A high school graduate, entering the workforce in Southern Nevada directly after graduation, earns on average $6,000 more annually than a non-graduate.
At a very basic level, that’s the effect of education on the economy. Education affects more than workforce, more than the economic development that comes as a result of the talents and training of employees and more than the addition of discretionary income. Education has a profound affect on individuals. Students today are the adults making their way in the world tomorrow.
On the other side of the coin, the student who doesn’t graduate simply contributes to the reasons the next corporate headquarters, new business or industry chooses to locate in another state. A poor K-12 education system is a deterrent when businesses look to locate or expand in Nevada.
Unfortunately, Nevada consistently ranks 49th or 50th in the U.S. and has the worst high school graduation rates in the country.
Creating Quality Education
Despite the state’s dismal rankings, efforts are underway and progress is being made in various K-12 ventures. Across the state, educators and administrators are working to improve Nevada’s education system. Between zoom schools, victory schools, Pledges of Achievement and acceleration districts it’s a new world in education with new efforts being put forth to improve the quality.
“We’ve been focusing on our Pledge of Achievement,” said Pat Skorkowsky, superintendent, Clark County School District (CCSD). “Six goals that focus on student achievement as well as ensuring that families and students are engaged in the educational process.”
The six goals include 1) ensuring every third grade student is reading at grade level by school year’s end; 2) decreasing achievement gaps in performance between subgroups of students; 3) increasing the graduation rate; 4) increasing family and community engagement in the education process; 5) working to ensure student safety and happiness; 6) and increasing advanced placement (AP) participation.
Graduation rates are used as a yardstick to measure success in education. While Nevada’s graduation rates remain well below the national average, there are some bright spots. CCSD has seen rates rise 14 percent over two of the last three years to a graduation rate of 70.9 percent.
In 2014, Washoe County School District (WCSD) graduated a record number of students and had its highest graduation rate of 72 percent. Traci Davis, WCSD superintendent, is predicting that number will continue to increase.
“We’re providing a variety of interventions now,” said Davis. That means not waiting until senior year to focus on a student who’s struggling. Rather than being reactive with seniors, WCSD is proactive with freshmen, and all through a student’s high school career the district interacts with families. Family information event nights bring parents up to speed on student strengths and weaknesses and offer support and strategies. The Parent University program educates parents on credit requirements and helps parents keep their students on track for graduation.
“We’re building a 21st century school district,” said Davis. “We’re helping kids with readiness and personal and civic responsibilities and it’s amazing to see the work and hear the kids talk about the work.”
WCSD teachers aren’t adverse to making home visits in order to build relationships with families and encourage student success. “Engaging families is super important for the success of the student,” said Davis.
“We know that has an impact on our economy, and we also know that when students move to that higher educational level, that the level of jobs they’re able to access increases, which increases their earning potential, and in turn, then increases the overall economic development of our county and state,” said Skorkowsky.
It’s not just about graduation rates. Other benchmarks in K-12 education include the number of students participating in AP and in February of this year, CCSD was awarded the College Board Advanced Placement District of the Year award for being a leader of large districts in expanding access to AP courses while simultaneously improving AP exam performance.
A study by Buckley Education Group, commissioned by the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN) and dated December 2013, studied WCSD as a stand-alone district, comparing county education to state-level education rankings. WCSD ranked 12th in the nation for the number of students taking AP tests. For ACT’s test in math and English, WCSD ranked 18th and 24th, respectfully.
WCSD also excels at college readiness, ranking 15th in the nation, ahead of California and most other states. CCSD now gives the ACT to all juniors as part of the state’s initiative to determine college and career readiness.
Three College of Southern Nevada (CSN) High School campuses allow qualified juniors and seniors to earn college credits before graduating high school and had a 100 percent graduation rate last year, said Skorkowsky. Eighteen students graduated with their associate degrees weeks before graduating with their high school diplomas.
In Washoe County the Signature Academies and Career & Technical Education Programs (CTE) offer rigorous and stimulating curriculum in performing arts, pre-engineering, sports medicine, agriculture, science, culinary arts and other subject matters.
Another niche in K-12 public education, magnet schools are schools that offer select instruction on specific programs while attracting a diverse student population from across a district. During the past five years, CCSD magnet schools have been named among the top in the country. “This year we had 17 schools with 22 programs that were either named magnet schools of excellence or magnet schools of distinction,” said Skorkowsky. The graduation rate is 93 percent.
CCSD will expand the magnet program in the 2015-16 school year, creating five select schools across the Valley offering career tech education certificate programs so students have the chance to graduate with certificates and walk directly into careers.
A new CCSD “Franchise Model” program launched with the hope of duplicating successes found in high performing public schools. The franchise model takes a principal who has demonstrated academic growth and achievement at one school and has them supervise an additional school putting in place similar practices. One Southern Nevada elementary school in the program grew in ratings from two out of five stars to four within two years, and closed achievement gaps between students.
One of the biggest challenges facing students in Southern Nevada is poverty, a major indicator of success in school. Governor Sandoval’s zoom schools program was designed to improve academic performance of schools with a high number of students learning English. The victory schools program focuses on 300 students from schools where there’s a need to address early literacy. According to Governor Sandoval’s State of the State address, a student who isn’t reading at grade level by third grade has his or her chances of graduating from high school cut in half.
“Charter schools are public schools funded with taxpayer dollars, but they have their own governing bodies and director of operations,” said Davis. WCSD sponsors eight charter schools and CCSD sponsors seven.
Others are funded by the state’s Charter School Association of Nevada (CSAN). Charter schools go through a rigorous application process with Nevada Department of Education and are held to high standards of accountability.
Education is a big topic before the Legislature this session and one issue is the question of underperforming schools in the state. Governor Sandoval has proposed an Achievement School District that would place the top 78 underperforming schools statewide under the supervision of charter school operators with good track records for turning around troubled schools. “It’s an attempt to turn those schools around and give those kids that have been stuck at these schools the chance at a quality education,” said Lauren Hulse, executive director, CSAN. The bill would affect elementary and middle schools in the lowest 5 percent and any high school that had a graduation rate of less than 60 percent.
Enrollment for existing charter schools continues to increase rapidly. During the 2013-14 school year, Clark County, with the 36 percent growth, led the nation in percentage growth of charter students, said Hulse. Currently there are 30,000 students enrolled in charter schools in Nevada, and CSAN expects that, with six new campuses opening and one new school opening in Las Vegas, enrollment will increase by another 10,000 students in the next school year.
Charter schools can choose to specialize, concentrating on specific subjects, forming as a dual language school or forming around STEM components (science, technology, engineering and math). STEM is the current focus of many educators and economic development agencies alike as they push to educate tomorrow’s workforce to handle industries they hope to have locate in the state. Other charter schools focus on college prep, and while they’re part of the school district, they have enough autonomy to create their own curriculum outside Common Core. However, charters are still required to take the state standardized test based on Common Core standards.
Private schools also have the autonomy to determine their own curriculum and mission but, unlike charter schools, they receive no funding from taxpayer dollars.
Challenger School in Southern Nevada is a private non-profit that delivers education based on the belief that children should pursue happiness as well as education. Students start early with a strong phonics program, and develop literary and mathematics skills, learn geography and history, while preparing for advanced studies and accelerated learning.
One of the things that sets the school apart, said David Walton, Nevada executive regional director, Challenger Schools, is the public speaking component. Challenger is structured so students have fun while becoming independent thinkers, and while technology is utilized, penmanship is also taught.
Private schools like Challenger allow parents more right to choose their child’s education. For example, while public schools are looking ahead to potential workforce needs, private schools are teaching a broader curriculum. “You might not want to go into a STEM career,” said Walton. The economy will unfold organically, and teaching children to grow up and become part of a preconceived workforce anticipates careers that may no longer be on top.
Not every institution agrees. Like Challenger, Alexander Dawson Schools teach preschool through eigth grade. This is a private, non-sectarian, non-profit school whose stated mission is to challenge students to achieve excellence in mind, body and character with a focus on STEM education.
“Kids learn best from doing,” said Dal Sohi, headmaster. “So we make sure to provide opportunities for kids to learn through doing, integrated with our STEM curriculum.” The school offers small classes taught by specialists in their fields within a gated school system to keep students feeling safe.
The school also educates students to participate in the global economy. “Kids in Las Vegas are not just competing against other kids from Las Vegas, or Nevada, or the Southwest. They’re competing today with kids from around the world,” said Sohi.
Private schools may have advantages when approaching global education. Henderson International School is part of the Meritas International Family of Schools. A private college prep school, Henderson International has seen steady enrollment increases over the last two years. A preschool through eighth grade program, the school has 100 percent college acceptance and attendance for its students, who go on to high schools outside the Meritas network.
By utilizing its network of schools, Henderson International allows students to meet with students on sister campuses to collaborate on global issues, using technology to meet and share information on year-long projects.
“We need to develop in our youth a strong work ethic and the kind of skills that are necessary for their participation in the economy,” said Seth Ahlborn, headmaster. With the growing healthcare industry in Southern Nevada and the schools of medicine in the Valley, Ahlborn said there’s a need for “kids who envision themselves in that kind of a role. There’s got to be a better rate than 40 percent of our public school kids going to college. We really need to see a trajectory for those kids being successful and participating as citizens.”
For students who are college-bound, a college prep school can give them an advantage getting there. “We can do things the public school system just can’t because we’re a different model,” said Jeremy Gregersen, head of school, The Meadows School. “Whereas the public school system needs to educate an entire populace, which is incredibly valuable in a society, we are in a position where we’re educating strictly college-bound kids.”
Towards that end, The Meadows School like many private schools offers small class sizes, with low student to teacher ratios, and instructors who hold master’s degrees in their disciplines. “Just the level of instruction we’re able to offer is higher than what the massive public school system can do.”
And, said Gregersen, it’s expensive. “If the state tried to implement this model on a statewide basis, I don’t think we could afford it.” Which is why 20 percent of their students are on some form of financial aid. The school has given out $7 million in scholarships over the past five years. The Meadows School is an independent, nonreligious preschool through 12th grade college prep school with an entrance exam and stringent academic requirements.
While many may disagree on how to fix the issues, no one disagrees on the importance of improving K-12 education in this state. Nevada’s future depends on our leadership’s ability to continue making progress in education.