Education has long been one of the biggest challenges facing the Silver State. With a jobs base that has traditionally not encouraged secondary education and a need for an education culture, Nevada has been on the low end of several national indicators. However, educators in this state see hope for the future and are working hard to improve Nevada’s educational system. Recently, educators met at the Las Vegas offices of Holland & Hart to discuss the progress made and their hopes for the future.
Connie Brennan, publisher of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly meetings are designed to bring leaders together to discuss issues relevant to their industries. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
What is your biggest challenge?
Dwight Jones: The biggest thing that is facing us right now is the number of kids that are dropping out. Or, not graduating I guess I should say. One of the reasons I’ve tried to find something that could be a North Star for the whole community to get behind is because what we’ve lacked here is to say, “What can we all get behind in support of our kids?” We searched to ask, “Could students be ready by exit?” If you look at the graduation rate, and not only the graduation rate, if kids do graduate, [you look at] those that stay in-state, how many go to something post-secondary and then come out the other end with a degree? For this state to be in the single digits, it’s just alarming. It should be alarming to the business community and it should be alarming to us as a system, whether you’re K-12 or higher-ed.
What’s on my plate right now happens to be so reactive to the number of kids that are right at the pinnacle of getting ready to graduate that aren’t prepared. What we said our North Star should be is that kids exit the system and enter something post-secondary. This is a blue-collar working community so everyone may not want to go to a four-year institution. But, I think they need to do something post-secondary because that just helps transfer them right into the workforce in a much better position to support their families. We’re trying to set the mark to say you could do that without remediation.
In fairness to our colleagues in higher-ed, if they have to spend scarce dollars to remediate youngsters that just exited our system trying to enter theirs, somehow we’re missing the mark. I don’t think we’re giving the taxpayers the right kind of return on their investments. That’s the bar we’ve set and that’s the biggest issue. We’re redesigning the system but I have to be reactive for kids that are juniors and seniors. I’ve got a lot of kids that are caught in the trap right now while I try to raise the rigor in our middle schools. We’re taking an aggressive approach to do that and not pass kids on in elementary school that can’t read. Those are some of the biggest challenges I face and potentially we face as a community.
Bart Patterson: Part of it is having consistent testing. There was a little bit of that in terms of how we were testing versus how the school district was testing. But, the bottom line is that, particularly in math and English, students are not college-prepared. There are significant resources put into getting those students so they can pass other classes and English and math proficiency. In fact, our strongest indicator of whether a student will be successful is the ability to pass college-level math.
Dr. Eucharia Nnadi: Something we really need to work on as an institution as a whole would be branding, name recognition, which was one of the reasons we changed our name. When we were the University of Southern Nevada, people confused us with the College of Southern Nevada. That’s something we really need to and have been working on, so when people hear Roseman, they know Roseman University of Health Sciences. They know who we are, what our focus is, and that we are not a general university that offers good upper-level and even lower-level courses. We’re an upper-level institution; all we do is healthcare related programs.
Bob Anderson: Our biggest challenge is two-fold; raising money and educating the community about the needs of blind and vision-impaired children. A blind child is the most expensive child to educate; it costs about $40,000 a year. The most critical part for blind children is from birth to third grade, because that’s where children learn how to read. We need to provide the services to teach them braille and to educate them. The other challenge we have is though the population is small, the need is great. It’s hard to raise money for a small population. It’s one thing if you’re talking about poverty, but we’re talking about other segments of society and it’s really important to give these children an opportunity to learn.
Is there collaboration between primary and secondary education?
Jones: I actually think there is a lot of collaboration, it’s just everybody is dealing with such a difficult budget, that it’s pretty hard to start looking at innovation and how collaboration can actually move forward. This is the first state I have been to where K-12 and higher-ed actually have a meaningful dialogue and had it going on before I got here. So [collaboration] exists. Right now though, just like the whole state, folks are being affected so much by the economy and the downturn that it’s making it difficult to find meaningful ways to move forward. There’s a lot going on, and the economy should not be an excuse, but it really has been a hindrance to take real collaboration and be able to move forward.
Patterson: We have been the fastest growing college in the state, and we’ve had a 45 percent increase in enrollment at the same time we were doing a 35 percent drop in budget. Only 30-percent of our classes are online, so we’ve had some discussions about the virtual high school that Clark County School District has. While it’s expensive to deliver co-enrollment programs on-site, if we can start to work with the online high schools, that’s an example of collaboration where we can issue a credit very easily and very inexpensively. We do a lot of collaboration with the other institutions in this state as well. In particular, CSN and Nevada State College have a good partnership, and also UNLV. We just started a degree program that starts off with two years at CSN to get an RN, then two years at Nevada State College to get a bachelor’s, then on to graduate school at UNLV; it’s co-enrollment all the way.
Dr. Steve Buuck: We collaborate with some outside colleges like the Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. They’re our Lutheran school, accredited by North Central. We have duel enrollment where they hire our faculty, essentially they teach our classes, and they approve our curriculum in about eight classes so our kids can get some college credits. We have about 50 kids taking college classes on our campus, taught by our high school teachers, who need a master’s in that content area. We really haven’t collaborated with CCSD, we’d love to; they have resources we can’t even dream of. We’re very open to any universities that want to engage with us; 97-percent of our kids are going to college, it’s a good market for higher-ed to tap into.
What’s the status of enrollment sizes and tuition costs?
Jones: Our enrollment right now on early projections is not only going to increase, there’s potential it may be the highest enrollment that we’ve ever had in the valley. With the housing market and the downturn in the economy, we keep trying to plan and predict for a loss of enrollment. It’s amazing how many of our schools are overcrowded. With the 2008 Bond Initiative we built over a hundred new schools, and we still have schools that are severely overcrowded. We need to build new schools in certain parts of the city.
Additionally, I have 30 schools that are over 50 years old that I’m trying to keep the air conditioner on. An air conditioner goes out, we can’t have school. Not only do I not have a place to take the kids, it’s a real crisis. So, enrollment is up. How far it is going to be up when we get to count day, I’m not sure. We know it’s going to be higher than it was last year. The highest class sizes in the country are right here in Nevada. Now, we’ve faced some of the biggest challenges with poverty and we are making progress. We’ve got to continue to do more with less. At some point though, less just becomes less. I still have to sell to my staff that even though they’ve got a couple additional kids, those kids deserve a solid education. Those kids need the best we’ve got. That’s how we’re driving the system forward.
Dr. Carolyn Yucha: It’s interesting to hear Dwight [Jones] talk, because he has to take everyone who comes in the door. At the university, it we don’t have the money we can theoretically turn students away. In the higher levels of nursing and graduate school you’re limited, we can say we only have X number of slots, it’s not like we take everybody. We’ve put in differential tuition, which has to do with programs that are more costly or in higher demand, those students pay more in tuition. I’m in a much better position than I ever was before because some of those funds go to these programs to support them. I’ve been able to use some of the funds to hire a nursing student success facilitator, which is more of a peer for the students to talk to without it being a faculty member who they’re afraid to talk to.
Patterson: Our tuitions are lower in the higher education system than many states. For our student population, you’re talking about a lower-income, first generation to go to college, under-represented students, who don’t necessarily get much financial backing from their families. I think because of that, you see a lot of part-time students in the system. Many students are still persistent to get a degree, but they don’t fit the normal pattern of a four-year degree or even a six-year degree. You’re going to see students that complete in eight years, because they’re [taking] just a few classes. They’re taking what they can afford while still working full-time. We topped 3,300 in terms of our student enrollment this fall and we continue to grow even during the downturn.
Buuck: Our situation is unique from any of these, because our only source of revenue is tuition. If you look at the other middle schools that we would compete with: Dawson, Las Vegas Day, and Meadows, we’re the low-cost leader by a long shot. If you look at the two high schools on our side of town, Meadows and Gorman, again, we’re the low-cost leader. What we’ve done at Faith is, we’ve made a commitment. As a Christian school, you don’t want it just for the financially elite or the academically elite. We have some Down’s kids in our high school and some autistic kids, probably another 75 kids who use our resource program. They have dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADD, and ADHD, so you try to keep your tuition at an affordable rate. We also give about $900,000 in financial aid that comes straight out of operations. Out of what people pay us, we divvy aside part of that to make sure we can help kids. We still have some very middle and very lower middle class kids who go to our school because they find some amazing ways to make it happen.
Nnadi: Our enrollment is up, but being a health science institution, our enrollment oftentimes is dictated by clinical sites for the students. That’s pretty much the nature of enrollment, you have to have hospitals to train the nurses and you have to have a pharmacy side to train the pharmacists. We have limited facilities for all these programs, and the nursing program has done a wonderful job of coming together, forming a support team to look at these clinical staff and how we can share clinical staff, but that in itself limits enrollment. You can only admit so many students because you have to have staff to be able to train them. Unlike other programs where most of what you get is in a classroom, for most of our programs the facilities in the community keep us a success.
Is there an emphasis on education culture in this state?
Yucha: I think most of us would say no. The biggest employer here doesn’t need educated people. In fact, they thrive on uneducated people to make it work. It’s really hard to get investment in education here.
Patterson: The state is starting to recognize that an investment in education can help strengthen and diversify the economy. That discussion needs to continue. Jeremy [Aguero, Applied Analysis] did a presentation that talked about if a student gets a high school degree, what percentage of those students will end up or not end up in prison or using welfare programs, those types of statistics. He then showed what happens if they got a two-year degree, then what happens if they get a four-year degree and what happens if they get a masters or doctorate level degree. It’s amazing what the cost to society is from having an uneducated population. It’s not just a workforce issue, although, people are starting to see it as a workforce issue. It’s also how much all of us pay for the fact that people don’t get an education and go down into various social pathways.
Yucha: That detracts from funding education.
Patterson: Absolutely. It’s a very odd cycle.
Jones: Ultimately, the community is going to have to embrace their schools. No magical superintendent is going to fly into town and just change the schools. It’s the community embracing it. I give the [Las Vegas] Chamber a lot of credit because they took me up on being a critical friend. For the first time, I’ve got Chamber leaders going into schools and mentoring students in our High School Initiative because we’re aggressively trying to graduate more kids. Before, the Chamber would just criticize you for not graduating more kids. Now they’re actually saying, “You know what? We own this. These are our kids. We’re going to help with that.” That gives me the most optimism that this system can change and it can change on our watch.
Is education improving in Nevada?
Nnadi: I think so. We do have challenges but if you look at where we were three years ago, even back only two years, and where we are today, you see that there’s a lot of hope. We are making progress. It may be slow and may not be recognized progress, but we are. We are, whether we like it or not, all interdependent or interconnected. If the elementary and secondary school’s quality is not there, they can’t get to UNLV, they can’t get to Nevada State and they certainly can’t get to us. But, I see a lot of improvement, a lot of hope. We’re not there yet but we’re making these baby steps and we’re making progress.
Anderson: I would also say that if we truly diversify the economy, then there will be a reason for a kid to stay in school longer to get an additional degree. The buzz will help as we improve and diversify.