Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2019

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With takeover on hold, schools take a breath

Von Tobel Middle School rally

Mikayla Whitmore

Faculty, parents and students attend a rally at Von Tobel Middle School in Las Vegas on Oct. 26, 2016. The rally was to discuss the school’s inclusion on a shortlist to be converted into a charter school.

Matt Kelly Elementary School

Ms. Alaina Criner, Principal at Matt Kelly Elementary School, speaks the Las Vegas Sun regarding previous plans the school district had for Matt Kelly, Thursday Feb. 9, 2017. Launch slideshow »

Life was hard in the weeks leading up to the announcement from Nevada’s new Achievement School District.

A handful of mostly low-income and racially diverse schools were going to be converted into charter schools under the program, passed by Republicans in 2015, but nobody was sure exactly which ones would make the cut.

The result was weeks of agony, according to those who experienced it firsthand, as school staff worried over whether they would be losing their jobs under the management of an outside charter school company.

“It was like having a cloud hanging over your head,” said Alaina Criner, principal of Matt Kelly Elementary School, one of nine finalists on the list and one of the state’s lowest-performing schools on standardized tests.

Some teachers made plans to retire while others shopped their names around to other schools, hoping to duck out at the end of the year. For support staff, well-paying work is already hard to come by, so the outlook was even more grim.

The threat of a takeover is a constant source of anxiety that plays out in break rooms, classrooms and in parking lots at the end of the day.

“I can preach from a hilltop: ‘Everybody don’t panic!’ said Randy Cheung, principal of Lois Craig Elementary, also on the list. “Easier said than done.”

Jeff Geihs, the local official in charge of the Clark County School District’s Turnaround Zone, a school rehabilitation effort, said at the time that the district had already lost teachers, and that the process was “creating unnecessary anxiety that is hurting children.”

And then everything changed. On Jan. 25, federal agents raided the Los Angeles headquarters of Celerity Educational Group, a charter company poised to take over Las Vegas schools under the aegis of the state-run Achievement School District. Though the company was conditionally approved by state education officials in Nevada, it faced allegations of serious ethical malpractice in California. With one of its three charter companies under federal investigation, the Achievement School District made the call to postpone until next year.

A few weeks after the incident, life at the schools is slowly returning to normal. But teachers and principals still have lingering concerns that cut to the heart of the state-run district.

Chief among them is the lack of choice for communities faced with a charter takeover. Local families seemed to be against the idea of a charter school coming in, showing up en masse to town halls at schools to protest the idea. It revealed a fundamental irony built into the program itself: While the traditional purpose of charter schools has been to provide families with a choice of schools to pick from if they weren’t satisfied with their current school, the ASD instead adopts the model of the same public schools it aims to replace, effectively forcing parents to send their children to a charter school.

This may not be a problem in wealthy neighborhoods, but in the inner city, where most of the schools on the ASD list are, families often don’t have the time or money to arrange transportation to another school. Many are low-income, and some are first-generation immigrants who don’t even know how to navigate the school system.

The ASD underscores a theme for education in Nevada: Rapid-fire mandates that emerge from the Legislature faster than schools can roll out existing programs.

Matt Kelly Elementary, for example, is in three state and local programs designed to boost test scores. It’s a Victory School because of its high number of low-income students. It’s in CCSD’s Turnaround Zone, which is designed to improve achievement. And it’s a Reinvent School, which partners staff with outside companies to provide much needed resources.

“If cycles of change continue to happen with no time to let existing programs make improvements, how is that helpful?” Criner said.

“We had all these opportunities to make changes and then came the ASD,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”

It’s another sign of the disconnect emerging between school communities and the politicians and appointed administrators who make the decisions, not through collaboration with families but by analyzing test-score data.

Realistic success at schools like these, teachers and principals say, doesn’t often consist of huge gains on standardized tests, but gradual progress through community engagement, enhanced services for students and stable, consistent school leadership.

For example, when Von Tobel Middle School in heavily Hispanic/Latino east Las Vegas was on the list, a major concern for the community was the possibility of losing the school’s beloved mariachi band, an extracurricular staple that staff members say has united local families and helped dozens of students improve academically.

“You can’t just look at data,” said Carla Kelly, a kindergarten teacher at Matt Kelly who grew up in the school’s predominantly black and low-income westside neighborhood. “At the end of the day, these are just numbers on a piece of paper.”

The ASD’s administrators, though, are bound by the law passed in 2015, which required state officials to use testing data to determine who would be on the list. Changing that means changing the law, a bill has been introduced by Assemblywoman Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas, to repeal the ASD.

“Some of the anxiety was probably caused (because) not everybody had the full picture. There was a lot of misinformation and a lot of misunderstanding,” said Jana Wilcox Lavin, head of the ASD. She and state education officials often butted heads with some CCSD administrators who took a hard line stance against the program.

Wilcox Lavin also pointed to CCSD’s recent announcement of four schools entering the Turnaround Zone. One of them was Tom Williams Elementary, a school whose presence on the ASD shortlist prompted protests from parents who said the school was making progress. In the Turnaround program, though, the school’s principal will be replaced along with potentially entire administrative staff.

“The ASD is not the only intervention,” she said. “It’s certainly not the only one that leads to potential teacher turnover.”

Though they are off the hook for now, the schools could be back on the ASD for next year.

“I’m just gonna hang in here and hope it doesn’t happen,” Carla Kelly, a teacher said.

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