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September 24, 2017

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At-risk students face loss of program that’s helping them graduate


L.E. Baskow

Student Monica Lopez shares a laugh with teacher April Joseph at Ombudsman Education Services on Monday, April 7, 2014. CCSD is considering cutting them from their budget, a program that helps at-risk students to complete high school.

Ombudsman Education Services and CCSD Budget

Teacher Renee Hudacek works with students Alex Santivanez and Dania Rivas at Ombudsman Education Services on Monday, April 7, 2014.  CCSD is considering cutting them from their budget, a program that helps at-risk students to complete high school. Launch slideshow »

Charlene Peeters should have been a high school dropout.

During her freshman year, the Sunrise Mountain High School student faced a heart-wrenching decision.

Her father was dying. She wanted to spend as much time with him as possible before he succumbed to lung cancer.

Although Peeters dropped out of Sunrise Mountain and transferred to an online academy, schoolwork took a backseat to her dad. When cancer took him midyear, Peeters was stricken with grief.

“I was daddy’s little girl,” Peeters said. “Me and him got along the best. When he went, I was depressed all the time.”

Ombudsman Educational Services at a glance

Ombudsman Educational Services is a for-profit alternative education company based in Libertyville, Ill.

Founded in 1975, the company runs “credit-retrieval” programs and charter schools in 22 states. Ombudsman has operated five centers in Las Vegas since 2011.

Using a mix of computer-based and individual and small-group instruction, Ombudsman helps students at risk of dropping out of high school earn missing credits to graduate. Some students are missing just a few credits; others are missing several school years of course credits.

About 580 Clark County School District students are attending Ombudsman centers in Las Vegas this year. Many of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds. About 80 percent of students are black or Hispanic, and some students are pregnant, homeless or have had brushes with the law.

Ombudsman has about 40 employees in Las Vegas, including five certified teachers at every center who teach math, reading and science. The School District has spent about $6.6 million on the program since 2011, at a cost of about $3,075 per pupil.

The program has served more than 2,100 students in the past three years. It boasts a 77 percent graduation rate, which is higher than the district average, according to the company.

Although she returned to Sunrise Mountain the following year, Peeters realized she was too far behind. She couldn’t catch up on her credits, and eventually dropped out again.

Peeters says she would have remained a dropout if it weren’t for Ombudsman.

Last year, the 19-year-old began attending a “credit-retrieval” program operated by Ombudsman Educational Services, a for-profit alternative education company.

Through a combination of computer-based, individualized and small-group instruction, Ombudsman allows at-risk students like Peeters to quickly earn missing credits so they can graduate.

Peeters, who entered Ombudsman with just six credits a year and a half ago, now says graduation is within reach. The fifth-year senior believes she will be able to get her high school diploma this June.

“I never would have gotten these credits without Ombudsman,” she said. “Without this, I wouldn’t be able to graduate.”

However, in a cost-cutting move, the Clark County School District has decided to sever its ties with Ombudsman next year. District officials argue the program hasn’t delivered enough “return on investment” and say they can now offer these credit-retrieval classes in-house.

The School Board is expected to vote on the program’s fate during a budget meeting this afternoon.

• • •

Since 2011, more than 2,100 at-risk students in Las Vegas have turned to Ombudsman for “credit retrieval” courses.

Those who graduate say Ombudsman has forever changed the course of their lives.

“If it weren’t for this school, I probably would have been another statistic: another black male who didn’t graduate high school,” says Sunrise Mountain senior Nathan Beckford, 17, who graduated this year.

“Without this school, I would be locked up or dead,” chimed in 19-year-old Nicole Carter, a Sunrise Mountain dropout also on track to graduate this year.

The School District acknowledges the program's success stories, but those stories have cost about $6.6 million since 2011, or about $3,075 per student.

“If we’re not getting positive results, we won’t continue to spend the dollars, time and energy on programs that aren’t providing outcomes,” said Tammy Malich, assistant superintendent for the district’s education services division. “Every program is up for review based on outcomes and return on investment.”

Ombudsman officials say they’ve seen success with their students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

More than 80 percent of Ombudsman students are Hispanic or black. Some have special needs or don’t speak English. Others are pregnant or homeless. Several students have faced disciplinary issues or even legal troubles.

Despite these challenges, Ombudsman says it has a 77 percent graduation rate, which is higher than Clark County’s 72 percent. Ombudsman graduated 535 seniors out of 694 attending the program, according to the company.

“We’re a small little piece, but one that has a great impact on the graduation rate,” said Therese DiVerde, the operations manager for Ombudsman campuses in Nevada. “We help the district with their mission.”

• • •

If the School Board approves cutting Ombudsman next year, district officials say they have a plan in place to meet the needs of some 580 students in the program today.

The School District is expanding its own credit-retrieval programs at no additional cost to taxpayers, Malich said. Next year, there will be 47 school and community-based sites with such classes, she said.

However, it comes at a price for some students.

Students who are enrolled at their local high school but need to take these classes must pay a $100 fee per half-credit. Students who attend these classes full-time will not be charged.

Ombudsman parents and teachers who await the School Board’s decision tonight say they are skeptical that Clark County’s programs can top Ombudsman’s.

Some fear individualized attention may be harder to come by.

The typical student-to-teacher ratio at CCSD credit-retrieval classes are at best 15-to-1. At Ombudsman, students attend classes with up to 50 students, but there are five licensed teachers present at all times.

“I don’t think the district can afford this (low student-teacher ratio),” Janet Knight, an Ombudsman math teacher and former CCSD teacher said. “This is ideal for students who need individual help.”

Charlene Peeters’ mother, Victoria Peeters, says she is glad her daughter is on track to graduate this year, but said she is worried about her classmates attending Ombudsman.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Victoria Peeters said of the program. “Why take (Ombudsman) down if it’s working?”

As a mother and educator, Malich says she understands the concerns of Ombudsman teachers, parents and students. She promised to work with the affected students to ensure they find a program that works for them, and gets them to graduate.

“Just give us a chance and let us show you what we can do,” Malich said. “We’re going to meet their needs so they’re not left in a lurch. ”

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