The spectrum of private education in Nevada is wide, encompassing high- and low-income families, gifted children and students with learning difficulties. Of the 407,217 kindergarten-through-twelfth grade students in the state, 17,894 attend a private educational institution.
A private educational experience generally comes with a hefty price tag. Religious schools tend to be in the lower price end. For instance, Mountain View Christian School (Las Vegas) charges between $5,036 and 5,568 per year, on top of registration fees from $100 to $350 per child. Brookfield School (Reno) requires tuition of $6,320 to 6,780 per year in addition to registration, book deposits and other incidentals. Sending a child to Alexander Dawson School (Las Vegas) will set a parent back between $14,650 and $15,200 annually for basic tuition.
Most private schools do offer tuition breaks for families enrolling more than one student, and most also offer some type of scholarship fund for financial need.
Private schools tend to categorize themselves as either “private” (schools that are linked to an organization or religion and for-profit schools) or “independent” (not-for-profit schools that are not part of the public school system). The state of Nevada, however, makes only two distinctions for private schools: licensed and exempt. There are currently 95 licensed private schools and 66 exempt private schools operating in the state.
Licensed schools are overseen by the Nevada Department of Education (DOE). These schools receive on-campus inspections, and the qualifications of their employees are reviewed by the DOE. They undergo budget reviews, and they must maintain surety bonds and insurance. In addition, the state must be provided with a copy of each school’s advertising brochure.
Schools that seek exempt status do not undergo inspections, and their teachers are not required to be certified. The facilities are, however, required to have fire department and OSHA clearance. Exempt schools include institutions that are maintained by the state or federal government, schools that offer only religious training, or that are operated by religious organizations or ministries, or schools operated by fraternal or benevolent institutions offering instruction only to their own members.
Orval Nutting, private school consultant, Nevada Department of Education, noted there are more private elementary schools than middle or high schools because most private schools begin on the elementary level, with a small number of students, and grow into the higher grades. “Buying land and building is a large capital expense,” he noted. “It’s a risk, so unless they enter the market with some capital investment, most schools begin small.”
Each school must apply for accreditation through a regional or national accrediting body. Most licensed schools utilize the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, while others utilize the National Independent Private Schools Association (NIPSA) or the National Association of Independent Schools (NIAS).
Many parents in Nevada are willing to pay well for an education that strives for academic excellence. In fact, in the early 1980s, one group of parents was willing to found their own school to provide for the college preparatory needs of their children. The Meadows school opened its doors in 1984, offering kindergarten through sixth grade. The school buildings were semi-permanent trailer-type structures on the rear parking lot of what was then the Fletcher Jones Chevrolet dealership.
Today, the school educates children enrolled in grades K through 12 on a 40-acre campus located in Summerlin. Headmaster William Richardson reported, “The good things you hear are true. The thing we do best is to prepare kids in all ways for the post-secondary opportunities in college.”
Stephen Bowers, head of school at Alexander Dawson School, explained his staff, “offers experiences in the arts, athletics and student government, along with an outstanding academic program to prepare youngsters for any secondary school. We have youngsters going to the leading boarding schools in the Northeast.”
Combining Education with Faith
While academics are very important, some schools are actually created to provide both secular education and faith-building tools. Nevada is home to numerous Christian, Jewish and Islamic educational facilities.
Robert Mekus, principal of International Christian Academy in Las Vegas, said her pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade school works Christian elements into its curriculum, such as spelling words dealing with Bible stories. “Faith-based education means more than academics,” he stated. “We also emphasize character. Each month, two students from each grade are honored for their Christian character and religious diligence. They have lunch with the principal, and younger children receive a crown or medal to wear.”
Nancy Gasho, principal at the Islamic Academy in Las Vegas, believes schools such as hers, which teach culture and religion, help keep the society diverse, reducing the homogenization that occurs in public schools. “It is important to allow [the students] to participate in their faith every day,” she stated. “From the moment our kids enter school, they are learning a foreign language (Arabic) and they learn from the Koran five days a week.”
Melanie Bash, director of development and admissions/community relations at the Milton I. Schwartz Hebrew Academy (Las Vegas) explained, “Our program is secular Judaic integration. If we are learning about trees in science, we explain the holiday of the trees. A Jewish education focuses on Jewish culture, which focuses on ethics and values.” Not all students at the school are Jewish, explained Bash. Some students are drawn to the program simply because of the academic standards and emphasis on community. The need for a Jewish education is certainly apparent, however. “We are the fastest-growing Jewish community in the country,” she said. “We have more than 80,000 Jews in Nevada and our mission is to help educate the children of this rapidly growing population.”
MountainView Christian School also opens its doors to students from outside the church. In fact, Principal Crystal VanKempen McClanahan pointed out that her school has students from across Southern Nevada, including Boulder City. This may be in part due to the fact there aren’t many Christian high schools in the area.
Most religious schools, including the Hebrew Academy, do not require students to actually attend church services to be part of the school program. Most don’t even require students to be of the same religion. “We don’t require our students to go to church, even though we have a majority who do. Our mission is evangelism,” McClanahan said. “We want to bring in students and families who don’t necessarily know the Lord. That is at the heart of what we do.”
Not all students can learn in a cookie-cutter environment. Some children need continuity in their educational atmosphere to excel. This is the challenge that Mountain View Montessori School (Reno) has taken upon itself. Jackie Silveira-Sater, administrator, described her school’s program as tailored to serve each child’s needs.
“Parents are very interested in having an educational system that is individualized, where students can experience independent and critical thought. They want their children to learn using hands-on methods in a holistic manner. Students at Mountain View Montessori are placed with a teacher for a three-year period, a system that provides for both intimacy and community,” said Silveira-Sater.
Dr. Joseph D. Reading, academic manager and principal for Sierra Nevada High School (Reno) truly presents a different type of private school. Sierra Nevada High School is a federally funded vocational academic program that is part of the national Job Corps program. The facility currently has 570 slots for students from disadvantaged families, offering comprehensive training, education, recreation and medical care free of charge to students aged 16 to 24 who meet federal poverty guidelines and have no serious criminal record.
The school also offers a college program that allows students to enroll in Truckee Meadows Community College, and Reading noted a handful of students go on to receive associates degrees each year.
The program is costly, with a price tag of $20,000 to $24,000 per student per year. The benefits however, are already being returned to the community. A study completed two years ago determined that for every dollar spent, $2.02 in tax revenues was returned to the federal government by the students who graduate from the program.
Katie Osgood, upper grades director, Brookfield School (Reno), believes that private schools may be able to fill educational needs for students from a broader spectrum than they are currently serving. Brookfield School, for instance, meets the needs of students whose parents are concerned about them growing up too quickly and getting lost in the shuffle. “Even our smartest kids aren’t always ready socially to enter the world,” she noted. “It is okay to wait before approaching some types of issues until the children are completely formed human beings.”
Osgood also sees a place in private education for learning-challenged students who may be currently falling through the cracks in the public education system. “This is definitely a need a private independent school could fill. These are the really smart kids who need a more focused environment, or kids who don’t do well in a standard academic classroom.”
The Numbers are In
The “No Child Left Behind” act does not apply to private schools. DOE’s Nutting noted that, although testing is not required of students, “the majority of private schools do test.” And most also follow the state curriculum. “I think these schools want to provide a good quality education,” said Nutting.
Mountain View Christian reported its students surpass national verbal, math and overall means for the SAT, and the graduating class of 2003 scored significantly higher on both of the Nevada proficiency exams than their counterparts in the Clark County School District.
The Meadows produced five of the 50 National Merit Finalists for the state of Nevada last year, and seven National Merit Finalists in 2001-2002. Twenty-six advanced-placement courses are offered at The Meadows, in contrast with the public schools offering between six and 10.
Bash of the Hebrew Academy stated, “Our scores are up to par with all the major private schools. We have the highest standards, and the children meet those standards.”
NAIS asserts that its graduates lead the nation in postsecondary achievement. NAIS students also performed well above their public school-educated peers on SAT tests. For example, 71.7 percent of NAIS students achieved 1100 or better on the SAT, in comparison to 20.2 percent of public school students.
Are They Really Better?
Are private schools better at educating students, or are they simply faced with fewer challenges than public schools? Test results indicate students excel in private education. However, most private schools utilize an enrollment testing and interview process to screen out undesirable applicants. Many schools will not accept students who are under the national norm or who have been discipline problems in their current educational setting.
Strict behavior standards that can result in expulsion help to keep classes quiet and orderly. Smaller schools are also more agile in reacting to change and individual learning needs. Small class sizes and supportive parents are also helpful. Mekus of the International Christian Academy said, “Our school’s parent participation at all levels is incredible. While schools encourage parents to become involved, I would call ours fanatical. It makes a big difference.”
VanKempen McClanahan of Mountain View Christian noted, “There is a great energy here. Teachers everywhere just work their hearts out, but when people come here for a tour they are sold on the staff immediately. We have a great organizational climate.” She realizes, however, that public schools face a daunting task. “We partner with the Clark County School District; we have a great relationship with them. There are some phenomenal teachers and incredible administrators in the district. We all want what is good for kids; we are all in this together.” She believes that teaching in whatever atmosphere is important to the community as a whole. “I’m personally honored to be an educator. It’s the greatest ministry or calling I could ever imagine.”
The Selection Process
As the number and variety of private schools increase, how can parents select the best school for their particular child? Stephen Bowers, head of school of the Alexander Dawson School, suggested families look at the atmosphere of the school, the relationships between teachers and students and also the teaching styles utilized. Is combining a religious education with math and science important? Do you want a structured classroom with academic pressures, or do you want a more holistic environment, such as is offered through a Montessori-style program? Bowers noted that parents are the best judges of their children’s needs. “Does your child need a great deal of structure, or is he/she an independent learner? Find out which school will fit your particular child,” he said. “Take a close look at the facility. Ask yourself, ‘Is this a place where I can see my child being successful?’”
Trinity High School Succeeds with Early College Program
Last fall, Trinity High School (Las Vegas), in partnership with the Community College of Southern Nevada (CCSN), enrolled more than half its juniors and seniors into a full semester of college classes. With a total enrollment of 100 students, Trinity registered 27 students in the Early College program this year, and another 18 will be joining in the fall. Trinity juniors are slated to complete the program with an Associates of Arts degree from CCSN in spring 2005.
“I would have been happy if half of them had succeeded in the college classes,” said Principal Gail Haase. However, 96 percent of the students completed the fall semester, and most did remarkably well. Haase sees this unique program as one solution to the problem of Nevada high school students failing to complete college.
Called a “wrap-around,” the program uses a Trinity master teacher to team-teach with a professor or instructor from CCSN, who teaches through distance education. The students earn college credit from CCSN, which also counts for high school credit at Trinity.
A maximum of two college classes per semester; some of them Internet classes, are available to all Clark County students, but formally structuring the classes with a master teacher in the high school building has made all the difference in the world, said Haase. The teachers help the students understand the assignments and stay focused, but they also enrich the subject matter. At the same time, teachers facilitate the transition to independent and responsible college work.
Previously, dual-credit students had to leave campus to attend classes at UNLV or CCSN to gain college credit, which meant transportation problems, loss of instructional time and added expense. Because Trinity students stay on campus, they get to fully experience high school, with athletics, student council and events such as the prom, enabling them to enjoy the best of both worlds, according to Haase.