Pandemic-era test results show decline in students' math, English Language Arts skills

Nevada students’ mathematics and English Language Arts skills tumbled since the pandemic began — mirroring and, in some cases, exceeding national downward trends, according to standardized test data released Thursday by the Nevada Department of Education.

The test scores offer a glimpse into how COVID-19-related learning disruptions affected students academically, though officials caution against reading too much into the data because the participation rate was noticeably lower than previous years. Because of federal waivers, only 68 percent of students in third through eighth grade participated in the Smarter Balanced assessments last spring. 

The Clark County School District weighed down the statewide participation rate, given that only 54 percent of its students in the applicable grades took the tests. The participation rates for the other districts ranged from 84.2 percent to 98.1 percent.

Even so, the results from students who did participate paint a dismal portrait of how pandemic-forced changes to learning affected their education. For instance:

  • Only 41.4 percent of Nevada students in third through eighth grade scored proficient in English Language Arts (ELA), down from 48.5 percent in the 2018-2019 school year.
  • Only slightly more than a quarter (26.3 percent) of Nevada’s third- through eighth-grade students scored proficient in mathematics, a double-digit decline from 37.5 percent in the 2018-2019 school year.

The drops in ELA and math proficiency were more pronounced for elementary students.

Nationally, the ELA proficiency rate dipped 5 to 6 percentile points for elementary students, but the declines were even sharper in Nevada (10 to 11 percentile points). A similar trend occurred with math proficiency rates: The national dip for elementary students was 11 to 12 percentile points, while, in Nevada, the downward slip was 15 to 19 percentile points. 

State education officials, however, pointed out that Nevada’s declines would be in line with national trends if excluding Clark County School District scores. The Clark County School District — the largest in Nevada and fifth-largest in the nation — operated in distance-education mode for nearly a year, before gradually bringing students back last spring.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara released a statement Thursday afternoon, noting “these test results show us how important it is for kids to be in classrooms learning from teachers with their peers.”

But Jara also went a step further and questioned the need for statewide assessments. 

“CCSD, the state, and nation must evaluate the value of these summative assessments and whether they serve the needs of our students and their academic success,” he wrote. “Assessment data should be readily available for our dedicated teachers to improve instruction and increase student achievement.”

The testing data also revealed persistent opportunity gaps among various groups of students, with white and Asian American students posting noticeably higher proficiency rates than their Black, Latino or American Indian or Alaskan Native peers. 

Nearly 34 percent of white students and half of Asian American students scored proficient in middle school math, compared to 9.4 percent of Black students, 14.9 percent of Latino students and 10.8 percent of American Indian or Alaskan Native students. Similar discrepancies occurred among student groups on the elementary math tests and elementary and middle school ELA tests.

The proficiency rates among students learning English as a second language also paled in comparison to the statewide averages. For instance, just 2 percent of students learning English as a second language were deemed proficient in middle school math compared with nearly 24 percent of students in those grades statewide.

“I am grateful to the administrators and educators across the State who persevered to provide high-quality learning opportunities to students,” State Superintendent Jhone Ebert said in a statement. “However, we cannot be satisfied until every single child has the equitable access and support they need in order to demonstrate proficiency, no matter who they are or where they attend school.”

The SBAC assessment data won’t be used for school accountability ratings, which will remain the same from the 2018-2019 data collection year. Students did not take the SBAC tests in the 2019-2020 school year because of the pandemic-related shutdowns and pivot to distance education that spring. The U.S. Department of Education had waived testing requirements in March 2020, a time marked by challenges simply connecting students to distance learning amid the building closures.

State education officials stressed that incoming federal funds will be leveraged to help students overcome academic setbacks, which, according to the Center on Assessment, could be several times larger than the effect Hurricane Katrina had on Louisiana students.

All Nevada school districts resumed full-time, in-person instruction this year, though the emergence of the Delta variant has created some disruptions for students and staff because of quarantines or temporary school closures.

This story was updated at 4 p.m. Sept. 16, 2021, to include a statement from the Clark County School District.

Counties and cities spent millions to lobby legislators in 2021, despite closure of Legislative Building

Even as the Legislative Building in Carson City remained closed to lobbyists for the majority of the 2021 session, counties, cities and local government agencies spent $2.8 million lobbying the Legislature this year, according to a report that also found local government lobbying expenditures hit their lowest total since 2005.

The report, which was compiled by the state Department of Taxation in mid-July, is the product of a law requiring all local governments — from cities and counties to police departments and school districts — to disclose any expenditures above $6,000 on “activities designed to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation.” 

The funds represent expenses for in-house as well as contracted lobbyists employed by local governments, whose duties included testifying on bills, arranging meetings with lawmakers and interest groups, tracking legislation and conducting research on issues.

The $2.8 million spent on lobbying activities in 2021 marked the first time since 2005 that spending dipped below $3 million, and represented roughly 72 percent of lobbying expenditures reported during the 2019 session.

The 2021 session kicked off in February closed to all but lawmakers, essential staff and members of the media, with all others — including registered lobbyists — participating virtually. Despite legal challenges, the Legislative Building did not open to lobbyists and members of the public until April 15, meaning the building was closed to lobbyists for 73 days of the 120-day session. Lobbyists were still able to meet with lawmakers via phone calls and video chats and in meetings outside of the Legislative Building.

Many local governments employed significantly fewer lobbyists compared to the 2019 session, when lobbying spending reached its highest total in more than a decade at $3.9 million.

For example, seven paid lobbyists worked for the City of Sparks during this year’s session compared to 14 two years ago. Amid that reduction, the Northern Nevada city spent $70,000 less on lobbying during the 2021 session compared to the 2019 session.

But for other agencies, lobbying spending remained high in 2021. After spending roughly $255,000 on lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session, the City of Henderson reported spending slightly more on lobbying expenses during the 2021 session.

Representatives of local governments, which in some cases manage budgets that rival the size of the multi-billion dollar state budget, say the lobbying expenditures are justified given the vast number of bills that affect counties and cities. But some critics have raised concerns about allowing governments to use taxpayer dollars for lobbying purposes that may contradict the desires of the public — the reported lobbying expenditures from the Legislature in 2021 represent nearly $23,400 of taxpayer money spent every day of the 120-day legislative session.

“It's political activity that the people who are being represented may or may not agree with, but they're paying for it regardless,” Michael Schaus, a spokesperson for libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), said in an interview. 

Leading the way in spending were local governments in and around densely populated Las Vegas. Agencies based in Clark County, where 73 percent of the state’s population resides, accounted for 59 percent of spending on lobbying during the session. Local governments and political bodies in Washoe County accounted for 28 percent of lobbyist spending, even though the county is home to less than 16 percent of the state’s residents. 

Local governments across Carson City, Churchill County, Douglas County, Eureka County, Lander County, Lyon County, Nye County and Storey County — which are collectively home to roughly 8 percent of Nevadans — accounted for the remaining 12 percent spent to lobby Nevada lawmakers this year. Governments in the other seven counties did not report any lobbying expenditures.

Clark County governments

Clark County, which led all local governments in lobbying outlays ($352,000), spent roughly $162,000 less on lobbying compared to the Legislature in 2019 and employed almost half as many lobbyists. 

County spokesperson Erik Pappa wrote in an email that the county tracked hundreds of bills throughout the session, including a bill affecting short-term rental licensing (such as AirBnb or VRBO), because of the broad responsibilities of the county in implementing the requirements of new laws. That bill, AB363, was amended with language provided by Clark County late in the session, and the bill requires Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County to include short-term residential spaces in their legal definitions of “transient lodging” — meaning they are subject to the same taxes that hotels charge guests.

Pappa also noted that only two of the county’s four requested bills survived the 2021 legislative session: SB4 (clarified that the board of county commissioners may impose civil and criminal penalties for illegal possession of fireworks) and SB67 (created a pilot job program to gather data on job order contracts for certain public works projects). Counties, cities and school districts each are allotted a certain number of bill draft requests each legislative session depending on their population.

The City of Las Vegas spent roughly $335,000 on lobbying state lawmakers in 2021 (nearly $227,000 less than the city spent in the 2019 session). Though the city had 11 lobbyists registered with the Legislative Counsel Bureau during the 2021 session — two more than in the last regular session — city spokesperson Jace Radke wrote in an email that the city spent $181,000 for more than two dozen city staff across 19 departments to help work on bills during the session.

The city spent an additional $154,000 on contracts with lobbying firm The Ferraro Group for the entire year. Radke also noted that the city “engaged on 552 bills throughout the session” covering a laundry list of topics.

The City of Las Vegas — alongside multiple other local governments, including Washoe County and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) — testified in opposition to AB276 in March. The bill, which failed to pass out of committee, would have strengthened penalties for delaying or denying public records requests and aimed to increase transparency and compliance with the state’s public records law.

Schaus said the failed bill is a good example of the power imbalance that exists between local governments that have greater access to state lawmakers and citizens and activists who have to work harder to have their voices heard. Schaus pointed out that the transparency bill received support from groups with a diverse range of ideologies — including NPRI, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nevada Press Association — but still failed in the face of opposition from local governments.

“There are going to be instances where governments’ interests don't align with the citizen activists who might be trying to push reforms,” Schaus said. “And that government lobbying can potentially be big problems for folks who are trying to change the status quo.”

Clark County School District also significantly cut back on its lobbying efforts during the 2021 session. After spending nearly $280,000 and employing 13 people to lobby state lawmakers two years ago, the state’s largest school district spent only $45,000 on lobbying efforts and used two paid and one unpaid lobbyist in the 2021 legislative session.

During the session, Brad Keating, an in-house lobbyist for the district, testified in support of SB450. The bill, which passed out of both houses, extends schools districts’ authority to issue general obligation bonds without voter approval to aid facility modernization projects.

Despite less lobbying spending, the district issued a press release in June stating that the 2021 session “signaled a momentous shift for education” in Nevada and highlighted AB495, which allocates roughly $500 million to public education through new and extended mining taxes and federal COVID relief dollars.

Even as overall lobbying spending declined amid the extended closure of the Legislative Building, some local governments in Southern Nevada allocated dollar amounts on par with past years.

For the second straight session, the City of Henderson spent roughly $255,000 on lobbying, including contract expenses with The Perkins Company, a firm run by former Assembly Speaker and former Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins. City spokesperson Kathleen Richards wrote in an email that “Henderson is the largest full-service city” in the state — providing roughly 330,000 residents with standalone police, court, water and other services, unlike other jurisdictions that share resources with Clark County — and that the city tracked “nearly 500 bills'' throughout the session with a potential effect on city operations.

The City of Henderson — which was allowed two bill draft requests during the session — sponsored AB42, which authorized municipalities throughout the state to conduct jury trials for crimes involving battery domestic violence. Richards noted that other priority legislation tracked by the city included two bills that passed out of both houses: AB63, which ensures local government can access certain stabilization funds during any emergency, and SB138, which requires local governments to enact ordinances to conduct planned unit development.

Metro also maintained similar lobbying spending levels across the past two sessions. The agency spent roughly $184,000 at the Legislature in 2019 and nearly $182,000 at the Legislature in 2021, while maintaining a small team of lobbyists that prominently featured in-house lobbyist Chuck Callaway. 

Callaway testified on a wide range of bills throughout the session, including AB440 — a bill that will require police officers to simply issue citations for misdemeanors that do not constitute repeat offenses or violent crimes, rather than allowing officers to decide between detaining the offender and issuing a citation.

In June, Callaway told The Nevada Independent that he was “adamantly opposed to this bill the entire legislative session” because it strips away a police officer’s discretion. The bill passed along party lines in the Assembly and Senate, with all Republican lawmakers opposed.

Washoe County governments

Though Clark County topped the spending list for the 2021 session, the county government in Washoe — which is home to roughly 1.8 million fewer people than Clark County — spent just $11,000 less than the county government in Clark.

Washoe County spent roughly $341,000 on lobbying the Legislature in 2021 ($40,000 less compared to 2019). Those costs account for lobbyists who worked on behalf of the general county government and the Washoe County Health District, and include nearly $259,000 for employee salaries and nearly $76,000 for contracts with outside lobbyists (Lewis Roca and Argentum Partners). 

The county and health district collectively employed five lobbyists during the session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records — down from the seven lobbyists employed two years ago.

County spokesperson Bethany Drysdale noted that Washoe County tracked 600 bills throughout the session, three-fourths of which the county actively worked on.

Meanwhile, large city governments in Washoe County spent significantly less money on lobbying lawmakers in 2021 than they did two years prior. The City of Reno cut lobbying spending by more than $45,000 from the 2019 session, and the City of Sparks cut lobbying spending by $71,000 from the 2019 session.

Rural governments

Some smaller local governments also continued to spend thousands of dollars at the 2021 Legislature.

Churchill County spent nearly $45,000 to lobby lawmakers this year — roughly $2,500 more than the county spent in the 2019 legislative session. The county had eight outside lobbyists registered during the 2021 session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records; all worked at the firm Strategies 360. The county’s seat, the City of Fallon, spent $44,000 on lobbying.

And while several rural county governments completely cut spending — Storey County and White Pine County did not report lobbying expenditures in 2021, after reporting spending $17,000 and $14,000 respectively in 2019 — others kicked up spending. Lander County, for example, reported spending $40,000 on lobbying at the Legislature in 2021, after reporting no lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session. 

Even as spending dropped across the board during the 2021 session, Schaus said those expenses should be “extraordinarily lower” than they are.

“In today's day and age, with the technology that we have … it does not take very much for a local government to get in contact with a lawmaker and say, ‘Hey, here's some of our interests for this session,’” Schaus said. “And that’s stuff that's already taking place, even before you take into account the official lobbying costs of sending somebody off to Carson City.”

Michael Schaus is a contributing columnist for The Nevada Independent.

Racist threats against their sons fueled two mothers’ push for an anti-racism policy in Clark County schools

Before the emcee finished his plea for civil and respectful discourse, a line had formed along a wall inside a Clark County library meeting room. 

It was early afternoon on a Saturday — two weeks into the new academic year — and several dozen people had gathered to discuss an anti-racism policy, now in the drafting stage, that will be under consideration by Clark County school officials. Now, it was their turn to speak.

A Clark County School District graduate shared how she spent years straightening her hair after a classmate criticized her cornrows, saying she looked “too Black.”

A former teacher and school administrator explained how she was retaliated against for refusing to practice exclusionary discipline policies that too often affected students of color.

A Las Vegas High School student, who also serves as student body president, expressed dismay that her academic success has invited what she sees as disproportionate praise because of her skin color and the fact that her father is an immigrant.

Personal stories like these are giving Jshauntae Marshall and Akiko Cooks the resolve to keep showing up to school board meetings, writing letters, making phone calls and organizing town halls like this one. As the mothers of current and former students — two of whom were the victims of a racist threat that made headlines two years ago — they have made it their mission to make sure racism isn’t tolerated in Clark County schools. 

The name of the organization they founded underscores their mission: No Racism In Schools #1865, or 1865 for short, a nod to the year the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery.

“I was very proud of those who did speak out,” Cooks said about the town hall. “That makes 1865 say, ‘How do we support you more in this? Where do you need us to show up?’”

For more than two years, these mothers have been pushing for a policy that would take a proactive stance against racism and spell out how race-based incidents should be handled when they do arise. Supporters say it’s no longer enough to not be racist; individuals, institutions and society need to identify and challenge the values and systems that perpetuate racism, hence the action-oriented term “anti-racism.”

But the process for creating an anti-racism policy has not been swift, nor has it been without the vitriol — and misguided mentions of critical race theory — permeating similar discussions nationwide. A June school board meeting devolved into chaos after an argument among attendees broke out during a public comment period. Even the town hall was briefly interrupted by a pair of detractors. 

It’s all evidence, Cooks and Marshall say, of why the school district desperately needs such a policy. In March, No Racism in Schools #1865 sent a follow-up letter to Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara demanding the creation and implementation of an anti-racism policy districtwide. It built on what they had requested shortly after their sons were the victims of a racist threat in March 2019. The letter included 17 “non-negotiables,” ranging from community representation and input during the policy’s creation to establishing disciplinary standards for students and staff who violate the forthcoming policy. It came a week after the Clark County School Board of Trustees agreed to start developing a policy.

The policy initiative speaks to the current moment in the nation’s racial reckoning. Police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others unleashed a wave of protests and calls for systemic change amid a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed people of color. Some of the focus has naturally shifted toward public schools, the bedrock of most communities, where the nation’s youngest generations come to learn. 

In Nevada, the foundation for school anti-racism policies has already been set in state law. Assembly Bill 371, which passed through the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak this year, requires racial incidents to be handled in a manner consistent with an existing anti-bullying law.

An anti-racism policy won’t undo the pain Marshall and Cooks’ families endured when an ugly Instagram post surfaced two years ago. But the mothers say it could deter similar racially motivated incidents or, at the very least, provide schools a roadmap for addressing them.

On the evening of March 18, 2019, Cooks received a chilling text message. A cousin had stumbled upon racist Instagram posts targeting nine Black students at Arbor View High School. Her son, Corey Landrum, was one of them.

Photos of the nine students, snapped without their knowledge, accompanied text rife with racial slurs and threats of a “Columbine pt 2” shooting. Cooks immediately called school district police, only to be told it was out of their jurisdiction because it happened online. So she shared the post on her own Facebook and Instagram channels as a warning to other parents. 

Overnight, the post and related warnings had circulated social media. Marshall came across the post at 6 a.m. the next day and saw her son, Zamier Marshall, in a photo. Before even fully processing what she had seen, Marshall grabbed her phone and began calling and texting other parents. She frantically relayed a singular message: 

“Don’t send your kids to school today.”

Cooks and Marshall say a lack of information from the school district heightened an already-frightening, emotional situation. An investigation ultimately led to the arrest of two students, who later accepted a plea deal. But the mothers, bonded by a painful experience, knew their work wasn’t done. 

“For me, my life will never be the same from that,” Cooks said. “It’s changed everything.”

The mothers knew racism existed within the walls of Clark County schools, just as it does essentially everywhere across the country, from retail stores and restaurants to doctor’s offices and hospital waiting rooms. A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans — 64 percent — believe racism against Black people is widespread in the United States, and that perception is even higher among Black (84 percent) and Hispanic (72 percent) respondents.

Racial disparities in student discipline, police violence and health care, among other examples, underscore the nation’s long-standing problem.

Cooks and Marshall had seen Confederate flag imagery adorning student vehicles in the Arbor View High School parking lot. They tried not to dwell on it. 

Marshall said she taught her son to keep his distance. It’s a conversation that many Black parents across the United States have with their children, especially as their sons grow into young men and enter a society that judges them based on the color of their skin. 

“I don’t teach my children to be angry at people for their personal perspectives,” she said. “If they hate Black people, then let them hate us. Just don’t put your hands on us.”

The racist Instagram posts, however, brought their daily worries to a head. These were their sons, their babies, targeted in a threatened shooting. A lethargic response by both the school district and local police, they say, proved something more needed to be done. 

That’s how No Racism In Schools #1865 came to be. The organization’s website describes itself as a “campaign focused on closing the gaps in policies, laws, and protocols that govern race related matters in schools.”

The vehicle for doing so, they believe, is an anti-racism policy. Cooks and Marshall envision the policy holding the district accountable for appropriately handling race-based incidents, tracking their occurences and weaving the concept of anti-racism into the curriculum — similar to how policies adopted by other school systems look and work. They’ve shared some with district officials.

The policy would align with AB371, which builds off the anti-bullying law and applies to all 17 public school districts and charter schools. During the town hall, the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, who’s a teacher, said she often fields this question: Isn’t racism considered bullying?

The answer, she said, lies in the definition of bullying.  Whereas bullying involves targeted, recurring incidents, a single racist incident would enact the protocols of AB371. Miller gave this example to explain the importance of the distinction: If a student writes “you’re a jerk” on a bathroom wall, the message may elicit a few glances and giggles. But if the writing on the wall includes a racial slur, it affects everyone who reads it.

“So it doesn’t have to be targeted; it doesn’t have to be repetitive,” Miller said. “The reason why this is key in the definition is because that’s why many students — their reports of racism were going unaddressed because it didn’t comply with that same (bullying) standard.”

Cooks said the addition of the anti-racism policy at the district level would add a “second layer of protection” by defining terms and going beyond the data-tracking components of AB371. For instance, she said, the policy should “decolonize the curriculum” by ensuring that students learn about the societal contributions made by people of color, not just the history of slavery. The organization’s vision dovetails with another new state law, AB261, that makes sure more diverse perspectives are included in K-12 academic content.

The policy push, however, has come under fire from critics who say it’s masquerading as an attempt to teach critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how racial inequality is woven into the U.S. legal system and other institutions. Critical race theory has emerged as a commonly misused catch-all term by people who oppose any policies that address systemic racism. It has also been adopted as a campaign talking point by conservative candidates in recent months.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara and several trustees have declared that critical race theory, which became a flashpoint during fiery school board meetings across the nation this summer, will not be part of district discussions regarding the anti-racism policy.

As far as Cooks and Marshall are concerned, the anti-racism policy must come first. 

“I think it’s a necessity, but until there is an anti-racism policy that is actually enforced, I don’t know that our educators, generally speaking, are skilled enough to go there,” Marshall said, referring to critical race theory. “They barely can have a conversation about body shaming.”

While the anti-racism policy won’t delve into critical race theory, Cooks and Marshall say candid conversations about racism and implicit biases — beliefs about or attitudes toward others that people hold without consciously realizing it — need to occur. They also say it’s not an “anti-white policy,” as some opponents have called it; it’s simply anti-racist, which is a mindset they would like to see everyone adopt.

“You can’t do an anti-racism policy without a lens on race,” Cooks said. “There has to be a discussion.”

The Clark County School District wouldn’t be forging new ground by creating an anti-racism policy. School districts in Cincinnati, Ohio; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Niskayuna, New York, are among those that have already adopted similar policies.

The Board of Education for Cincinnati Public Schools took that step last December. The southwest Ohio district predominantly serves communities of color, with 62 percent of students identifying as Black and 8 percent identifying as Hispanic. The racial unrest during the summer of 2020 fueled a request from Board Member Mike Moroski and, later, students for a policy that would go beyond the district’s existing one regarding equity.

The Cincinnati district’s anti-racism policy defines pertinent terms such as racism, anti-racism, individual racism, systemic racism and racist or race-based misconduct. The policy, for instance, says systemic racism “encompasses the history and current reality of institutional racism across all institutions and society. It refers to the history, culture, ideology, and interactions of institutions and policies that perpetuate a system of inequity that is detrimental to communities of color.”

The policy also includes a 363-word section describing its purpose, with the first line stating that it is “to create processes that identify any form of racism, work to counter its effects and work to eliminate racist practices and policies from the District in conjunction with related Board policies.”

The policy goes on to list a variety of directives related to communication, leadership and administration, curriculum and instruction, professional development, hiring and discipline.

“Unless you’re calling it out, you’re not going to change it,” Moroski said.

In Cincinnati, an anti-racism working group — made up of students, staff, parents and community organizations — developed the policy based on public feedback. The African American Chamber of Commerce, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, The Urban League and YMCA were among the organizations involved.

The school district’s assistant general counsel, Stephanie Scott, said the working group came together last August and, by mid-December, the policy had been approved by the board.

“We didn’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction,” she said. “... We knew it was going to be a longstanding policy that we really wanted to give some thought and be really intentional so, in doing that, we wanted to make sure that we included ... all of our key stakeholders.”

The Clark County School District has taken a similar approach, creating both an internal and external task force. Additionally, it has brought aboard four people deemed professional experts — Donna Mendoza Mitchell, Maree Sneed, Micah Ali and Shawn Joseph — who have backgrounds in civil rights law,  education policy and school leadership. They will be listening to task force discussions and helping draft the written policy, said Mike Barton, the district’s chief college, career, equity and school choice officer.

Cooks and Marshall are among the 38 members of the external task force, though they’re not pleased with the selection process. They have raised concerns about the lack of representation from the city’s Historic Westside, which is a historically Black neighborhood; the unwieldy size of the group; and the inclusion of a few members whom they don’t consider allies.

“Why do we have to be put in a space with someone we know doesn’t really support this?” Cooks said.

No Racism In Schools #1865 has recommended that task force members participate in implicit bias training sessions. Barton, meanwhile, said the district is “definitely having conversations with the community” about the concerns regarding representation from the city’s historically Black neighborhood.

Still, the process has irked School Board President Linda Cavazos, who described it as “moving at a snail’s pace.” Trustee Katie Williams, on the other hand, has advocated against expedited timelines, pointing to the district’s gender-diverse policy, which took 18 months to craft and adopt. 

“I want to get it done properly and accurately,” Williams said during the Aug. 26 board meeting.

(The founders of No Racism In Schools #1865 have not invited Williams — known for her incendiary tweets, one of which recently included a Qanon hashtag — to any of their events.)

A development timeline shared with trustees in August sets January as the target for the final adoption of an anti-racism policy, with a first draft coming together in October.  

As the policy formation process plays out, those involved in the local education community are keeping a close eye on it. 

Former Clark County School Board Trustee Linda Young was the only Black member when her term ended last year. Now, the school board has no Black trustees. Young routinely advocated for dismantling racial inequities during her tenure on the school board, and said she supports the creation of an anti-racism policy. She said it could encourage more candid dialogue about race — a topic sometimes considered taboo, especially in classroom settings.

Too often, she said, people are afraid of confronting issues they don’t feel equipped to discuss.

“When you’re talking about things you don’t know, you tend to avoid because, number one, you’re uncomfortable and, number two, you don’t know and you don’t want to let people know you don’t know,” said Young, who suggested that judgment be replaced with this mindset: “It’s OK that you don’t know. It is OK that sometimes I don’t know.”

Andrew O’Reilly, interim vice principal at Chaparral High School, attended the town hall organized by No Racism In Schools #1865 and Mi Familia Vota. He wanted to listen.

“I wanted to hear what their experience was,” he said, referring to community members who spoke during the town hall. “My job as an educator is for me to be a learner also.”

O’Reilly said he supports the creation of an anti-racism policy and believes it’s necessary. Students want to talk about these issues, he said, and they want to be part of a solution.

And, from an educator standpoint, he wants to see more training about how classroom and school leaders can improve the culture and climate.

“We sometimes have a tendency to think if we don’t see a problem overtly, that the problem doesn’t exist,” he said. “It comes back on us to really know what areas need to be addressed to keep everybody safe and included in society.”

Students may not be watching every twist and turn of the policy development process, but the topic itself isn’t far from mind. Alexa Hernandez-Valenzuela is a junior at Global Community High School, which serves students who are newcomers to the United States. Speaking in her native Spanish, Hernandez-Valenzuela said she would welcome a policy that aims to prevent racism.

It was one of her bigger fears when she moved to Las Vegas from Mexico roughly three months ago. Her parents had lost their jobs during the pandemic and sent her here to live with an aunt so she could finish her education. Hernandez-Valenzuela worried the language barrier might make her a target of racism, in school or elsewhere. She hasn’t experienced that at Global High School but said a policy could help prevent it moving forward.

People who give up their whole lives to move here, she said, deserve an opportunity free from racism.

After the racist Instagram threats at Arbor View High School, Jshauntae Marshall’s son, Zamier, transferred to Liberty High School in the southern Las Vegas Valley. He graduated in June. Now, he’s attending Concordia University Wisconsin, where he received a football and academic scholarship.

A few weeks after graduation, he reflected on how the incident had changed his outlook, especially after watching the pandemic and racial unrest unfold over the past year and half.

“Honesty, it just showed me that (there’s) a lot of hate in the world for no reason,” he said, adding that it really opened his eyes. “I’m 18 now. I’m grown and I look older than my age and (there have) been many experiences I’ve had, like, hand-to-hand with racial profiling.”

It’s a constant fear for his mother. That’s why she forbade him from wearing dreadlocks or being out at night when racial tensions were particularly high last summer following the police killing of George Floyd. She also steered him away from attending college in the South, worried he might encounter even more potent forms of racism there.

Marshall said her rules have created some friction between the two, but she hasn’t budged.

“I’ve not ever taught my children racism. I’ve taught them about it — and have drilled into his head that, as a Black man, he just can’t do what other people do,” she said. “He just can’t. And I don’t care how free they say he is, he will never have the freedom of other men his age.”

Cooks’ son, meanwhile, chose to remain at Arbor View High School. Her daughter, Chasity Landrum, is now a junior there, too. They’re both members of the school’s Black Student Union.

Corey Landrum, who’s finishing up final credits to graduate, tries not to fixate on the past. “What’s done is done,” he said. 

Her brother’s experience didn’t dissuade Chasity from attending Arbor View High School. She sensed change could happen. 

“I feel like there could be a difference,” she said. “So I guess I really do stay because I’m like, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this. You’re not going to run me away from my school.’ This is my area code. This is where I live.”

The reality is, the racist threats could have occurred at any school. Since launching No Racism In Schools #1865, Cooks and Marshall say they have received regular reports of racially motivated incidents at schools across the valley. The Arbor View incident, though, catalyzed efforts to rebuild the northwest valley school’s climate. The principal, Kevin McPartlin, calls it a cultural turnaround.

Cooks and Marshall have been heavily involved, he said, in helping with training sessions for staff that address how to discuss and handle race-related issues when they arise. The other part is extending that to students in an effective manner, McPartlin said, noting that it’s not a “quick fix” but instead needs to be thoughtful and ongoing.

“We’re a large high school — 3,200 kids — and you can’t just have an assembly about this and think it’s going to fix it,” he said. “We need to get down in smaller groups, and it needs to be conversation.”

The broader push for an anti-racism policy districtwide has at least started dialogue. But the founders of No Racism In Schools #1865 don’t want to see it end there. Cooks envisions youth empowerment as the next phase of the work.

The more students, parents and educators talk about it, she said, the more likely it is that the policy won’t just become papers stored on a shelf.

“It’s more than just creating a policy,” Cooks said. “It’s creating the right policy, implementing the policy, training on the policy, educating the community about the policy and enforcing the policy — and then accountability follow-up. We’re years away from that full process.”

Cooks and Marshall say they’re in it for the long haul. Progress will be measured by the experiences of the younger students aging through the school system. 

Marshall’s second-grade son, Aiden, is among them.

COVID fears, anger about safety measures cast shadow over first week of school

The rumble of school buses and a flurry of back-to-school photos Monday conveyed a sense of normalcy after more than a year of pandemic-created turbulence for K-12 education systems.

In Clark and Washoe counties — the state’s two most populous regions — the children were back in classrooms full time. The week before schools opened their doors to mask-wearing students and teachers, Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara addressed staff during a school kickoff event and suggested a silver lining brought on by the pandemic. 

“As we have reopened our schools, we are building and we have built a whole new system and we have reimagined our schools for our students,” he said. “COVID tore us down. Believe me, there were days for all of us that were tough. But you know what? They never broke us. COVID never broke us because as a team we have come together and said what are we going to do for our children?”

But if the first few days of the 2021-2022 academic year are any indication, COVID-related difficulties and tensions are far from over.

Earlier this month, Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a mask mandate for K-12 students and staff in Washoe and Clark counties as the highly transmissible Delta variant gained steam in those regions. Schools in Nevada’s 15 other counties can craft their own indoor mask policies as long as they don’t conflict with state directives or local health decisions.

The Clark County School District also implemented a policy requiring unvaccinated employees to undergo weekly COVID testing. By Tuesday, snaking lines had formed outside Valley High School, one of the testing sites, and supplies ran short.

Then, on Wednesday, mask protests organized by Power2Parent popped up in Las Vegas, Pahrump and Carson City. In Las Vegas, more than 100 parents and community members flocked to a sidewalk near the Clark County School District’s administrative building, some toting homemade signs bearing phrases such as “CCSD teaching fear” and “Choice, not mandate.”

“We are tired of them going around the parent, and it happens day after day,” Erin Philips, president and CEO of Power2Parent, said during the Las Vegas protest. “... We cannot be quiet anymore.”

People gather on the sidewalk outside the Clark County School District administrative building on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, to protest the mask mandate for students and staff. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Up north, more than 80 students in the Washoe County School District were exposed to the virus after a parent knowingly sent his or her infected child to school, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.

And across the country — in Virginia, in Tennessee, in New York and elsewhere — anger regarding masks and other COVID mitigation measures has boiled over at school board meetings. The trend continued in Las Vegas on Thursday evening when disruptions during public comment resulted in a temporary recess at the beginning of the Clark County School Board meeting. Multiple recesses occurred over the course of the meeting, with several attendees escorted out by police for refusing to wear masks or causing repeated disruptions.

Clark County School Board President Linda Cavazos told The Nevada Independent on Wednesday that now is not the time for trustees to “look at being mister or miss popularity here.”

“I think leadership needs to be unified. It needs to be supportive of our governor, of our county commissioners, of the business leaders who are trying to get a handle on this,” she said. “We have to keep our students from pre-K through 12 — (college students) also — we need to keep all of them as safe as possible with what’s available to us right now.”

Even so, Cavazos expressed dismay that only 41 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, as reported by the Clark County School District last week. That estimate is based on the number of district employees who have uploaded proof of their vaccination status to an online system.

The Washoe County School District, meanwhile, estimates that nearly three-quarters of its employees have been fully vaccinated, per data compiled during district-sponsored vaccination events earlier this year.

Cavazos said she was “pretty shocked” by the Clark County School District’s reported employee vaccination rate, though she suggested it may be higher because of technology glitches with staff members uploading information.

School officials announced during the board meeting Thursday that the district is partnering with the Southern Nevada Health District to offer vaccination clinics at several high schools in the coming weeks.

The leader of the Clark County Education Association, the bargaining unit for licensed educators, said the vaccination figures merely represent the national trend — a bloc of people who are opposed to getting the immunization and another group filled with people who have been on the fence for a variety of reasons.

“We believe that’s the underbelly, and that’s who we are targeting in this effort,” CCEA’s executive director, John Vellardita, said, referring to the second group. “We think it’s a good chunk.”

Clark County School District employees wait in line for COVID testing at Southeast Career and Technical Academy on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

After long lines in 100-plus-degree heat at testing locations — frustrating unvaccinated educators and staff members — the distinct increased the number of sites. But it was one of several back-to-school complaints that surfaced during the board meeting.

“You would think they would plan this out so there were plenty of test kits and locations for everyone to get their test done. That was not the case,” said Vicki Kreidel, a second-grade teacher and president of the Nevada Education Association of Southern Nevada. “The best way to lead is by example, so if we’re expected to carefully plan out everything, then the least our district leadership can do is create plans for things that don’t put additional burdens on your employees.”

Despite the tensions playing out in meeting rooms and on social media, Principal Robert Hinchliffe reported a smooth start to the new year at Tyrone Thompson Elementary School in southwest Las Vegas. Students and teachers are happy to be back, he said, and the school hasn’t run into any issues so far with adhering to COVID protocols.

“For example, we had to place a class on quarantine and not one parent was mean,” he said. “They all understood.”

Music, lights, decorations and a red carpet welcomed the elementary students back to campus this week, he said. It was the school’s attempt to make each day exciting and engaging — keeping children eager to return.

“It’s difficult in some cases, but we have to look at the positives (of the situation) and just run with them,” he said.

Extended bonding authority could breathe new life into old schools

Goodbye, portable classrooms. Goodbye, aging plumbing, air conditioning and roofing systems. 

Myrtle Tate Elementary School will celebrate its 50th birthday this year by welcoming students to a new building. The northeast Las Vegas school — home of the Tigers — has traded its drab, largely windowless building for a sleek, modern upgrade that features plenty of natural light, colorful murals, improved technology and more wiggle room.

The $32 million project left some teachers in tears when they toured the new building last month. After a disrupted year and a half of learning, during which time COVID-19 tore through the school’s surrounding lower-income community, the new building offers a fresh start despite the pandemic still lingering in the background.

“When you look around town, you see the new schools being built in the new subdivisions … and charter schools being built in some of the more affluent areas,” said Sarah Popek, principal of Myrtle Tate Elementary School. “And our students deserve the same opportunities.”

Myrtle Tate is one of five replacement schools opening for the 2021-2022 academic year, all financed as part of the Clark County School District’s 2015 Capital Improvement Program. Two new schools — Hannah Marie Brown Elementary School and Barry and June Gunderson Middle School — are opening this year in southwest Las Vegas and Henderson as well.

The Las Vegas Valley is no stranger to school openings. Decades of growth have meant a steady drumbeat of bonding campaigns, architectural renderings, construction sites, school-naming committees and ribbon-cutting ceremonies before the yellow buses arrive and backpack-toting students pour into the hallways. 

The cycle is poised to continue: At the end of the recent legislative session, state lawmakers approved SB450, which grants school districts the authority to issue general obligation bonds without voter approval for a second 10-year period. The period will begin in 2025 after the district’s current bonding authority ends.

District leaders hailed the bill’s passage and approval by the governor as a victory that will enable the school system to continue chipping away at the $10.8 billion worth of needs identified in the 2015 Capital Improvement Program. But the bond rollover also signals a pivot in the district’s overall capital improvement strategy. 

After years of keeping up with the region’s suburban sprawl, the district is eyeing more projects like that of Myrtle Tate Elementary School. Modernizing and replacing aging schools in older neighborhoods represents a different type of academic equity.

In 1974, Clark County voters gave the green light to a $39.4 million construction program that resulted in eight new schools and improvements or additions at multiple other buildings. Every few years after that, voters granted approval for another round of construction projects.

Legislation approved in 1997 substantially changed the game for financing school construction projects by providing more revenue sources. The next year, in 1998, Clark County voters approved a mammoth capital improvement program funded by real estate transfer taxes, hotel room taxes and property taxes. The 10-year program generated $4.9 billion in bond proceeds, paving the way for 120 new schools. Almost 60 percent of that money went toward building new schools as opposed to replacement schools or modernization projects.

As those funds began to expire, the Legislature granted an extension that, without needing voter approval, created the 2015 Capital Improvement Program. It’s expected to funnel another $4.1 billion toward construction projects over the decade. Some of those projects are already complete. Others are underway.

The problem, however, is a lengthy to-do list. The Clark County School District estimates it needs $10.8 billion to accomplish modernization projects, build new schools, replace old ones, construct additions, update equipment and pay for bus satellites. 

That’s how district officials found themselves lobbying for the passage of SB450 this year. 

“We were at the execution phase of all these projects. We weren’t planning new projects,” said Jeff Wagner, the district’s chief of facilities, while referring to the 2015 Capital Improvement Program. “We’re all aware we have a huge need, so [the bond rollover] is going to give us, really for the first time, the opportunity to do some strong strategic, long-term planning for the district and hopefully put the district in a much better place for facilities.”

On average, Clark County schools are at 99.8 percent capacity and more than half — 59 percent — of schools are at least 20 years old, according to a presentation the district gave at the Legislature. Sixteen percent of schools are more than 50 years old.

Facilities staff plan to bring forward a 2025 Capital Improvement Plan, which will include options for prioritization, this fall, Wagner said. But a spreadsheet shared with lawmakers outlines the projects that SB450 could help bring to fruition.

Among them: 13 new schools, 32 replacement schools, two phased replacement schools and four building additions. The estimated cost for those projects is $3.39 billion.

Wagner said the bond rollover is expected to generate $2.9 billion, which he called a conservative estimate. Prior bond initiatives, he said, have ended up generating more money than originally calculated.

“The 2015 program was very successful at addressing capacity needs, especially at the elementary level,” he said. “This is the appropriate time in our I guess collective history to begin aggressively renewing that capital resource, so schools that were built in the 50s, 60s, even the early 70s have lived their useful life.”

The front entrance of Las Vegas Academy of the Arts in downtown Las Vegas as seen on July 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The stately red-brick building commands attention in downtown Las Vegas. With Art Deco-style touches and palm trees flanking its entrance, Las Vegas Academy of the Arts conveys a Hollywood-esque representation of schools. 

But age-related problems come with its beauty. Built in 1930, it was the original site of Las Vegas High School. Principal Scott Walker, who is entering his 11th year leading the now-magnet school, rattles off the issues: The air-conditioning system either freezes students and staff or provides no heat respite at all. There’s only an on-off switch. Plumbing failures have created flooding in the outdoor courtyard and sewage smells inside. Hallways are dark and ceilings are low. There are no ramps or elevators. And the occasional passerby wanders onto the campus, which includes the main building, gymnasium, theaters and other smaller, detached buildings. 

Las Vegas Academy students don’t complain much, he said. They’ve accepted the quirks of the old school. 

“Our kids deal,” he said. “They know that there might be a day that’s too hot or too cold in here.”

The bond rollover, however, could grant the school what Walker sees as long-overdue updates. Las Vegas Academy of the Arts is listed as one of the buildings slated for a phased replacement. But the replacement won’t involve any bulldozing.

The main academic building and gymnasium are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A handful of years ago, students, alumni, parents, staff and community members came together to talk about how to upgrade the campus without sacrificing any historic integrity, Walker said. Several architecture firms proposed plans, which the group mulled. Ultimately, one firm created a model rendering, which sits in the school’s library to this day.

Blue figurines in the model represent new or modernized buildings, excluding the main academic building and gymnasium, which would be untouched given their historic status. A new six-story building, which would house a student union, anchors the proposed changes.

For a while, Walker never thought he would see the model — or something like it — come to life. But the bond rollover has given him more optimism.

“I still think it’s ideal,” he said, referring to the architectural model. “However, I’ll take what we can get. I’m so thrilled that this passed because I’m hoping that I could at least see it before I retire.”

His enthusiasm for an upgraded campus isn’t solely about aesthetics or creature comforts. Walker said it could allow him to increase enrollment to 2,200 — up from roughly 1,700 — allowing more students the chance to attend the arts magnet school. He also envisions more laboratories for engineering and technology-related courses, giving his students a boost if they want to enter production-oriented jobs. 

The possibilities, he said, seem endless.

“I can imagine,” he said, his voice trailing off.

It’s a situation that educators are experiencing five miles away at Myrtle Tate Elementary School. Last week, they were busy unpacking boxes and injecting their rooms with colorful decorations, wondering what the new year in a new building would bring.

Popek, the school’s principal, said she plans to closely monitor student data to see whether the upgraded environment leads to improved academics.

Ginger Stevens, the music teacher, has observed a different potential ripple-effect: landscaping and home improvements in the nearby neighborhood. Her own four kids attended the original Myrtle Tate Elementary School. They took photos outside before it was razed to make way for the new building.

But Stevens — surrounded by a sea of bass bars and xylophones  — said she is already feeling at home in the new building.

“My storage is ginormous,” she said. “And I’m filling it up really quickly.”

As curriculum controversies rage, new law pushes Nevada schools to tell broader range of stories

There was a time in Mia Albright’s life that she cringed when her grandmother spoke Spanish in the grocery store. Instead of cultural pride, she felt shame.

The now-16-year-old traces those feelings back to school. Classroom lessons and reading material did not include enough diverse perspectives.

The Reno High School student, whose dad is white and whose mom is from Nicaragua, told state lawmakers this spring that the lack of Central American perspectives in her education left her with “serious questions” about her identity and culture and “fervently wishing to only be white.”

“No student should feel the way I felt, ostracized and alone, and no student should formulate or fall victim to those racist ideologies the way that I did,” Albright said at the Assembly and Senate Education Committee hearings for AB261 in the spring. Albright said textbooks with a wider range of viewpoints could mitigate or eliminate the issues she faced.

The change Albright advocated for is on its way. Earlier this year, AB261 passed along party lines in both the Assembly (26-16) and the Senate (12-9), with all Republicans opposed. The bill amends existing Nevada law to make sure those diverse perspectives are a core part of the K-12 curriculum. The law also prohibits the State Board of Education from selecting instructional materials that don’t accurately portray the history and contributions made by Native Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities and those from various racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds. 

Nevada is one of 16 states that has made efforts to expand such education this year, but it comes at a time when many states are going in the opposite direction. The national debate over how the history of various groups of people are taught at schools has led to backlash and confusion over terms such as “critical race theory” that proponents of inclusive education reform said have been conflated with others such as equity and social justice. 

Nevada students who testified during the legislative session said they felt the need to lobby for more inclusive instructional materials after discovering a slew of events they had not learned about in their U.S. History classes. 

Those included the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which a white mob looted the predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and killed an estimated 100 to 300 of its residents, and the 1969 Stonewall uprising, in which New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village, New York City, sparking a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents.  

Jonathan Moore, deputy superintendent of student achievement at the Nevada Department of Education, believes that while there have long been efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the Nevada school system, social justice movements that have recently gained more national attention — such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate — have accelerated changes that were already underway. 

Many of the groups of people that “are globally under attack” are reflected in the Nevada school system, Moore said. 

“I think the recent events have just accelerated the urgency [to take action],” he added.

Dianne Lopez, 17, won second place for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. Learning about diverse perspectives can help students learn more about others and about themselves said Lopez, a senior at Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy in Las Vegas.

The potential impacts of the bill

Proponents of the bill point to the wide variety of benefits it may have on student performance and well-being. 

While existing social studies standards include multicultural education – which includes “information relating to contributions made by men and women from various racial and ethnic backgrounds” – Nevada law did not specifically outline the other groups included in AB261 to be represented in the teaching of science, the arts, and the humanities. AB261 also places an emphasis on the accuracy of the portrayal of the included groups of people. 

The changes made by the bill will be funded by existing school district budgets and will only apply to textbooks adopted in the future, not textbooks currently in classrooms. 

Even curricula with minimal culturally relevant content can improve student achievement, according to Geneva Gay, a professor of education at the University of Washington and author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching.” She defines culturally relevant content as anything that “uses the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning more relevant and effective.”

Doing so, she said, can lead to higher test scores and grade-point averages as well as an improvement in students’ self-confidence and engagement with the subject matter.

Culturally relevant content improves student achievement by relating academic knowledge and skills to students’ lived experiences, making it easier for students to find meaning and interest in content and thoroughly learn it, Gay argued.  

Sheila Weathers, a fourth-grade teacher at Tanaka Elementary School in Las Vegas, agrees that culturally relevant material “opens the door” for teachers to teach students the necessary skills to be successful in the classroom.

“I see my kids. Their eyes light up when they see someone who looks like them [in a text],” Weathers said.

Proponents assert that the bill will help foster a safer learning environment in which students can learn more about their own backgrounds while helping students build critical thinking skills that are necessary for navigating a diverse world. 

“Do we want our kids to think critically? Do we want kids to have an accurate understanding of history? Do we want kids to know and appreciate a variety of cultures and backgrounds and know how to engage with each other appropriately? Who wouldn’t support that?” said Rebecca Garcia, president of the Nevada PTA and parent of four students in the Clark County School District. 

Garcia said she believes that there are groups spreading misinformation to influence parents to fight against causes that will actually benefit their children and that parents are often unaware of these efforts.

The bill became effective upon its passage in May for implementation and will be fully in effect in mid-2022. The bill kicks off a multi-year process of approving and adopting textbooks for various subject areas across all grade levels in each district.

Albright said that although she will no longer be in the Washoe County School District by the time the bill is implemented in schools, she recognizes the effect it may have on her younger sibling.

“I do have a little brother, and I really hope that he will be able to … feel included and heard and seen in a way that I wasn’t,” she said.

Zizi Boulware, 11, received an honorable mention for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. "We should be studying the cultures, religions, accomplishments and histories of people from [the] countries [in my artwork]," Boulware said. Boulware is in sixth grade and attends Hyde Park Middle School in Las Vegas.

The Background of AB261

This isn’t the first time that Nevada lawmakers passed a bill to diversify school curricula. In 2015, Nevada lawmakers passed a bill that required the statewide standards for social studies to include multicultural education. Similar bills passed this legislative session. Among them: 

  • AB19, which removes government from the list of subjects included within social studies and adds civics, financial literacy and multicultural education.
  • SB194, which requires the state department to develop content standards for ethnic and diversity studies for high school students that include various perspectives that are similar to those listed in AB261. 

Unlike those bills, AB261 specifically pertains to instructional materials rather than content standards and focuses on science, the arts, and the humanities, including English.

Albright and Katie Hawley, another student who testified at an Assembly Education Committee hearing for the bill, both belong to youth activism organizations – the Las Vegas Youth Power Project and Washoe County Students for Change. Those organizations inspired Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Sparks), an English teacher in Washoe County, to sponsor the bill. She had met with and listened to both organizations as they advocated for more diverse curricula at their local school board meetings in the fall of 2019. 

Anderson pointed to her background as an educator as the second source of inspiration for creating this bill.

“There was an article that came out and it stayed with me, [saying] that our literature should be both a mirror [and] a window,” she said. “And what that means is you want to be a mirror, a reflection of [who] our students are in their lives, but also a window into a different world.”

In a Senate Committee on Education hearing, Anderson said the intent of the bill was to give teachers more “tools in the toolbox” to teach diverse perspectives in their classrooms.

Luanne Wagner, a government and U.S. history teacher at Clark High School in Las Vegas, also teaches a class called “The African American Experience” for juniors and seniors. She said she often uses outside sources and supplemental materials to compensate for the lack of culturally relevant content in textbooks. 

When she discusses discrimination and civil rights in the United States, she tries to incorporate the histories of various groups of people such as the World War II history of Felix Longoria, the Mexican American soldier who was buried in Arlington National Cemetary after being denied burial alongside other veterans in Texas; the Japanese American unit that fought for the U.S. despite some of their family members being in internment camps; the Navajo Code talkers who used their language to develop a code that turned the tide of the war for the U.S.; and the Filipino people who risked their lives to offer food to American prisoners in Bataan, Philippines. 

AB261 will signal to textbook vendors who wish to sell their materials in Nevada that they must holistically and accurately portray the contributions and history of the groups of people outlined in the bill, Moore said. It will also provide legal support for teachers who want to promote diverse perspectives in their classrooms. 

“It’s nice to know that we have the state legislation that now backs us up and justifies us,” said Alyson Henderson, an English teacher at Clark High School in Las Vegas. “With it being law now, there’s going to be more teachers who are doing it.”

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno), who voted for the bill in committee but ultimately voted against it, feared the language of the bill was too restrictive. 

“I am for the premise of this legislation. My only concern was that … [the language may] create a situation where if a textbook did not include all of the different [groups outlined] … it would create a barrier for adopting new textbooks based on availability,” Tolles said. She emphasized that she was very supportive of multicultural education.

The intent of the bill is to ensure the accurate portrayal of those groups rather than to ensure that all of the groups are included in every instructional material and lesson, Anderson said at an Assembly Education Committee hearing. Tolles said she was later assured that the state will follow that intention in implementing the bill. 

Teia Venzon, 14, received an honorable mention for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. Venzon is a sophomore at Reno High School.

Opponents of the bill

Although there were significantly more people who called in support of the bill during public comment at the committee hearings, some spoke against it.

At the Senate Education Committee hearing, Alida Benson, the political director of the Nevada Republican Party, said that there has been “a focus on revamping [the] curriculum to quietly insert backdoor critical race theory into our schools.” 

Anderson rejected that assertion. So did Addie Rolnick, a professor at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law with expertise in critical race theory (CRT) — she said CRT is primarily taught in law school or in some undergraduate- or graduate-level courses but does not see it included in AB261.

CRT is a legal academic theory that examines the relationship between race and law. Rolnick said the theory argues that racism is not just demonstrated by individual people with prejudices, but that it can be unconscious and embedded in structures like the law. It is centered on the idea that race is not merely a biological trait, but a social construct that the law has helped define. Critical Race scholars argue that the legal system is not a set of neutral “colorblind rules,” but a system that perpetuates racial inequality.

It does not encompass everything that involves a discussion on race, Rolnick said. She believes the term has been inaccurately used as a catch-all phrase for a slew of loosely related topics including more inclusive history education.

“The teaching of real history and the acknowledgment of various people's experiences is part of what this bill is doing, but that's [the only similarity] at a very basic level, and CRT is a lot more than that,” Rolnick said. “And so they are not really related at all.”

Rolnick believes the nationwide anti-CRT backlash is part of “a carefully orchestrated campaign” in which conservative activists are deliberately attempting to conflate the CRT with other topics.

Albright said she is concerned that the spread of misinformation about CRT will cause public backlash for the bill, just as it did at a Washoe County School District board meeting in June 2021, when a new social justice curriculum was discussed. But Moore and Kindra Fox, the Washoe County School District’s director of secondary curriculum and instruction, said that districts will continue to follow the academic content standards, which also do not include CRT.

Bob Russo, who called to offer public comment in opposition to the bill, expressed his concerns that the bill will be “divisive.” 

“Personally, I believe that recognizing one’s accomplishments in accordance with their gender, race, or religion is divisive and undermines the recognition and honor a person deserves for what they have done,” Russo said during the Senate Education Committee hearing for AB261.

Rolnick said she understands the view that it is always dangerous to classify on the basis of race, but that she doesn’t agree with it. 

“It’s not the act of noticing [the] hierarchy that creates the hierarchy. And in fact, you have to notice it in order to undo it,” Rolnick said.

Arguing that classifying people on the basis of race is divisive also requires the assumption that race is merely one’s skin color or ancestry, rather than something that has determined how resources have historically been distributed, Rolnick added. 

Proponents of the bill argue that the measure may help foster empathy and prevent bigotry. 

“I met countless students who have entered the world unprepared because they weren't taught about the past properly,” Nathan Noble, a UNR student and graduate of the Nevada public school system, told lawmakers in the spring. “And I've witnessed firsthand how an incomplete view of the past breeds ignorance and how in turn that ignorance can sow the seeds of bigotry.”

JD Davis, 15, received an honorable mention for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. "My artwork shows that no matter your sexuality, race, religion, etc. at the end of the day, we are all human," said Davis. Davis is a sophomore at Las Vegas Academy of the Arts.

The Funding and Timeline of Implementation

AB261 is an unfunded mandate, meaning that the state will not provide districts with the funds to fulfill the requirements of the bill. Rather, new instructional materials will draw from existing school district budgets.

But the bill does not require districts to adopt new textbooks immediately. Instead, districts will adopt them whenever they are scheduled to purchase new textbooks.

What that means: It will be years before districts’ instructional materials live up to the bill’s intent.

Washoe County and Lyon County school districts, for example, follow a seven-year textbook adoption cycle in which they try to adopt a new set of textbooks every year for a particular subject area. Sometimes, it takes longer than seven years if districts do not have sufficient funds at the time they are scheduled to adopt new instructional materials. 

Lyon County Superintendent Wayne Workman expressed his concerns about funding in an interview. However, funding for instructional materials has always been a concern for districts, even before this bill was passed, Fox said. 

Moore believes that funding will be less of a concern moving forward because AB261 only affects future textbook adoptions. That means districts will have more time to plan their funds to meet the requirements of the bill. Also, the state Department of Education has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding during the pandemic that can be leveraged to provide new instructional materials, Moore said.

The bill only applies to state-approved core materials, not supplemental materials that individual districts, schools, or educators may use in addition to the core materials. Core materials can include a variety of materials such as standard textbooks, novels, and more. 

Sophia Empedrad, 17, received an honorable mention for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. "Learning about diverse perspectives in school enhances knowledge and benefits not only the individual learning from others, but also the people around them," said Empedrad, a senior at Ed W. Clark High School in Las Vegas.

What does the instructional material adoption process look like?

Both Workman and Fox are eager to hear back from the state department about what the new standards will look like and what their next steps will be in integrating the new standards into the existing ones. 

Before the state begins the lengthy instructional material adoption process depicted below, the state department has to review the existing statewide standards and rubrics for evaluating instructional materials to ensure they meet the requirements of the bill. There is no set date for when they will begin this process given the other developments they are implementing, but they will be working on it soon, Moore said. 

Anderson said she hopes students are involved in the process of implementing this bill. Albright agrees.

“I’ve been used to adults speaking about what I want for almost like my whole life. Well, they aren't in school anymore,” Albright said. “They don't know what it's like to be growing up in a time like this, all the confusion that's going on … I think, as students, we're the most qualified to tell other people what we need and what we want from our education.”

Implementing the bill in the classroom

Adopting the instructional materials is only step one. Anderson said the most important step is teacher training and implementation.

Some are skeptical about how well the new changes will be implemented and enforced. Garcia, the president of the Nevada PTA, is among those who are skeptical about the implementation and enforcement of this bill. She said she has seen “incredibly inconsistent” practices across the Clark County School District. 

“I feel that will be a problem with this particular piece of legislation,” she said.

But teachers in Washoe County regularly implement changes in their classroom and the district’s curriculum and instruction department is used to providing lesson planning and professional development support, Fox said. She said the past multicultural standards have been “fun and interesting to implement” for some Washoe County teachers. 

As a teacher, Henderson said she hopes training sessions related to AB261 include a diverse set of staff or educators. She recalled a multicultural education training session she attended in the past that was run by two white women and organized by the Clark County School District. 

“If you’re trying to be more multicultural, I think maybe you shouldn’t have two white women running this training,” she said.

Weathers emphasizes the importance of having teachers be at the forefront of the process of implementing education bills. 

“[AB261] will be successful, number one, if there’s teacher voice there. Teachers need to be involved in how the bill will be delivered to schools … because teachers are going to need training,” Weathers said. 

Some teachers may be hesitant to teach about perspectives they are unfamiliar with out of fear of offending students. However, by engaging students in conversations and admitting that they do not know everything, teachers can help establish trust with their students, Henderson said. They must also do research about the texts that they are teaching beforehand, she added.

Both Henderson and Wagner said they have not experienced backlash and have received overwhelming support from parents, students, and administrators in teaching diverse perspectives. They attribute that support to creating a safe learning environment and trusting relationships with students. 

“I always tell the students, ‘Look, you know, [the] bottom line is a fact is a fact is a fact, and this a fact, not my opinion. But this happened, and so now we need to look at it, and we need to have a courageous conversation about it, and how do you feel about this topic?’” Wagner said. The key to ensuring students are comfortable is trusting students and creating a safe, respectful, and culturally responsive learning environment. 

She told a story about a white student who asked her if he could share something with his classmates in a U.S. history class she taught at Clark High School decades ago. 

The teen boy said he was raised as a white supremacist in Texas but his teachers at Clark High School changed his beliefs, Wagner said. His classmates were surprised but very accepting.

“If I can create an environment where students feel safe enough to say something like that, and to be accepted by their peers, I think we’re on the right track,” Wagner said.

Clark County School District moves forward with grading reforms despite some pushback

Under a new grading policy debuting in the Clark County School District this year, students can bid goodbye to the dreaded zero.

The reforms, approved Thursday evening by the Clark County School Board, set 50 percent as the minimum grade, doing away with the 100-point scale. The new policy also promotes the concept of reassessment, allowing students to retake tests to better reflect what they have learned, and bans behavior, attendance, late assignments or participation from being factored into a student’s grade.

District leaders say the changes are long overdue and will lead to more grading equity. Inconsistent grading practices have meant, for example, that a student’s A at one school might be a B across town at another school.

“We know that we have had deep conversations about what grades look like and the inconsistency in our district for years,” said Rebecca Meyer, the district’s director of assessment. “Now, we are following what research is telling us we need to do to get the accuracy in our grading.”

Meyer said a principal group led the charge for grading reforms, which have been discussed for at least a decade. The implementation won’t happen all at once, though. The grading scale change and exclusion of behavior metrics will occur this upcoming school year, and the reassessment portion will roll out during the 2022-2023 school year, Meyer said.

But the changes haven’t garnered widespread approval. The proposal garnered a flurry of criticisms during the public comment period of the school board meeting. Trustee Danielle Ford attempted to remove the item from the consent agenda for a separate discussion and vote, but her motion failed. The grading policy changes were then approved during a full consent agenda vote.

Jim Frazee, vice president of the Clark County Education Association, told board members the policy change is poorly timed. For many students, full-time, in-person schooling will be resuming for the first time since March 2020, presenting a host of challenges for educators, he said.

“This upcoming school year has the potential to be one of the most challenging in our district’s history,” he said. “You will be asking more of educators than ever before, and you now want to implement a complete overhaul of the grading policy in a few weeks. Now is not the time.”

The timing also irked a high school teacher, who spoke with The Nevada Independent but asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. The teacher said educators were briefed on the grading changes at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, leaving little time to digest or discuss the new policy. 

“That’s a huge red flag,” he said.

The high school teacher also raised multiple concerns about the new policy, including that it will artificially inflate grades, lead to little site-based flexibility and create an unmanageable avalanche of grading for teachers at the end of each quarter if students can retake tests or turn in late assignments. 

“If the silver lining is you’re going to increase your passing grades and graduation rates, that technically is a silver lining, but it’s a rigged silver lining,” he said.

District officials have been playing defense about the new policy, refuting notions of ulterior motives tied to grades and graduation rates. Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara recently penned an op-ed published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that denied students would receive a 50 percent grade for missing assignments. He said that’s not the case — missing assignments just wouldn’t be calculated in a student’s grade. 

Instead, Jara said the move is intended to give “students opportunities to revise assignments and reassess to demonstrate they have mastered skills they may have struggled with initially.” He compared it to learning to driving a car.

Additionally, Meyer said the new grading scale provides a more balanced system, rather than the previous 59-point range for a failing grade. Now, the grading scale looks like this: 90 to 100 percent for an A; 80 to 89 percent for a B; 70 to 79 percent for a C; 60 to 69 percent for a D; and 50 to 59 percent for an F. 

Adelina Rhine, a graduate of the Clark County School District, wrote a letter to trustees, urging them to approve the grading reforms — particularly because of the new grading scale.

“I spent many days crying in my counselor’s office because a 30% test ruined my whole semester,” she wrote. “Isn’t the purpose of school to make sure we are academically ready upon graduation? This policy is going to help students who need it most as those who are already succeeding will continue to. Students who struggle will finally be given a fighting chance to be successful.”

The grading reforms come amid national and local debate about grading and assessments. School districts across the country, including in Nevada, saw an uptick in failing grades during the pandemic-forced distance learning. Education leaders, meanwhile, have ramped up conversations about a shift to competency-based learning the past few years. That concept is rooted in the belief that students should progress at their own pace after they have demonstrated mastery of skills and content standards.

Meyer said the grading changes align with the move toward competency-based education, and several Clark County schools already approach grading in this manner. The district also examined similar policies adopted elsewhere, such as school districts in San Diego; Philadelphia; Madison, Wisconsin; and Fairfax County, Virginia. 

But what happens if a student simply doesn’t do the work for whatever reason?

“We’re going to get to the root of not doing it instead of just putting an F,” Meyer said. “We’re going to address it. We’re going to hold them accountable for doing the work. We’re going to provide those opportunities to ensure that they’re learning. We’re going to ask for different ways that they can show what they know.”

Students who cannot demonstrate mastery of academic content standards will still receive a failing grade, she said.

New organization sets its sights on diversifying school leadership in Nevada

Brione Minor-Mitchell encountered less than a handful of Black staff members as a student growing up and attending schools in Las Vegas.

She remembers one support staff member, one dean and one teacher — but no principals. Years later, Minor-Mitchell became a teacher, but it wasn’t until she worked at a school led by a Black principal that she thought differently about her own career path. Suddenly, she envisioned a future as a school leader.

It took seeing someone like herself in the principal role, she said, to let those new dreams take root. A month ago, Minor-Mitchell unpacked boxes at Cunningham Elementary School in Las Vegas, where she is starting her first year as principal. She previously served as assistant principal at Priest Elementary School in North Las Vegas.

She’s hoping a new organization — the Nevada African American Administrators and Superintendents Association (NVAAASA) — can lead others to leadership roles as well.

“There’s talent. There’s genius in everyone,” Minor-Mitchell said. “So I want something that really can help promote that in everyone and can see that genius and really grow that genius.”

The new organization, which launched last month, aims to continue diversifying school leadership across the state through support, development and recruitment. 

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having educators who look like them. For instance, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Black students who had at least one Black teacher in kindergarten through third grade were 9 percent more likely to graduate high school and 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. A separate working paper published by Vanderbilt University researchers found that student math achievement appeared to improve and Black teacher mobility decreased at schools with a Black principal. Additionally, teachers hired were more likely to be Black.

But school districts across the country generally don’t have educator representation that matches the demographic profile of the communities they serve, especially in leadership roles. During the most recent school year, 69 percent percent of administrative personnel in the Clark County School District were white despite a minority-majority student population. Only 22 percent of the district’s children are white. By comparison, the share of Black administrators has largely held steady at 10 percent over the past five years even though Black students make up 15 percent of the population; meanwhile, 47 percent of the district’s students are Hispanic but only 12 percent of administrators are.

“When we recognize that there’s something missing, we should do something about it,” said Andrea Womack, principal of Brinley Middle School in Las Vegas who’s serving as a NVAAASA liaison. “We should train and we should help support and we should help coach and we should help others find the pathway.”

So what has been the barrier? Minor-Mitchell points to systemic racism, which she thinks has perpetuated unconscious biases, resulting in fewer educators of color being promoted to administrator positions.

“If opportunities aren’t given to you, you’re not going to shine,” she said. “You’re not going to grow, and I think opportunities are given to people who people are more comfortable with — unconscious bias.”

The organization’s debut comes at a time when the Clark County School District will be hiring an unusually large number of administrators. In the spring, the district offered buyouts to administrators who had logged at least 28 years of service. Fifty-five employees — including 28 principals, seven assistant principals and 20 central administration employees — accepted the offer.

Womack sees the situation as an opportunity for the district to fill those vacancies with a more diverse set of education leaders. She doesn’t think it’s wishful thinking, given the district’s commitment to doing so.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara’s five-year strategic plan, approved in March 2019, includes this objective: “Align diversity of administrators, licensed staff and support staff with the student population of the District.”

Jara said diversifying school leadership was “one of the many reasons” the district moved forward with the administrator buyouts this year. 

“As we look through the hiring process, that is a criteria we look for — how do we find the best candidate and certainly a more diverse administrative pool?” he said.

The statewide association is open to anyone regardless of race, location or job. Minor-Mitchell said she expects some community leaders to join as well as teachers interested in moving to administrator positions.

An 11-member board has been created, and what the organizers described as a “soft membership” drive is underway now, with a larger membership campaign launching in September.

During her time as a building leader, Womack said she has had students say, “Oh wow, I can’t believe she’s our principal. She’s Black and she’s a woman,” or adults enter the school and walk right past her in their quest to find the principal.

She’s hopeful NVAAASA can play a role in curbing those reactions and assumptions by creating a future where it’s not uncommon for educators of color to be leading schools or districts.

There’s certainly no talent shortage, Minor-Mitchell said. It’s simply a matter of opening doors and minds.

“They have to unlock their genius,” she said. “Everyone has leadership skills, but they just have to get into the uncomfortable zone. We’re comfortable sometimes with what we’re doing and we don’t see ourselves as leaders, but I think we need to push ourselves and be a little bit more uncomfortable.”

As a more normal school year inches closer, districts are scrambling to fill high-need positions

school buses

The wheels on the bus going round and round make learning possible for many children.

But school districts across the nation and in Nevada are facing critical bus driver shortages — among other hiring difficulties — as they prepare for the upcoming academic year. The scramble to find bus drivers isn’t a new challenge, though the increasingly dire need has put a squeeze on school transportation departments. In the Washoe County School District, the department’s chief of operations even drove an afternoon bus route a few times each week last school year.

“Obviously, getting our kiddos to school and home safely is our top priority,” said Caty DeLone, the district’s human resource manager of talent acquisition. “We can’t have them in the classroom if we can’t get them to the school site.”

While teacher shortages have plagued Nevada for years — and continue to be an obstacle — districts are sounding alarms about the need for more support staff members, such as bus drivers. School officials say it's a national problem, likely exacerbated by the pandemic. A transportation survey conducted this spring by HopSkipDrive — a ridesharing-like service for children — found that 78 percent of respondents, most of whom work for school districts, cited the bus driver shortage as a concern. More than half of school districts with student populations ranging from 25,000 to 100,000 said it could take three months for normal operations to resume. 

Earlier this month, the Reno-area school district announced financial incentives to attract more bus drivers. New drivers will earn $2,000 in bonus pay during their first year of employment, while already-employed drivers stand to receive $2,000 for returning and an additional $1,000 if they refer prospective employees who are hired and spend a full year with the district.

More recruitment and retention pay may be on the horizon for other in-demand workers, such as custodians, groundskeepers and nutrition services staff, said Pete Etchart, chief operating officer for the Washoe County School District. He said the worker shortages are “more acute” than they ever have been.

The school district is struggling to drum up enough applications, let alone actually hire new employees. That’s where the monetary incentives — largely paid for by federal coronavirus relief funding — come into play. Etchart knows the competition is steep. He sees billboards from Walmart and other companies seeking workers, including drivers.

“I don’t know how much it is going to take to move the needle to get employees,” he said. “I’m hoping people see the benefit of working for the school district and how important it is, and the difference you can make in children’s lives.”

Sunrise Acres Elementary School's custodian, Jose Rogel, chats with students in the cafeteria on May 24, 2018.(Jeff Scheid/ The Nevada Independent)

Scope of need

As of last week, Etchart said the Washoe County School District had the following number of vacancies in its high-need areas: 70 bus drivers, 75 nutrition services workers and 45 custodial and groundskeeping staff members.

The vacancies equate to roughly 24 percent of the district’s bus driver workforce, 20 percent of the nutrition services workforce and 11 percent of the custodial and groundskeeping workforce.

Etchart pins the challenging hiring environment on a variety of factors, including continued fear about COVID-19, competition from businesses that can pay higher wages and an increasingly expensive housing market that’s pushing some residents to the far corners of the Reno region. 

The median price for single-family homes in the Reno-Sparks area crested the half-a-million-dollar mark for the first time in May, landing at $502,000, according to the Reno Sparks Association of REALTORS. The median price is higher — $550,000 — if looking at Reno alone. Closer to Lake Tahoe, the price increases are even more dramatic. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported earlier this month that the median home price in the Incline Village-Crystal Bay market nearly tripled from a year ago, reaching $2.53 million in April.

The Washoe County School District, which includes Incline Village, is seeing an even more pronounced worker shortage in the lake-adjacent area. Fifty percent of custodial jobs at Incline Village schools are vacant, Etchart said. Some district non-licensed employees have resigned, citing the need to find higher-paying jobs to pay for the cost of living or move elsewhere.

The school district is mulling a site-based pay increase for Incline Village workers, which could be in the form of additional pay or a travel allowance for those making the commute from Reno, Etchart said.

“We are looking at every option we can think of,” he said.

When it comes to bus drivers, the Clark County School District finds itself in a similar position. As of June 18, the Las Vegas-area district was seeking 235 school bus drivers, making the position its top need heading into the new school year. Other priority hiring areas for support staff members in Clark County: teacher assistants for special programs, custodians, autism intervention specialists and campus security monitors.  

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara agreed with his Washoe County colleagues, saying that not unlike other industries struggling to find workers, the hiring process has been “a little bit worse than other years.” 

Ultimately, school leaders don’t want the vacancies to affect students, but at this point, it’s essentially a race against the clock. The new school year begins Aug. 9 in Clark and Washoe counties. 

Etchert said the Washoe County School District needs to hire at least 27 bus drivers to maintain the current level of service, and even then, some administrative staff would still need to drive routes. If those hires don’t occur, the elementary student walk zone distance could be expanded. 

In Washoe County, school bus driver wages start at $14.72 per hour and go up to $21 an hour. While other businesses may be able to offer higher hourly pay, school officials are reminding prospective bus drivers that they would receive medical benefits and Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) eligibility.

Bus routes range from five and a half to eight hours per day, making it an ideal position for retirees or college students with flexible schedules, DeLone said. Drivers must be at least 21 years old and must obtain their commercial driver’s license. (The district provides training.)

DeLone’s own 62-year-old husband is among those she recruited to the district last year as a bus driver. She pitched it as a way for him to ease into retirement. The gig let him stow away the business suits in favor of jeans or shorts.  Now, the couple has hand-drawn pictures and cards, all given from students, decorating their refrigerator. 

“It’s something he never thought of,” she said. “Now, I think he has found his home.”

As for nutrition services-related positions, Washoe school officials hope the full-time return of more students later this summer creates a domino-effect with workers. Etchart said about 75 percent of kitchen staff at school sites are parents or retirees, who may be more likely to return when their children or grandchildren do. Many of those positions are part time.

If not, schools might need to rearrange lunch schedules or deal with longer cafeteria lines.

“That’s horrible because obviously we know we need to feed kids,” he said.

Nurse Julie Robinson pours nourishment for a special needs student at John F. Miller School on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Calling all school nurses

The Clark County School District has also set its sights on hiring dozens of new school nurses — specifically, 50 school nurses and 105 contract nurses that can assist with special procedures and other student needs that do not require creating a plan of care.

Before the pandemic, the district’s school nurses often served two to three schools, splitting their time among the campuses. That’s not a rare situation. Only 52 percent of public schools nationwide had a full-time school nurse during the 2015-2016 academic year, according to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics. Thirty-two percent of schools had a part-time nurse.

School nurses play a critical role addressing student physical and mental health needs, in addition to providing assessments for disability eligibility, said Monica Cortez, the district’s assistant superintendent of the student services division. Over the past year, they also have pitched in with COVID-19 contact tracing and vaccinations.

“It is more than just the day-to-day medical,” Cortez said, explaining school nurse responsibilities. “Our nurses are the ones who connect our kids to Eye Care 4 Kids, the dental (resources) — the things that some of our students have missed out on in the last 14 months.”

The hurdle to overcome in the recruitment process is pay, Cortez said. The starting salary for school nurses mirrors that of first-year teachers — $41,863 — meaning it’s often lower than what they could earn in hospital settings. (School nurses must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in nursing, a state nursing license and possess a school nursing license through the Nevada Department of Education. Contracted nurses are registered nurses or licensed practical nurses but do not have the credentials to be a school nurse.)

In the quest to fill many of the nursing positions by the Aug. 9 start date, Cortez said the district has been busy raising awareness about the positions and relying heavily on word of mouth. Existing school nurses, she said, are the best people to describe the job to others.

Pandemic-related career shifts, however, could help the school nurse recruitment process.

“A lot of nurses are burned out in working in the hospital with all the trauma that they’ve had in the past year,” she said. “What we’re finding out is sometimes they just don’t realize the process to work for the school district and the benefits.”

Clark County School District proposes dual language program, drawing skepticism about sustainability

In the not-too-distant future, Clark County students could be learning inside classrooms where more than one language is used during instruction.

The Clark County School District has unveiled a plan that would add optional dual language programs to its overall language development approach, though the idea still needs approval from the Clark County School Board of Trustees. The proposed program is rooted in the belief that language acquisition benefits all students, not just those learning English as a second language.

“Purely from a workforce perspective, there is a benefit to the student because they have an additional tool in their tool chest,” said Felicia Ortiz, president of the State Board of Education, who served on an informal advisory committee that has been encouraging the district to start a dual language program. “For families the benefit is that their students are now literate in two languages.”

The school district has suggested a research and development year, which would involve community members, before standing up a dual language pilot program at Ronnow Elementary School, Monaco Middle School and Desert Pines High School for the 2022-2023 academic year. Those schools feed into each other, which would allow participating students to continue the program throughout their K-12 experience. 

So how exactly would it work?

Spanish and English would be the initial languages used, and the program would start at the kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade levels. In the chosen kindergarten classrooms, 90 percent of instruction would be delivered in Spanish, with the remaining 10 percent in English. By fourth grade, students would transition to a 50-50 model, with equal amounts of English and Spanish instruction. In the upper grades, the program would exist in social studies classes before eventually expanded to other content areas.

Ignacio Ruiz, assistant superintendent for the district’s English Language Learner Division, said the approach meshes with studies that show younger children learn additional languages at a faster rate. As a former principal at a dual language school in another district, Ruiz said he watched kindergarten students enter speaking only English and finish the year with a robust understanding of Spanish, or vice versa.

“You really immerse them in the target language at early childhood,” he said.

The program would be optional, with parents needing to opt their children into it. Ideally, Ruiz said, the program would have a fairly even mix of native English and native Spanish speakers.

About 16 percent of the district’s students are classified as English language learners — or, to put it another way, are emerging bilingual students. While so much emphasis is often placed on learning English, the beauty of dual language programs is that they celebrate other languages in the process, said Silvina Jover, an educator at Desert Pines High School who already teaches some of her social studies classes bilingually.

“The culture is completely there and accepted and embraced and acknowledged,” she said.

Jover, who is the product of a bilingual education while growing up in Uruguay, said it was the greatest gift her parents gave her because it “opened the doors of this country and the world.”

Supporters of the dual language program said it could have the same effect on Clark County’s students who already live in an internationally known city, which needs more bilingual workers. If the program launches and grows over time, district officials said they would like to add other languages, such as Tagalog or Mandarin.

“Imagine if everyone coming here said, ‘Wow, I go out in the community and people can speak to me in my language,’” Ortiz said.

District leaders and advocates also hope the program leads to more students graduating with a seal of biliteracy from the Nevada Department of Education. The seal — which was awarded to 2,123 students statewide in the 2019-2020 school year — recognizes graduates who have proven a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading and writing a language other than English.

Not everyone is on board with the proposed plan, though. The school board presentation drew multiple speakers during the public comment period who expressed skepticism about the program’s long-term success and viability, especially given a similar effort decades ago that eventually withered and ceased to exist.

“We did not have enough trained teachers. We did not have leadership that could really support those programs in schools, and these dual language programs regretfully died,” said Sylvia Lazos, a longtime advocate for English language learners. “So if there’s not enough resources and not enough staff, this program will also regretfully die.”

She also questioned why the district’s master plan for English language learner students, adopted in 2016, was seemingly put on pause — a point district leaders refuted. 

Elena Fabunan, the principal of Global Community High School, which specifically serves students new to the country, asked why the district felt compelled to go in a different direction, and one that hadn’t proved successful in the past.

“Why not increase the newcomer program already in place and sustained for more than 15 years?” she said in a recorded public comment played during the board meeting.

District officials emphasized that Global Community High School is not going away, and that the dual language program is merely another pathway for students. 

Although no vote was taken Thursday night, all seven trustees signaled support for the program, even if they had lingering questions about issues such as progress monitoring, staffing and costs.

“I know that a lot of programs failed in the past because whether it be funding or people or man hours or anything like that, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to continue those programs or at least try them again, maybe in a different way,” Trustee Katie Williams said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s best for our kids, and that’s what matters.”

It’s unclear how soon the matter will come before the board for a vote.