Las Vegas Sun

October 16, 2019

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Clark County schools partner with dropout recovery company Acceleration Academies

CCSD Board of Trustees Meet with Commissioners

Wade Vandervort

CCSD Superintendent Jesus F. Jara attends a joint meeting of the Clark County Board of Commissioners and the Clark County School District Board of Trustees at the Clark County Government Center on Thursday, July 18, 2019.

To help disengaged, former Clark County School District students get their diploma, district officials have approved a three-year contract with Acceleration Academies LLC, a Chicago-based for-profit dropout recovery program.

Acceleration Academies is in the process of finding two locations for the free program, set to begin this school year under the leadership of CCSD. The company offers a “blended learning” model — partly online, partly with in-person teachers — and flexible hours to accommodate students with different backgrounds and needs as they work to get their high school diploma.

During the July 11 CCSD Board of Trustees meeting, at which the contract was approved 5-2, district officials touted the program as a no-cost approach to boosting graduation rates and reengaging students who have dropped out. The program comes to the district at a time when CCSD graduation rates are at an all-time high of 85.22%.

Acceleration Academies will receive 90% of the per-pupil funding the district would get from the state for every student who participates in the program. Clark County schools will get the remaining 10%. As a result, Acceleration Academies has the potential to draw additional revenue to the district by bringing disengaged students back into school, said college, career, equity and school choice officer Mike Barton.

“Principals would attest that it’s challenging work sometimes to locate (former) students,” Barton said. “That’s really what the intent of this is about, is that students who do disengage from us, that we’re able to get them back and give them a diploma.”

But Trustees Danielle Ford and Linda Young, who voted against starting an Acceleration Academies branch at CCSD, criticized the notion of outsourcing services for at-risk former students to a private company.

“I just want us, before we bring in people, to see if we can’t develop these programs and things ourselves,” Young said.

They also raised questions about whether the company could draw students away from traditional schooling at the district.

Under the company’s contract with the district, Acceleration Academies may recruit former students who have already dropped out — but not currently enrolled students. Students considering dropping out might also learn about the program from school guidance counselors.

That’s why Young was surprised to see company representatives at the back-to-school fair at the Meadows mall Aug. 3. The annual fair offers parents and students information they might need about the upcoming school year, including school lunches, transportation and police services.

“I was taken aback somewhat that they are out recruiting not dropouts, but it appears they’re recruiting any students,” Young said.

CCSD’s media team invited the company to attend the fair, said Acceleration Academies President Mark Graves. The company never recruits current students, he added, and even if they were to do so, district officials must sign off on any current students who seek to attend Acceleration Academies as stated in the company’s contract.

“Active students who are coming up on hard times and can’t continue in the traditional model, they’ll only be approved on a case-by-case basis,” Graves said.

Acceleration Academies’ Las Vegas location will be its seventh nationwide, according to the company’s website. So far, Acceleration Academies has received some interest from potential area students, said Anna Lehner, manager of recruitment and enrollment.

Typical participating students have dropped out of school for a variety of reasons, sometimes because they’re also working or they need to take care of family, Graves said.

“We applaud innovative leaders like (Superintendent Jesus) Jara who realize that the traditional school systems aren’t serving kids,” Graves said.

Nicole Taylor-Black, a parent of two current CCSD students and one former student, said she was contacted by Acceleration Academies Aug. 2 via text. The text message advertised a “flexible” way to earn a high school diploma through CCSD.

Taylor-Black said she didn’t “appreciate” being targeted by the company, and wonders if they contacted her because her 20-year-old son didn’t graduate high school.

“(If) my number or my family’s information is being distributed, and that has something to do with the education status or lack thereof of my child, I’m not OK with that,” Taylor-Black said.

Acceleration Academies’ contract says that the district can provide the company with the names, educational records and last-known addresses and phone numbers of students who have not been in school for at least one semester and are no older than age 22. That’s probably how Acceleration Academies received Taylor-Black’s number, Lehner said.

“The only way we would get a number is if the student was ever on the school record as a withdrawn,” Lehner said.

In the coming weeks and months, Acceleration Academies plans to hire 15 educators, all of whom must have a Nevada teaching license and will be subject to the same background checks as required of public school teachers. Starting salaries will be comparable to salaries of CCSD teachers so as not to compete with district positions, Graves said.