
“The point of the story is there are bad people in the world, and there is good and evil,” Sylvester said. “You can’t control any of it. But what you can control is your own decisions. If you are true to your own moral compass, good things will happen.”
For the players at Western, the message is similar to what they’ve heard all year. Western is one of three underachieving high schools in the Clark County School District’s "turnaround" project. They received federal money to help improve facilities and the curriculum with the goals of improving test scores, graduation rates and overall student moral.
On the baseball field, the turnaround is working.
Western won nine games this year (more than the past two seasons combined), including scoring 38 runs this week against Virgin Valley and earlier in the season beating perennial power Sierra Vista in one of the biggest local upsets in recent history.
More important for Krier, the players are learning how to play the game correctly. That includes respecting the field they compete on.
“The only thing I ask is that you keep the field and that sign clean,” Jeff Sylvester told the players.
Krier presented Sylvester with a Western home baseball jersey with his brother’s No. 2 and the Sylvester name on the back. Last year, Krier raised money for new uniforms, ordering replica throwback jerseys from the school’s state title teams in the 1960s.
Western is one of the oldest high schools in the Las Vegas Valley, and while the demographics of the area have shifted, the students suiting up for the Warriors’ athletic teams are similar to those when Sylvester played. He told the teens he was just like them — he was an average student, and his parents worked blue-collar jobs and couldn’t afford to send him to college. His mother still lives in the area and has been to the field to see the scoreboard.
He went to law school and is working in Las Vegas as an attorney. Each year, he will sponsor a $1,000 scholarship for a player on the baseball team.
“I’m telling you right now, if you go to school and if you make right decisions, there is nothing you can’t do,” he told them.
As the players listened to Sylvester’s words, Krier realized Sylvester was giving them a similar message to what Krier has preached all season.
“This is Greg’s field now. The kids will have more pride in taking care of the field,” Krier said. “That is what I wanted to get with the kids. It might not be the best field in town, but it is our field.”
The players posed with Sylvester for photos in an experience that was beneficial for both parties.
“It’s remarkable what Tommy’s done with the kids. It really is,” Sylvester said.
A fresh coat of paint and a fresh perspective are among the changes being made around Western High School.
Western is one of five turnaround schools that missed the marks set by No Child Left Behind and now faces the challenge of increasing student achievement.
The school is the third oldest in the district and its campus lies near Decatur Boulevard and Veterans Memorial Highway. The majority of students attending Western are minorities from disadvantaged homes. Western is known for having a rough past, but students are optimistic about the future of their school.
Change is apparent according to students interviewed in September.
“When I was in eighth grade, I was told I was going to get shot or stabbed when I came to Western,” said senior Kole Yanez, 17. “That might have been true 15 years ago, but now, you don’t see that here.”
Rules are tightly enforced on campus. The school keeps a strict dress code policy and cell phone use during class time is not permitted.
Halls are designated by grade level giving students a sense of ownership and community. Pride is clearly visible at pep rallies and sporting events. The newfound pride might just be he medicine needed to alleviate the 8 percent dropout rate, the highest in the district.
“It’s like building a house. You need a strong foundation,” said Neddy Alvarez, principal. “You need those strong relationships. When kids know we care about them, the learning will take place.”
- Year built:
- Principal (Year Hired):
- Neddy Alvarez (2008)
- Mission Statement:
- “The mission of Western High School is to promote scholarship, encourage good citizenship, and embrace our cultural diversity.”
- Approximately 2,400
- Notable alumni:
- Frank Hawkins, former NFL player
Capt. Nicole Malachowski, first female Thunderbird
Ronnie Vannucci, drummer of The Killers
Tom Collins, Clark County commissioner
- School Report Card:
Compiled by Gregan Wingert