Education continues to be a hot topic for many citizens of the Silver State. Concerns over state rankings have been addressed by both public and private sectors in hopes of improving the overall status of students in Nevada. Recently, leaders in education in Nevada met at the Las Vegas office of City National Bank to discuss what can be done for Nevada to reach its full potential.
Connie Brennan, CEO and 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 factors affect students the most?
MICHAEL WIXOM: About half of our students need remediation in some way. Students who are forced into remediation rarely graduate. Our graduation rates roughly mirror our remediation rates. Until we can address remediation, we won’t be able to address many of the other challenges that we face in education. Some say that’s implicit for K-12, but I don’t believe it is. There’s so much that we can do to help shift the perspective in higher education to address those issues.
PAUL GREEN: For students coming in that are not prepared for rigorous programs in higher education, it’s very difficult for them to be successful. Students need to understand more clearly what is expected of them and the demands that these programs will have. Some of the areas we see where students really struggle are areas in writing and math, core competencies and critical thinking. When students come in and they’re more prepared in those areas, it seems like the better they do in their overall academic experience.
JUDI STEELE: If families are struggling to survive, that (education) is not an issue for them at that point. If our young people are on free and reduced lunch, we need to be aware that it impacts the family support. I think teachers need more training on what to do, creativity and leadership, to look at new innovative ways and what other people are doing in inner cities and poor communities. I don’t think the public realizes that’s a very big impact.
PAT SKORKOWSKY: In the Clark County School District, 60 percent of the kids are on free lunch [programs]. When you look at a population of 320,000, it just goes to show that families are in crisis in certain parts of the community.
SPENCER STEWART: According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which every year comes out with a poverty report card, one out of every five children in Clark County are living in poverty. When we look at extreme poverty, that percentage is even higher. Many of these families will move from apartment complex to apartment complex because these apartments offer two months free rent. Many times, they move across school district lines so they’re in a completely new environment and [students] don’t have that social network anymore that they built with teachers. On a very practical level, it has huge implications.
How does funding factor in?
LEN JESSUP: The challenge is funding and how to keep the university on this trajectory, moving up into the next tier and finding creative ways to pay for it. It’s been the number one challenge and I don’t think it’s unique to UNLV. I think every university, especially every state university across the country, faces that. Our annual budget is around $615 million and 25 percent of that is state funding at this point. Students bring in tuition and the faculty bring in grants. Our alumni and other donors help us philanthropically. We have some programs that are pure businesses that have to stand on their own like our executive MBA program. The state’s done a good job of helping us and I assume they’re going to do everything they can to help us moving forward, but our assumption is, while we hope the amount of state funding goes up, that proportion might go down because we’re working aggressively on all these other forms of support.
PAUL STOWELL: From a business perspective, we want to find the best programs to fund and support what’s going to make a difference. What are the best practices? What’s working that companies and businesses can get behind? That’s where we want to make a difference and not just throw money into programs because they’re “good” programs.
TIFFANY TYLER: I want to underscore the need for cross-entity efforts, systemic approaches as well as a more global concept of education. Then when we are making decision about investments, we’re able to identify where our highest return is, know who’s doing it and push everyone to do it in a complimentary fashion in coordination with each other. If we were working across all the entities that impact our educational outcomes, not only will we have the ability to identify those pockets of success, we could also mitigate duplication.
What collaborations are in the works to improve education?
STEELE: We’re working on a partnership with the school district to identify the best and brightest teachers who traditionally leave the system either to become an administrator where they’re not in the classroom, or they get frustrated because there’s not enough space for them to be innovative and they leave. We’ve created a teacher leadership program this year where we look at the best teachers across the system, bring them in for a year and do certain training with them on how you advocate to your administration on ideas that you have. We’re creating space in the system for the teachers who want to lead and move forward to test our ideas.
SKORKOWSKY: We’ve started this year with three different types of partnerships in the community. One is with UNLV [at Paradise School] and [the set up] is almost like a teaching hospital mentality. We’re working closely with the college of education and the university to make that happen. The second one is a public-private partnership. We selected Peterson Elementary School and the Wynn Resorts [for that partnership] because 169 of their employees have kids in that school. We’re doing some amazing things with that. We’re also working with the district with Downtown Achieves and spreading out specific collective impact partnerships into specific schools working closely with the city.
BART PATTERSON: The number one thing you’re going to hear me talk about over the next few years, including going into this legislative cycle, is really expanding our education program and partnership with the school district and public charters to try and expand a number of teachers that we bring into the school district. Not just that, but expand the quality of teachers we put into the school district and the specializations dealing with the at-risk population.
GLENN CHRISTENSON: The one thing that gives me some hope is that I’ve lived in the community for almost 44 years and I’ve never seen so much involvement and interest around education. I think it’s good, but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.
How does public perception Play a part?
STEELE: We only hear the negative. How do you motivate people to continue to do the hard work they’re doing to make results happen? I think the community is not supportive of the quality programming and the effort that people are making. We do need to show our successes and look at why things are working and have good research and development as they do in the private sectors where there’s funding for research and development.
SKORKOWSKY: We actually have a document that goes out quarterly now called CCSD Achieves. It is a digital magazine that promotes all the successes that are going on. What we’re trying to do is use social media to get that out there. It focuses on our seniors that just graduated to some of the very successful programs that we initiated through “Read By Grade Three”. It’s all connected to our district plan and where we’re going to increase student achievement. We’re also working with the LVGEA (Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance) and the Chamber to make these types of publications available so they can use it in portfolios they send to perspective companies and members. Even though we can’t change it in the large scale media, we can change it on a grassroots level.
STOWELL: We made the commitment at City National Bank to share it with our clients and our constituencies. I think it’s incumbent upon the business community to help share that information. We’re hopefully a part of the solution because we contribute a lot of money to education. We feel like we can be a catalyst to help disseminate this information and share it with the people we deal with. If all businesses did the same thing, we could start stemming the tide of the negative information.
Are any creative solutions available?
WIXOM: Most of our educational programs, including higher education, are based on a traditional agrarian economy with respect to a semester system. I’d like to explore the notion of a trimester system at a university and college level because we’d allow ourselves to use our capital resources more effectively and intensively in ways that would benefit the students and the state. That’s one thing we could do that wouldn’t require huge capital. We could use what we have and use it more effectively. If we could focus on a few key areas that have a waterfall of positive consequences, then our chances of success go up.
SKORKOWSKY: I have to change the mentality of senior year of high school for our students. If students are on track to graduate, they only have to take a minimum of English, Government and an elective and they’re out the door. Often times, our seniors are not taking a mathematics or science. When they take the test that helps them get placed, that’s a challenge. We have to make senior year about acceleration or remediation, not hibernation. That’s what they’re doing during their senior year. They’re not going to jobs necessarily. They’re having fun. We’ve got to fix that.
How will school choice affect Nevada?
SKORKOWSKY: I think there are currently 3,000 students plus that have applied in Clark County for [Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)]. What we’re trying to determine is how to understand what neighborhoods they’re coming from. Are they coming from the average neighborhoods or affluent neighborhoods? How does that impact our long term growth projections and where we site our schools? You have to remember the district, long before charter schools, was one of the first choice mechanisms. I don’t think anybody would say that we’re against the choice. I think we need to make it equitable for all and make sure that every student has the same access to that choice. Right now, I’m just not sure how that’s done through ESAs.
TYLER: If it provides $5,000 for you to have a choice about your schooling but you are living below the poverty line or are in extreme poverty, does it really provide you a choice? It doesn’t because the cost of education privately far exceeds anything that you would receive in a voucher. For those who we say we are striving to give choice to, it’s only a segment of the population that would really get to maximize that choice that’s offered.
STEELE: I actually believe in school choice because I believe it creates great competition. [ESA’s and school choice] are two separate issues. If the dollars are funded for that in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the system so they can continue to do what they’re doing would be the way I’d like to see that. I also believe if you did it in that way, you would have more focus and more opportunity to help our special kids and their families who need more support. I’m not against choice and I’m not even against charters.
What’s happening in higher education?
JESSUP: We’re up to about 29,000 [enrollment], which is up a couple percent from last year. We’ll probably grow again by a couple percent with this incoming year. Our decade-long top tier plan has us growing at about 2 percent, so by the end of the decade we’ll be close to 40,000. There’s intense demand, especially in business and hospitality. Those two colleges are growing because kids are getting jobs. There’s a budget model sweeping the nation that private universities invented. It’s the way for-profits operate now called responsibility-centered management (RCM). We’ve implemented, not full blown RCM, but a version of it.
PATTERSON: It’s been really solid for the college, 1 to 2 percent growth in the last couple years. This year looks to be probably a bit better than that. It will be close to double digit. It’s been very solid and it’s been across the board. We really built up our nursing program. We have the largest bachelors nursing program in the state and we want to be about that with education over time. What we’re seeing is an increase in retention. That’s part of the growth. Students are staying in school. The other part is, they’re taking more credits, so more students are going full time. They’re all positive kinds of statistics that don’t depend on freshmen enrollment.
GREEN: We’ve seen, over the last few years, some fluctuation in enrollment. What we’re really focused on is the college operating model and strengthening each of our colleges, whether that’s the college of business, criminal justice, whatever that may be. It’s happening with our community partners and businesses and the programs that are needed to help our community grow and be successful. Putting our efforts into those and making sure the academic rigor and quality is there is very important so when students come to us, they get a great education and they can go out and be part of our community and be part of the answer.
STEWART: When WGU Nevada was established in June of 2015, it had roughly 800 students. Today we have over 1,800 students and we’ve graduated over 300 individuals. We’re on track to graduate 400 in the coming year. I think the end of next fiscal year will probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 to 2,700. We’re seeing similar demand with our programs, primarily business. We’re also seeing demand in healthcare and in our teachers college. We’re very much structured under the premise of resource-centered management and that’s been incredibly successful with us. In terms of who we serve, we focus on the post-traditional student. It’s developing curriculum in a way that works for them. I don’t think traditional higher education has caught up to this changing demographic.
CHRISTENSON: We have a lot of non-traditional students in our community. How can we reduce the amount of classes that they actually have to take and yet still have a quality education when they graduate prepared for life and career? There’s probably a few courses along the way that maybe these kids don’t need to take, and yet they still have to pay for them and they come out with this significant amount of debt. I think there are opportunities there.