Students are more than test scores, they’re the future of Nevada’s population and workforce. Schools are more than buildings, they are part of the state’s economy and essential to economic development. Education is more than learning, the process is dependent on teachers, students, families and the community.
For too many years Nevada’s education system has received poor grades. Currently we’re 50th in the nation, despite the recognition of the need for change. However, that’s where the state is now; it leaves Nevada wide-open for a bright educational future and positive changes are happening on a number of fronts.
From Educational Savings Accounts (ESA’s) to focus shifts and revamps of the school system, Nevada is going through significant changes in the educational realm. All of those changes are focused on improving the way the state educates students and building towards better graduation rates and a more educated workforce.
“For years and years and years the state has supported education with several millions of dollars and it has made effectively no difference,” said Dan Schwartz, Nevada State Treasurer. “We’re going to shift the focus of responsibility from school system to parents, and that to me is a huge difference.”
Solve for X
If the problem is that Nevada ranks 50th in education out of 51 states, then the Educational Savings Accounts program was created as one way to help solve that problem.
The ESA program was created by Senate Bill 302 in 2015 to create accounts into which the state deposits funds of $5,200 for most Nevadans and $5,700 for those below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. ESA’s can be used for paying tuition at private schools or for distance education, to pay tutoring fees, transportation to education and specialized services for disabled students.
ESA’s allow parents to determine the best choice for their child’s education, providing part of what the state funds for each child’s public education. Qualifications are simple: Students must have been enrolled in a Nevada public or charter school for at least 100 uninterrupted school days before the application is made, and must take standardized tests administered by Nevada’s Department of Education.
The ESA program provides options for parents who don’t feel their child can receive the best education from public schools in their area. There’s concern among some home school factions that believe the program interferes with the freedom to home school, and enrolling in the program does mean a home school family or group must submit enough information to be considered a participating entity. After that, however, the primary difference for home schoolers versus private school students is that home school groups are reimbursed for expenses and private school tuition amounts are paid up front.
Also contrary to popular belief, the ESA’s are not a voucher system, which would mean fees were paid directly to schools and could therefore result in state payments directly to parochial schools. Instead, ESA payments go directly to parents, who then make educational choices for their children.
The bill is being challenged by those concerned that the state would be funding religious schools. Schwartz said that is not the case explaining that, “the law is about education. If it were a voucher system, then it would lose on its face, because [the state] would be paying parochial schools directly, but that’s not what it is.”
Bridging the Gap
In the public school arena, school districts in both of Nevada’s major metropolitan areas are making changes to culture and course work, and seeing positive results. Graduation rates are increasing. In Clark County, high school graduation rates climbed to 71.9 percent, a 12 percent increase over the last four years.
In Washoe County, the 2014-2015 school year saw a 75 percent graduation rate from high school, the highest it’s ever been, according to Traci Davis, superintendent of schools, Washoe County School District (WCSD). “We were up two percentage points over the previous year, and bigger than that is the fact that the district has closed achievement gaps in all sub-groups,” she said.
This means that in Washoe County, the graduation rate for African-American students rose from 42 to 66 percent. Among Latino/Hispanic students, rates rose from 53 to 67 percent, and nearly the same numbers for children living in poverty.
“This is great,” said Davis. “We’re excited we’re closing those gaps in order to graduate the majority of kids.”
The ESA program which is directed to the middle class, can make a difference with minority students as well, added Schwartz.
There are a lot of issues for minorities and families living in poverty he acknowledged but added that education should be a priority.
“The complaint is ‘I’m a parent, I’m working two jobs, I don’t have time to worry about my kid’s education. I’m just trying to put food on the table and pay the monthly rent,’” said Schwartz. “That’s a fair comment. But, at the end of the day, parents have to make a choice that they want their kids to get an education and to lead a better life than they have. Unless they begin to pay attention, that’s never going to happen.”
WCSD has also been working on special education needs, including addressing issues of poverty and mental illness. As a result, in February, WCSD was awarded $13 million from Transforming Youth Recovery, an organization supported by the Stacie Mathewson Foundation.
“This has been the largest private foundation gift given to the district ever,” said Davis. “It will allow us to look at how we want to maintain and add more high quality programs for students which include mental health and prevention of drug use. We did a survey of our kids and said, ‘Wow, here are things that are happening to our kids.’ Test scores are important, how well students do in a district, but kids are more than just a test score, so that’s really exciting for us to be doing some of that work around social/emotional learning.”
As for academics, WCSD students continue to outpace the rest of the nation in participation and performance in advanced placement (AP) courses. The number of Clark County School District (CCSD) students taking AP is up by 16.4 percent, including a double digit increase in every minority sub-group, according to Pat Skorkowsky, superintendent. In February CCSD was named the Advanced Placement School District of the Year by the College Board. In addition, 25 of the district’s magnet schools (public schools offering specialized courses) have been named magnet schools of distinction or of excellence.
The CCSD franchise program continues to pick up speed as principals who excel with at-risk schools are given a second and sometimes third school to oversee. Great preliminary results means more elementary schools will be added, followed by high schools and the middle schools that feed those high schools, in order to build continuity for grades six through 12.
CCSD is the fifth largest school district in the country but, despite rumors, it isn’t being broken up into multiple districts. Instead, the district is looking at creating a school-based collaborate model which allows administration at individual schools to make decisions on the specific school population and instructional programming with clear sets of accountability measures.
Public schools don’t exist in a vacuum and community partnerships can make a positive difference. The CCSD Reinvent Schools project created a partnership with Wynn Resorts Company and Encore to provide wraparound services to schools such as food and basic needs like clothing and medical treatment, so parents in the walking community of specific schools have access to those services through the school.
Another program brings Paradise Elementary School into partnership with the College of Education at UNLV.
“We are developing an environment much like a teaching hospital where professional educators will not only implement innovative programming to increase student achievement, but also be able to take students in their teacher preparation program and give them valuable experience,” said Skorkowsky.
A third Reinvent Schools project being developed partners Hollingsworth Elementary with the City of Las Vegas which will provide extensive before and after school programming for students who live and attend school in the downtown area.
In Washoe County, the Department of Family-School Partnerships, working with Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada (ACTIONN), has become the national hub of the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, which actually allows teachers to visit students’ homes in an effort to get families involved in the 90 by 20 program – graduating 90 percent of high school students by the year 2020.
It All Adds Up
After a period of time when the numbers were flat, high school graduation numbers are picking up again and Nevada students heading to college are better prepared than they were in the past, said Dan Klaich, chancellor, Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).
“We still have a ways to go. We know there are too many students who graduate from Nevada high schools and still have to take some remedial course work. We are working very closely with school districts and the State Board of Education on that issue, but the numbers and quality are up.”
It’s not always easy for those students to get to college. “We have a very large unmet financial assistance need in Nevada,” said Klaich. “We know that. We have a lot of working poor in Nevada, we have a lot of families with low incomes and we have a lot of first generation families that have multiple members of the household that are working.”
To meet some of those needs, the 2015 Nevada Legislature created the Silver State Opportunity Grants, available to eligible low income students attending community or state colleges.
“What we expect the results of the program to show is that the students who received the aid did better and progressed more rapidly toward their degrees than their peers who were not assisted,” explained Klaich.
Four broad programs administered through the State Treasurer’s Office focus on helping Nevada residents fund college educations.
The College Kick Start Program is about to expand, according to Schwartz. The program allows families to save for the future with an account started by the State Treasurer’s Office (STO) which uses a portion of program manager fees rather than taxpayer dollars to initially fund tax-free accounts. When the student’s ready for college, the money taken out of the account is tax free. Called “529” college savings programs, they’re administered through the Nevada STO but can be used anywhere in the country.
“The reimbursement rate is set by what the regents set for Nevada, but if your kid gets into Cal State or University of Illinois, it will pay tuition up to what would be paid for University of Nevada, Reno, or University of Nevada, Las Vegas,” said Schwartz.
According to the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, “Children with a college savings account are up to seven times more likely to attend college than those without an account.”
The STO also administers the Nevada Prepaid Tuition Program that allows parents to pay for college when their child is still in kindergarten – the tag line, said Schwartz, is Tomorrow’s Tuition, Today’s Prices.
College savings plans have a direct correlation to the job market in Nevada, and in turn, Nevada’s economic future, because there are so many jobs coming into the area that require specialized skills.
“There are lots of jobs that are happening here, and unless kids are prepared for those jobs, then they go out of state,” said Schwartz. “Our objective is to create a culture of education in the state of Nevada and the ESA and College Savings programs are a part of that.”
The number one issue for the current budget being prepared by the NSHE Board of Regents is workforce needs.
“Community colleges are the vanguard of the workforce,” said Klaich. As economic development efforts bring in more companies, a skilled workforce is mandatory.
“That’s not to say that a general liberal arts education is not important,” Klaich added. “It’s still extremely important, maybe more important than ever because jobs will change so much in this knowledge-based society.”
Which means two new medical schools opening in Southern Nevada, UNLV’s School of Medicine and Roseman University of Health Science, fit right in with Nevada’s growing healthcare industry. The University medical school was funded by the 2015 Nevada Legislature, and it’s expected to not only upgrade the healthcare workforce in the region, but to create partnership opportunities for the state and the county.
The new medical schools may fit in nicely for students already attending a magnet school or the signature academy for health sciences at Hug High School, said Davis, but everything’s new, so she’s waiting to see. “There are a lot of shiny careers out there and we educate kids for jobs we don’t even know exist. For us, it’s about making sure we give them essential 21st century skills to operate and they take that with them with the opportunity to work in the job force.”
After years of Nevada’s education system ranking at the bottom of state comparisons, changes are being instituted that have the potential to make a difference. The changes may not be a silver bullet, said Schwartz, “but we are addressing the issues because ultimately when employers don’t come to Nevada, one of the reasons is that our education standards are not what they should be. I think we’re addressing that. Jobs and education go hand in hand. We’re trying to do both.”