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.

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.

In split vote, Clark County School Board extends Jara's employment contract

Jesus Jara wearing a dark jacket and purple tie

The Clark County School Board took ambiguity out of Superintendent Jesus Jara’s contract situation by extending his stay for another 20 months.

His new contract, approved by the trustees in 4-3 vote Thursday night, runs through Jan. 15, 2023. The decision further exposed the rift on the board, with Trustees Linda Cavazos, Lisa Guzman and Danielle Ford voting in opposition to the extension. The trustees who supported the contract extension were Lola Brooks, Irene Cepeda, Katie Williams and Evelyn Garcia Morales.

The amended contract saw the removal of language indicating it would automatically renew if no written notice was received and, instead, added the specific end date. The original contract language had sparked confusion as the three-year mark of Jara’s employment approached, and the situation ultimately involved lawyers and allegations of an Open Meeting Law violation.

Ford issued a strong rebuke of Jara, saying the “potential contract extension came to be because of intimidation and gaslighting tactics used against the Board of Trustees.”

Meanwhile, fellow board member Lisa Guzman raised concerns about a poll taken during a closed session that involved trustees’ opinions about the contract terms.

“I struggle with this because polling to me is akin to voting,” she said, “and I feel we broke the Open Meeting Law.”

She’s not alone. Sylvia Lazos, an attorney and education chair of the Nevada Immigrant Coalition, said she filed a complaint Wednesday with the attorney general’s office regarding the alleged Open Meeting Law violation. In her written complaint, Lazos wrote “It appears that Dr. Jara is announcing Trustee decision results on his contract extension in order to influence the final result by chilling public comment.”

“We have an Open Meeting Law for transparency, to stop backroom deals, to make sure that public comment and the people are heard as decisions are made,” she said during the meeting Thursday night. “We want the people to trust our public bodies.”

But Board Counsel Mary-Anne Miller pushed back against the notion of any Open Meeting Law violations, noting that attorneys can ask board members their position on any threatened or pending litigation. She said trustees were informed that no decision was binding until it was put on an agenda and public comment was heard before a vote. Additionally, Miller said contract terms are allowed to be discussed in a closed session before a public vote, and Jara was not obligated to keep provisions of the draft agreement confidential.

Cavazos, the board president, said she was “disturbed” by some events that happened during the contract negotiation process; however, she said her opposition to the contract extension mostly boiled down to leadership concerns, especially regarding working with the seven-member board.

“I think that Dr. Jara has faced some extremely hard challenges, as we all have, as all the parents have, the children have,” she said. “At this point, though, I feel that there have been so many things and so many times and so many incidents where I don’t feel that we have worked as a team of eight.”

Trustee Lola Brooks — one of the four trustees who supported Jara’s contract extension  — offered a different take on the dynamics. She accused Ford, Cavazos and Guzman of trying to stall the process “in a way that’s very unproductive.”

Brooks said superintendents across the country are leaving their posts because of burnout and the constant pressure of competing interests. 

“He is our single employee,” she said. “And I wonder if there were times when we could have expressed our expectations, support or encouragement in more productive ways — in ways that didn’t erode public trust quite so much or quite so publicly.”

Tension surrounding Jara’s leadership has been an ongoing issue that began before the pandemic and intensified during the avalanche of challenges the health situation brought forward. He has been chastised for poor communication and seemingly unilateral decisions, such as when he announced the elimination of dean positions two years ago — in a video message.

Jara, as he has done in the past, renewed his commitment to work with the board. He also rejected any suggestions that he announced results of a vote or a count and, instead, said he spoke about an “agreement.”

“I commend the work that we have done together and we’ll continue to do it together on behalf of this committee so thank you for your vote of confidence,” he said. “We know we have a lot of work, but I’m committed to you and to this community.”

Jara began leading the Clark County School District in June 2018. He previously served as a deputy superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida.

Clark County School District plans for in-person schooling this fall, parents must opt out for distance learning

The Clark County School District plans to offer in-person learning five days a week for the 2021-2022 school year, though families can choose a full-time distance learning option if they wish.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara had indicated a desire to bring back all students full time for the upcoming school year, but a news release about online registration sent Monday afternoon solidified the district’s plans. The announcement means a return to a traditional school schedule more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic sparked massive changes to K-12 education, including a long bout of full-time remote learning in Clark County.

All schools will offer face-to-face instruction five days a week when the next academic year begins Aug. 9, district officials said. Families that prefer to continue full-time remote learning must opt in to that cohort by May 21, but it’s subject to approval from the school principal.

District officials cited staffing decisions as the reason for the May 21 deadline for online learning registration and noted that late requests would be accommodated based on available space at schools.

The distance education option, however, comes with several new caveats. For starters, district officials said students must keep their cameras on “for the full duration of real-time sessions” — a deviation from remote learning norms over the past year. Educators have said many students log on but keep their cameras off, making engagement difficult to ascertain. Students’ reasons for turning cameras off vary, but some haven’t been comfortable with everyone seeing into their home environments. Others have said their weak internet connections make it difficult.

In an apparent attempt to mitigate privacy concerns, the district noted that students may use the “blurred background function” during their live online sessions.

District officials also said an adult must be available to help elementary students who choose the full-time distance learning option. They also laid out the virtual class expectations: 60 to 90 minutes of real-time instruction each day for kindergarten through second-grade students; 90 to 120 minutes per day for third- through fifth-grade students; and 60 to 90 minutes of real-time instruction per week for each middle and high school course.

Some activities and testing will require an in-person presence for distance-learning students, but transportation will not be provided, district officials said. Additionally, students participating in online learning who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch can receive their meals but must eat at the school during their designated serving times, per the National School Lunch Program.

If too many students at one school opt for full-time distance education, some may be assigned to the Nevada Learning Academy, which is the district’s online school that existed before the pandemic.

District officials urged parents to carefully consider their children’s past online learning performance while making decisions.

“Successful candidates for full-time distance education have demonstrated positive attendance and grades during the previous quarter of school,” district officials said in the news release. “All full-time distance education requests are subject to approval by the school principal.”

The Clark County School District continued full-time remote learning until March, which is when schools gradually began reopening. Now, elementary schools are offering in-person learning five days a week, but middle and high schools are operating under a hybrid schedule. High school students, in particular, have shown tepid interest in resuming in-person learning given the hybrid schedule, which only affords in-person learning two days a week.

'Shock and awe': School districts mull uses for massive federal funding infusion

Budget deficits. Staff reductions. Lackluster per-pupil spending.

These are the phrases that have become almost ubiquitous with Nevada’s K-12 education system, which has weathered chronic underfunding. But heavy infusions of federal funding — courtesy of three coronavirus relief packages approved by Congress — have flipped the script In Nevada schools and others across the country. Suddenly, school districts’ financial outlooks aren’t so bleak. 

The third round of federal funding, included within the American Rescue Plan Act, will bring nearly $964.8 million to Nevada school districts. Combined with funding from the previous two relief packages, that pushes school districts’ total haul to roughly $1.5 billion. The Silver State also received $10 million for the Governor’s Education Relief Fund, $50 million to offset K-12 cuts during the special legislative session last summer and $5.4 million worth of competitive grant awards, among other funds.

Humboldt County Superintendent David Jensen said the federal funding brought “shock and awe” by the third wave earlier this year. His largely rural school district, located east of Reno, received $347,289 and $1.7 million during the first two allocations and is poised to inherit an additional $3.9 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. 

“Shock — thinking about, ‘Holy cow, how are we going to spend this amount of money in this short period of time?’ combined with the excitement of, ‘Look what this means we can do that we would not be able to do otherwise,’” he said.

The federal windfall isn’t exactly like winning the lottery, though. The pandemic’s learning disruptions have caused backward academic slides and heightened mental health needs, the extent of which hasn’t been fully determined. School districts have fairly broad discretion to use the money to mitigate those issues as well as other challenges, such as technology connectivity and building air ventilation. 

Another caveat: The funding isn’t recurring. It must be used by expiration dates tied to each round of funding. Those windows are generally two years, though school districts may be able to obtain a waiver for an additional year.

Still, it’s a historic investment in pre-K-12 education at what many view as a precarious time for students and educators. The challenge for school districts, experts say, will be crafting smart plans for how to use the money and then maintaining accountability for it.

“This is like an incredible moment for school districts,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “It’s showtime. They’ve got to figure out how to step up and really bring their ‘A game’ to this moment.”

The Clark County School District, which is the fifth-largest in the nation, will receive the lion’s share of the federal funds in Nevada. The latest round of funding will inject more than $777 million into Southern Nevada schools, bringing its relief money up to $1.2 billion. For comparison, that’s roughly half the amount of revenue — $2.4 billion — in the district’s general operating fund this fiscal year.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara briefly addressed the federal funding during a town hall earlier this week. He said district officials are identifying “greatest needs” related to learning loss, mental health and maintaining technology.

“There will be time for community input into where we’re headed for the funding coming from the state and from the federal government,” he said. “I can tell you that this pandemic we have dealt with has really highlighted the inequities we have in (the) Clark County School District and in public education across the country.”

The Washoe County School District, meanwhile, has asked community members to fill out a survey, ranking funding priorities such as summer school, increased instructional staff, more technology, academic interventions for struggling students, professional development and updated ventilation systems. The survey results will help district leaders determine uses for its federal funding allotments, which total almost $122 million, as well as its overall recovery strategic plan.

Some of those items already have been prioritized under the second round of federal funding. For instance, the district estimates it will spend $2.5 million on summer school over the next two years, though that number could fluctuate based on student enrollment. The district also plans to use $20 million to backfill state budget cuts to the class-size reduction program.

Washoe County Superintendent Kristen McNeill said the district’s summer school will be open to all students for approximately five hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The experience will include meals, academic core content and enrichment activities such as virtual field trips, physical education, music and art. An online summer school program will be offered, too. The district expects about 25 percent of students to attend.

“It isn’t just recovery,” Washoe County School Board President Angela Taylor said. “It’s also about advancement.”

As the district gathers feedback and mulls other funding priorities, McNeill said leaders are keeping in mind the responsibility that comes with it — being good stewards of the money.

“There’s going to be an enormous amount of accountability as there should be on the use of these dollars,” she said. “And so I think as superintendents and districts and boards, we want to make sure that we’re very transparent, very open, about: ‘Where are these dollars going?’”

The Washoe County School District plans to do so through media briefings, regular board meeting updates and reports submitted to the Nevada Department of Education.

The Eureka County School District is the only district in Nevada that isn’t receiving any direct relief funding. That’s because none of its schools are eligible for Title I funding, which goes to buildings serving high percentages of children from low-income families.

Other school districts’ total allocations range from $241,197 (Esmeralda County) to $17.8 million (Lyon County). The State Public Charter School Authority will receive a combined $80.1 million as well.

In the White Pine County School District — where students have largely been attending school in person this academic year — the federal funds will help maintain college and career advising positions, counseling services and social workers, said Paul Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer. The district also plans to reinstate some specialist positions, such as physical education or music, at elementary schools. 

Those positions were cut years ago during a budget deficit, Johnson said, so the stimulus money will help fund their return with the hope that state revenue will be in a better position two years from now.

“With the federal stimulus funds, we’re going to be able to buy a couple of years that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he said.

Jensen said the Humboldt County School District put $310,000 of early relief funding toward building a WiFi radius around schools that will allow students to access the internet at home from their district-issued devices. The pandemic, he said, highlighted the technology inequity that even in pre-COVID times hindered students’ abilities to do research or homework after school.

With the second and third rounds of federal funding, the Humboldt County School District plans to invest in instructional coaches who would work with small groups of students and help teachers improve their lesson plans, specifically for English language arts and mathematics, Jensen said. The district also wants to add a person who would direct strategies for social-emotional and mental health at school sites; several teachers, an aide and a coach to help students learning English as a second language; an interventionist to help junior high students transition to high school; and a director charged with overseeing the federally funded programs and tracking associated data.

The district hopes to receive a waiver that would allow the federal funds to be used through an additional year.

“It’s going to be very difficult for districts to expend this level of federal funding in such a compressed time frame and to be able to demonstrate long-term impact and benefit,” Jensen said. 

Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said she expects to see a wide array of uses for the federal money. School districts that operated remotely longer may have very different needs than those that resumed in-person instruction relatively early.

Even so, she cautions against uses that could pose trouble when the funding expires. It’s a fiscal-cliff situation. Two years down the line, will districts be able to afford those pay raises or those extra positions they have created?

“Really try to focus on what your kids need and what you think — what kinds of services and so on — will  get you closer to your goals,” she said, stressing the importance of targeted funding initiatives. “So if you’re worried kids did not learn how to read in the early grades, focus on reading.”

On the accountability side, Roza encouraged school districts to track their expenditures from a per-pupil standpoint. For instance, if a district launches an orientation program intended to help students socially, track how many participated, the cost per student and whether the outcomes matched the goals.

“I think we’ll have a lot of examples of things that worked and didn’t work probably,” she said.

In some ways, the federal funding is offering districts a once-in-lifetime opportunity to experiment with academic programs and interventions they may have wanted all along but couldn’t afford. The successes that emerge, Jensen said, could help Nevada educators make their case for long-desired state funding increases.

Nevada is in the midst of implementing a new K-12 funding formula, but so far, state lawmakers have been reluctant to significantly boost education investments. The state’s per-pupil spending trails the national average by several thousand dollars.

“We now have some time to generate data to prove that additional revenues in Nevada, if used strategically and appropriately, can make a difference,” he said.

Could a similar phenomenon occur at the federal level?

While states and local governments primarily fund K-12 education, these landmark relief packages could set the stage for more federal funding moving forward — albeit not at this high of a level, Roza said. The federal government may not want to yank this much money from school districts in one fell swoop.

It’s too soon to say what will happen, but President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.5 trillion federal spending plan provides a hint: It calls for doubling the amount of Title I funding for schools.

In Clark County, fewer older students opt for in-person learning

After more than a year learning from home, 17-year-old Donovan Scurry couldn’t sleep Monday night, distracted by the change in routine the next day would bring.

Tuesday was his first day back in person at Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas. Scurry arrived shortly before 7 a.m., donning a backpack and face mask as he entered familiar turf for the remaining weeks of his junior year. This was his choice, a decision prompted by dwindling grades and lackluster motivation for distance education.

“I just missed the environment,” he said. “And even though coming back is going to be different with COVID and stuff, I just feel like the environment is still what I am used to and what I need.”

The school entrance didn’t contain the normal hustle and bustle associated with morning arrivals. Students trickled in, some in small groups, as the sun grew brighter and the start of classes creeped closer. Of the high school’s roughly 2,800 students, only 480 chose the in-person hybrid option. Because the in-person cohorts rotate days, half that number — roughly 240 students — are on campus Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is a remote education day for all students. 

Unlike Scurry, the vast majority of students opted to remain in distance-education mode for the rest of the school year. Sierra Vista High School’s numbers reflect the Clark County School District at large, which has seen stronger enthusiasm for in-person learning among elementary students. In March, the district began gradually reopening schools, starting with the youngest children, but as of Tuesday, all students have the option of at least some in-person learning. Elementary schools are providing face-to-face instruction five days a week, while middle and high schools are operating under a hybrid model.

More than half of elementary students — 56 percent — have returned to school campuses, according to school district data, but that percentage shrinks considerably for the upper grades. Districtwide, only 36 percent of students in middle and high school chose the in-person hybrid model.

John Anzalone, principal of Sierra Vista High School, chalked it up to several factors. Many students have picked up jobs and may not want to alter their schedules. Some still fear catching COVID-19 or spreading it to family members, especially because vaccines aren’t available for people younger than 16 years old. Additionally, it’s not the same in-person experience: Students only attend school in person two days a week, and those days consist of two 100-minute classes. There are no assemblies or socialization time in the quad.

“To a lot of kids, that’s not fun,” he said. “If I’m 16 years old, I’m probably thinking the same thing.”

Janai Tillman, a senior at Sierra Vista, remembers feeling nervous when students learned they would not be returning to school buildings in August. She asked her mother, who works from home, for tips to stay focused. The 17-year-old started by setting a wake-up time — usually 7 a.m. — and quickly realized she could get her school work done early in the day. Now, she works at a restaurant in the afternoon and plays volleyball in the evening.

Reconstructing her schedule this far into the school year seemed like a hassle.

“I didn’t want to mess up that routine I already had,” she said.

Angelina Ford, a junior at Sierra Vista, opted to stay home, too. She said her friends who returned to school mostly did so because of clubs or sports. So rather than rush to school for a few hours twice a week, Ford’s days usually start like this: She wakes up and rolls to the other side of the bed, careful not to wake her sleeping cat and dog, before flipping on her iPad. Eventually, she will grab something to eat and perhaps move outside to do some reading. 

Ford, whose mother is Clark County School Board Trustee Danielle Ford, didn’t gloss over the difficulties of online learning. Math has been a challenge, she said, but the 16-year-old remained optimistic about catching up academically next year.

“I think it’s going to be the same for everyone, so it’s not like I’m the only one behind,” she said. “It will be like a group effort — we’re all behind so let’s do it together.”

While in-person enrollment is generally lower in the upper grades, the numbers vary by school. The school district has not released information for individual schools, but several principals shared their numbers with The Nevada Independent. At Shadow Ridge High School, 40 percent of students chose the in-person hybrid model. Rancho High School, Spring Valley High School and West Prep Academy, meanwhile, saw only about a third of their ninth- through 12th-grade students return. 

But about 58 percent of students at Boulder City High School chose the hybrid instructional model. The interest was particularly strong among freshmen — 72 percent returned.

“At least it’s a step,” Spring Valley High School Principal Tam Larnerd said, referring to the hybrid model. “It’s not ideal, and it’s not what any of us want for our kids, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara has signaled an intent to bring all students back full time for the 2021-2022 school year, while offering distance education as an option. No plans have been formally announced, but Anzalone said high schools are already brainstorming how to make it work. For instance, what happens if only two students want to take an Advanced Placement Calculus course online? 

“It’s going to be complicated, but in reality, we know it’s coming,” he said. “We know high school is never going to look the same.”

High school students have already come to that same conclusion. Macy Beck decided to finish her senior year at Sierra Vista High School in person. Beck said her government class only has three students attending in person, which has allowed for in-depth discussions and time to bond with each other. But that silver lining, she said, doesn’t make up for all the other losses students suffered this year. They missed sports and yearly traditions. They couldn’t get to know their teachers as easily or see friends on a daily basis.

Instead, Beck said the year seemed filled with excusing coming down from the district about why schools couldn’t reopen sooner.

“I wasn’t happy, and I felt like our school district wasn’t doing much to help that,” she said. “And now I feel like we were kind of thrown a little bone with going back to school, but we still don’t get a lot of the things that make high school what high school is.”