A select group of educators recently gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas to discuss challenges and issues affecting the educational system in Nevada. The roundtable was a part of Nevada Business Journal’s monthly Industry Outlook series. Connie Brennan, publisher of Nevada Business Journal, served as moderator. Those in attendance represented a broad cross-section, including both public and private schools, K-12 institutions, the university system and adult education. Topics covered included: the challenges of keeping up with growth, funding education and training tomorrow’s workforce. Following is a condensed version of their remarks. Each participant was first asked to identify what he or she perceived as the greatest challenge facing educators in Nevada.
Kathleen Frosini: I am the director for career and technical education for the Clark County School District. Our greatest challenge is hiring and retaining qualified staff – educators as well as technical staff – and that takes resources. Our program provides an opportunity for students to get passionate about something they are interested in. It might be broadcast journalism, technical theatre, architecture or something in the culinary area, but our students have a significantly lower dropout rate – 2.2 percent as opposed to the 5 percent dropout rate in the district as a whole. We try to encourage them to go on to post-secondary education, and we work closely with [Community College of Southern Nevada] and also Great Basin College and Truckee Meadows Community College. Thalia Dondero: I took time to read at several older [elementary] schools during National Reading Week, and then I went to several dedications of new schools in the area. There is a big gap there. The older schools don’t have everything the new schools have. Some of them don’t have enough books to go around, while the new schools have so many textbooks the students could have one book at school and one at home. The university and the community colleges are doing a great job, but I think the technical field is what we all need to look at right now. In order to keep those young people interested in whatever they want to do, they need to be challenged.
Jane Nichols: As chancellor, my perspective is statewide, with our two universities and our state college and our four community colleges. In Nevada right now we really are at a turning point. We have an opportunity for the culture of Nevada to change, and I think that change is occurring. Nevadans now identify the importance of education. For years, around 35 percent to 37 percent of high school graduates went on to college. Today, it is up to at least 45 percent, thanks in no small part to the Millennium Scholarship. For that we are grateful, but when you have a college or university growing at the rate of 8 percent to 9 percent each year, you truly do have an enormous challenge. Another challenge we’ve identified is our need to retain and graduate more students.
Steve Soukup: Our largest challenge at University of Phoenix is facilities. We are finding it difficult in both Southern Nevada and Northern Nevada to find facilities that will meet our needs at a reasonable cost and that we can get into quickly enough to accommodate our growth.
Stephen Bowers: I am the head of the Alexander Dawson School, an independent school for children from kindergarten to eighth grade. Our biggest problem right now is managing the growth we have experienced in going from zero students to 380 students in two years. The next big challenge for us is a new construction project to enable us to add a new class at each grade level, along with some science labs, a beautiful new music building and a preschool. How to do all that in a financially prudent and a sound way is what concerns us.
John Weaver: I am the administrator of the Calvary Chapel Christian School and also the district representative of International Christian Schools in Las Vegas. We are a school of about 460 students from kindergarten to grade 12. The Christian school community is growing rapidly in Las Vegas. Like other Christian schools, our school is challenged to prepare our students, not only spiritually but academically, but we have to balance that with the financial challenges that go along with being a private institution.
Kevin Dunning: I’m the executive director at Faith Lutheran Junior-Senior High School. Our biggest challenge right now is managing growth. Since moving into our new Summerlin campus, we have practically doubled in size. Next year, at over 1,000 students, we will be the largest non-public school in Las Vegas. So, we are looking at ways to effectively manage that growth and maintain reasonable class sizes. We have some facility issues as well. We too will be involved in a construction project, hopefully starting January 2004, so the students will have a cafeteria. Providing adequate funding for future growth without putting all the financial burden on the backs of our current parents is a challenge.
Kerry Romesburg: At Nevada State College, we have some facilities challenges as well – we don’t have any. (General laughter). However, we have a 600-acre campus and incredible potential for facilities. The state college is a new element for higher education in this state. We look at it really as a triad approach in terms of research universities, community colleges and state college to help meet Nevada’s needs. As a start-up institution, we have 283 students now, and we will probably have between 500 and 700 in the fall, and I don’t think there will be any looking back from this point forward. In terms of challenges, Nevada is only 45th out of the 50 states in terms of people with BA degrees. Looking at the mountain west, Nevada is last in people with associate degrees per 100,000 and last with people with bachelor’s degrees per 100,000. We all face a challenge in this state with trying to change the culture and thinking relative to higher education. If we are going to diversify our economy, which I think everybody agrees we need to do, it is going to take an educated workforce. That means people with degrees, and in much larger numbers than now.
Carol Harter: There are folks who may criticize the creation of the state college – I am not one of them. I am deeply grateful it is there, because it is going to help with our ability to educate a very diverse and increasingly large workforce. At UNLV, we are at 25,000 students now and total enrollment will be around 27,000 in August. We are projected to grow by about 14 percent in the next biennium, after having just grown by 18 percent in the last biennium. Those numbers are staggering. I don’t care how good you are at teaching – if you are going to introduce 6,000 new students into the university over the next four years, even the most well-oiled machine would have trouble trying to assimilate them. In addition to straining our operating budget, this growth causes problems with our physical master plan. Unlike Kerry [Romesburg], who has 600 acres, we have only 335 acres. In my eight years as president, we have constructed 15 buildings, renovated six, and acquired three more on Shadow Lane. Our physical master planner says we have to spend $1.5 billion before 2010 to be able to house and educate the 35,000 students we are going to have on campus. In fact, the facility lack may stop our growth, because we won’t have a choice. We won’t have a place to put people – either to park them, to teach them or to serve them.
Rich Facciolo: I’m with the [Catholic] Diocese of Las Vegas. We have nine schools throughout Las Vegas, kindergarten through 12th grade, and approximately 4,000 students. We are trying to manage growth like everybody else, but recruiting and retaining qualified teachers and administrators seems to present a more immediate challenge. We need to meet and accommodate the needs of our increasingly diverse student population. Equipping the teachers in our schools with the ability, the skills and the knowledge to help these students become successful is something we really must address.
Charlotte Bentley: Regis University is a non-profit, private Jesuit university with about 15,000 students, mostly at six campuses in Colorado. Here in Nevada, we are part of the School for Professional Studies, an accelerated adult focus group. One of our challenges has been to let people know about us. We just opened a campus in Summerlin, in addition to our main campus in Green Valley, so we seem to be accomplishing that. Our classes are at night, so we target working adults and try to partner with businesses to try to get some tuition assistance for students. Our students are usually not able to go back to UNLV or a community college because they are working full-time and had to interrupt their formal education. They want to finish those undergrad degrees or get a master’s degree. We are pleased that our fastest-growing programs are in teacher education – about half our undergraduate students are in education.
Paul Killpatrick: As president of Great Basin College, I would like to represent the rural areas at this meeting. Great Basin has finally hit the 2,000 mark in full-time enrollment, with approximately 58 full-time faculty members and probably twice as many adjunct faculty. It is among a handful of community colleges that also offer select baccalaureate degrees. Two of the challenges in our rural areas are economic development and economic diversity. Since I arrived 11 months ago, I’ve gone to Ely and Winnemucca and Battle Mountain and talked to people about what their challenges are. It quickly became obvious that economic diversity is key for them. For these communities, the outreach centers operated by the college are critical. In a lot of instances, the centers are keeping those areas alive. The college is interested in serving as the hub for business incubators and aligning five rural counties (White Pine, Humboldt, Elko, Eureka and Lander) together to do a feasibility study and go after funding. With business incubators, people in rural areas will be allowed to stay close to home and still generate an income. With these five counties, you’ve got half the land mass of Nevada committed to this goal. It is going to be a two- or three-year project, but I think it is well worth the effort.
Connie Brennan: What kind of a job are the school districts doing to prepare kids for college? Are you getting students who can’t read or write?
Nichols: This is always the question I am asked when I am in a public position: “Why do you get all these students who have to go into remedial courses?” We are working very hard to answer that question. The main predictor of success in college is not grade-point average or test scores – it is the courses taken in high school, a college preparatory curriculum. When you look at the students who take rigorous high school academic courses, they do not end up in remedial courses. The last survey we did in Nevada said 82 percent of high school students plan to go to college. But how many of them are taking the right courses? The bill that is in the Legislature changing the Millennium Scholarship will make certain courses mandatory to be eligible for the scholarship, not the grade-point average in those courses. I think then we will see the number of Millennium Scholars who go into remedial courses will disappear or get very small.
Romesburg: Some students who are on the border of qualifying for the Millennium Scholarship may “dumb-down” their curriculum and avoid hard classes because they want to keep their GPA high enough to qualify for the scholarship. So, instead of taking the college preparatory courses that are so crucial, they will take something easier, because the scholarship represents a lot of money to them and their families.
Killpatrick: In rural areas, especially working with the Hispanic and Native American communities, students have very few role models with regards to higher education. Oftentimes, when they are 16, they think it is time to drop out and support the family. I’ve talked to folks in mining communities about this, too – 10 or 15 years ago, you could get a job at the mine and make $50,000 without a high school diploma. So, if you have a dad who only went to the 10th grade and is making $55,000 now, he really doesn’t have any encouragement to offer his children about finishing high school and thinking about college. You really need to start planting ideas about college in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade. You can’t wait until kids are16 or 17.
Frosini: Twenty-five percent of the secondary students in Clark County are Hispanic, so that is a huge number. Clark County School District is now a minority-majority school district. At our secondary (9 through 12) level, 47 percent of our students are minorities.
Killpatrick: Nationwide, Hispanics make up 12.5 percent of the population, and those numbers aren’t going to go down. We have to get them to start thinking about going to college and thinking about the big picture, and that has to start with the family.
Brennan: Do you think the people at the Nevada Commission on Economic Development and the other development agencies are doing a good job in promoting the successes in Nevada education?
Soukup: No, I don’t, and I don’t mind going on record to say it. We try to provide press releases, including information about the success of graduates. The number of technical graduates who have come through in the system in the last three years is probably five times what it had been in the previous 10 years, and still you hear that this is a technical wasteland. There are technical people out there looking for jobs.
Bentley: But businesses still complain they can’t get an educated workforce. It is simply not true – there are so many opportunities here.
Soukup: We meet with businesses and tell them, “If you say we don’t have an educated workforce, tell me what you want.” The answer comes back, “I need two more Cisco people.” Okay, I can get them 20. So it’s all a smoke screen.
Harter: Some of it is partly the history. Yes, a study showed we are among the lowest per-capita in scientists and engineers. In fact, our scientists and engineers weren’t getting jobs in Nevada, so they moved to California. Why would we produce a whole lot more of them if there are no jobs for them here?
Frosini: Let’s look at the efforts in nursing. That’s a success story that needs to be known. We have doubled the program.
Harter: And teachers as well. The Legislature wanted us to double the number of teachers we graduate, but they refused to fund it. We reallocated $3 million of university money in order to triple the number of teachers. We are now producing just under 700 teachers per year, but we get no credit for that anywhere.
Nichols: All of us, private and public, have stepped up and tried to produce needed graduates, not only more, but also more quickly. One thing we’re doing is starting a year-round program in nursing, which makes all the sense in the world.
Soukup: Another success is the law school at UNLV. Look at what it has brought to the state – it’s huge. But we’re not getting results from the media in terms of celebrating these successes.
Frosini: Last year, I participated in a meeting that included people from the NDA, and there didn’t seem to be a good understanding about the role community colleges play in economic development. People from all over the world come to Great Basin College to look at what the college has done with its mining, welding and other programs, and yet you never hear about that through our own economic development staff. We are trying to attract businesses to come in, saying we have a skilled workforce in particular areas, but a recent report totally slammed the K-through-12 school system for not teaching skills. I am not sure where they got their information.
Harter: I am on the executive committee for the NDA, and while they commissioned the report, in fact, they did not ultimately endorse it. There was so much reaction, not only from the K-through-12 school systems, but from the university system, in terms of the lack of accuracy in the data and failure to understand some of these very things you are talking about. There was a lot of concern that it didn’t really reflect what was happening in the community.
Nichols: I don’t think either K through 12 or higher education has been able to tell the story of the excellent work we do. Some of that may be linked to public accountability, and ways we can produce data that are convincing to the public. Our two universities graduate 38 percent to 42 percent of their students, figured on a six-year time frame, which is how national statistics are calculated. You might want to push that time frame out to 10 or 11 or 12 years because 80 percent of our students work and have families. The average person receiving a baccalaureate degree is 28 years old, and 35 is the average age of a master’s degree receipient. They are not going to graduate in four or five years – they are coming in and out.
Harter: Last year, we gave out 4,000 degrees, but our graduation rate as it is federally figured is still 38 percent. That does not make any sense mathematically. It means all these people are coming in at various times, dropping out and coming back. We have no systematic way of tracking these students.
Bentley: Does the school district have good high school counseling programs to let students know about all their various options, make career choices and test their aptitudes?
Frosini: Well, we work very hard, but our counselor-to-pupil ratio is something like 1 to 400. There really needs to be more consistent opportunities for students to have conversations with adults about their choices and their opportunities. It is a constant struggle because of the large numbers of students.
Dondero: We have an extremely mobile community, too, and students move so much from one school to another.
Frosini: Fifty percent of the kids enrolled at Rancho [High School] in one school year aren’t there the next. The figures for mobility are just huge.
Romesberg: It is almost frightening when you listen to some of the numbers. When you say that 82 percent of the students say they want higher education, and I can tell you from the census that only 19.2 percent of our population has a college degree, there is a big differential there. If we are really successful at convincing those 82 percent that they need to go to college, where are we going to put them? We already know, based on the current participation rate, in seven years we are going to have 50,000 more students enrolling in higher education. If more people are thinking of pursuing higher education, the 50,000 number is probably greatly understated. This is really a daunting challenge. Will the state fund it, can we get the facilities, will the private market step up to fill the gap and can the individuals afford what it costs in the private sector? I think those are some real challenges this state faces because of this unbelievable growth.
Harter: That is why people who are still critical of the state college do not understand those demographics. If they did, they would recognize the need for it.
Bowers: I’d like to speak up just a little bit for younger children. You start with a five-year-old and ask, “What is this child going to be like when she is 18 or 25, what kind of contribution is she going to make?” I’m hearing that your role is to prepare kids only for business. I think it is a good question to ask the business people, “What is it you want?” We think about the basic skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. More importantly, what kind of person will this child be? Is this going to be a really smart person whom you can’t trust with $3, or is this going to be a person who understands that he needs to give something back to society for all the wonderful things that he has received? I know funding is an issue, but my opinion is that public education and also private education are often shackled by regulation. We are shackled by legislation and bureaucrats who don’t do their own work very well, it seems to me. We need to go back to the basic premises about what it is we want for our youngsters. We want all of these skills, we want them to be wonderful nurses or teachers, or whatever it is their hearts tell them their passion should be. At the same time, what kind of people do we want them to be? All of these other things won’t matter if we turn out a generation of kids who just don’t care.
Brennan: So, is the quality of education at your school better than public education?
Bowers: If you get to select your student body, if you have classes that are half the size, of course the education will be better. If you’ve got more adults working with kids, it is bound to happen. My admiration for the people who work for the Clark County School District is boundless, because some of the fine people who come to work for us have come from Clark County. Their dedication in ridiculous circumstances is just remarkable. Their devotion to their kids is as strong as the dedication we have for the kids in our school.
Frosini: You bring up a point of working in very difficult circumstances. When my son, for example, went through Silverado High School, he never had a class with less than 40 students. We want to deliver that quality education, and we ask ourselves why kids are falling behind, and it is because it is so crowded. The whole issue with growth and how to accommodate it and finding educators who are well-trained and willing to work in those situations is very difficult.
Bowers: I agree. It is so easy to blame the parents, saying they don’t have the tradition of education, or they just don’t care or they never participate, but they don’t wake up in the morning and say, “How am I going to mess up my child’s life today?” They are being the best parents they know how to be. So, if we take that as a premise, our responsibility to these kids is to do the very best we can by them, and putting them in a class with 40 other students isn’t it.
Romesburg: We have this unbelievable problem with quality versus access. How can you provide access to everyone and still maintain quality? When we look at the growth in this state and the demands on the public education system at all levels, the pressure to maintain some semblance of quality with ever-increasing access is just almost impossible.