Clark County trustees reject state improvement option for struggling schools

Don’t interfere in local efforts to improve schools.

That was the message the Clark County School District sent Thursday night to state officials when trustees rejected a proposal to enter low-performing schools into a so-called student performance compact with the Nevada Department of Education.

Trustees voted 5-0 against participating in the compacts, which would allow those schools to avoid charter takeover if they could prove incremental progress over a three-year period. The Washoe County School District also declined participation, but three counties — Elko, Mineral and Nye — and the Carson City School District entered struggling schools into the compacts.

Trustees Erin Cranor and Carolyn Edwards were absent for the vote. The decision, which represents the latest friction between state and Clark County education officials, followed more than an hour of public comment — mostly from concerned principals, staff members and parents who didn’t want to see their schools beholden to a state program when there are local improvement efforts already underway.

“We are a school on the rise and no new state demand should be placed on us,” said Pamela Hays, principal of Priest Elementary School in North Las Vegas. “Another plan is just another critic. We don’t need another critic. We need your support and we need your buy-in, and we will give you the results.”

Priest was one of the schools identified by the state as eligible for the compact because it performs in the bottom 5 percent of elementary and middle schools. High schools with graduation rates lower than 60 percent were also eligible.

State officials said the goal of the compact was to turn the low-performing schools into three-star buildings by the end of the three years. If the schools demonstrated progress and hit performance targets, they would not be considered for inclusion in the controversial Achievement School District, which links struggling schools with charter operators.

But local school leaders pointed to the Turnaround, Zoom and Victory school programs as examples of in-progress efforts to improve students’ academic performance. Zoom and Victory schools help students who are English-language learners or who come from low-income households, respectively. The Turnaround program involves a revamp of school staff and culture in an effort to quickly improve chronically underperforming schools.

Greg Cole, principal of Mojave High School, said the state’s proposal was simply “another attempt to wrestle local control from the local communities” and flies in the face of the district reorganization, which grants more autonomy to schools. Assembly Bill 394, passed in the 2015 legislative session, led to the development of the state-mandated reorganization plan for the school district.

“I applaud, in theory, three stars in three years,” Cole said. “Autonomous zones and empowerment zones is exactly what AB394 brings to the Clark County School District. Stay the course and allow this to work.”

In the end, school trustees agreed with the principals and teachers. They noted that even though improvement efforts are underway, a lot of work remains. But several trustees took offense to what they perceive as a target on the district and themselves.

It has been a turbulent few months between the Clark County trustees and state education officials to say the least: The trustees have a lawsuit pending against the education department and State Board of Education over the reorganization effort. And, earlier this week, Republican Sens. Michael Roberson and Ben Kieckhefer, the GOP’s top two leaders in the upper house, unveiled a bill that calls for trustees in the Washoe and Clark County school districts to be appointed rather than elected.

Trustee Linda Young, who serves as the board’s vice president, didn’t mince words when she expressed her displeasure with the compact idea.

“I think we have been targeted as a school district, and I personally find it offensive,” she said, adding that she does think the district needs to improve. “... I hope state department people hear me: Let’s stop the fighting with each other and respect one another.”

State education officials on Wednesday told The Nevada Independent that the student performance compacts were intended as another tool to help schools improve — not a way to wrest control from the district. The schools that enter the compacts will have access to a portion of $8 million worth of federal Title 1 funds the department has for school improvement.

“We’ve got a lot of olive branches,” said Jana Wilcox Lavin, the state superintendent in residence, who oversees the Achievement School District. “We keep extending them because, fundamentally, what’s right for kids is for us all to be on the same team.”

The Washoe County School District, however, harbored some similar concerns about the compacts; hence, why it also chose not to participate.

“The Washoe County School District declined to enter into a Student Performance Compact as the two WCSD schools that would have qualified have become part of WCSD’s Acceleration Zone, a component of our own accountability model that provides high leverage intervention for schools that need additional support,” according to a statement provided by the district. “WCSD also had concerns that the 3-year performance targets had not yet been adequately defined and that our schools could face unintended consequences upon entering into a School Performance Compact.”

Caption: Clark County School District school buses line up to pick up special needs students at Variety School, 2800 E. Stewart Ave. on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.