State gives underperforming schools a way to avoid charter takeover

Nevada Department of Education officials have announced a new option that would spare underperforming schools from being pulled into the state-run charter school district — as long as they can prove incremental progress.

State Superintendent Steve Canavero sent memos Thursday to six school districts, including Clark County, that outline a new pathway for improving high schools with graduation rates less than 60 percent and elementary and middle schools that are performing in the bottom 5 percent of student achievement.

The memos inform school districts that they can work with the department and agree to a “Student Performance Compact” that would establish targets for improving student learning over a three-year period. The goal is to turn the underperforming — or so-called “rising star” — schools into three-star schools by the end of that timeframe. (The Nevada School Performance Framework uses stars to signify a school’s performance level, with five given to highest-performing schools and one to lowest-performing schools.)

State education officials said the process would involve the creation of a school performance plan that identifies a partnership with a nonprofit, local government entity or charter school, or some other entity or strategy that would have a high likelihood of rapid improvement.

“Those schools that enter into a Student Performance Compact and meet the student achievement targets articulated within the Compact are not put forward for consideration into the Achievement School District in the following year,” the memos state.

Assembly Bill 448, which lawmakers approved during the 2015 legislative session, authorized the creation of the Achievement School District to link struggling public schools with charter operators. The concept aimed to transform those schools, but it received strong pushback from parents and community members who didn’t want their neighborhood schools taken over by another group.

The program encountered a setback last month when the Los Angeles Times reported that federal authorities were investigating allegations of fraud and money mismanagement at the Celerity Educational Group, a charter school manager that had applied to operate schools in the Achievement School District. Within hours of the story’s publication, the Nevada Department of Education revoked Celerity’s application.

Department officials also announced they were delaying the conversion of five schools into charters. That means the Achievement School District will only oversee two charter schools next year — Futuro Academy, which is opening a new building, and the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, which has partnered with an operator called Democracy Prep Public Schools.

Brett Barley, deputy state superintendent for student achievement, said the new option isn’t a condemnation of the fledgling Achievement School District but rather another way to improve lower-performing schools.

“We’re kind of agnostic on the means but really invested on the end,” he said.

But he acknowledged the Student Performance Compacts would give parents and community members some confidence that they wouldn’t get the “rug pulled out from them” if the schools make progress.

Democratic Assemblywoman Dina Neal introduced a bill earlier this month that would abolish the Achievement School District, but Gov. Brian Sandoval likely would veto the measure if it passes the Legislature.

The memos ask officials from the six districts — Clark County, Nye County, Carson City, Mineral County, Washoe County and Elko County — to identify which underperforming schools will enter into the Student Performance Compact as well as what strategies or partnerships those schools would use to improve student performance. The districts must notify the state education department by March 1.

Below are the memos sent to each district with a list of its underperforming schools:

Clark County School District

Nye County School District

Mineral County School District

Washoe County School District

Carson City School District

Elko County School District

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Andrei Niemimäki from Turku, Finland.