Education is critical to Nevada’s workforce, economy and lifestyle. But Nevada’s public education ranks at or near the bottom of national rankings, and only 30 percent of Nevadans hold post-secondary education degrees or certificates.
In the K-12 system, rankings are created from more indicators than simply academic, according to Traci Davis, superintendent, Washoe County School District (WCSD). Rankings are about funding per capita, compared to national figures, and about whether parents have post-secondary education experience, how the topic of school is treated in the home, and whether English is the first language spoken there.
“These are variables that are truly out of the hands of any school district or any legislature, for that matter,” said Davis.
One of those variables in the rankings is under consideration during the 2017 Nevada legislative session. For Clark County School District (CCSD), funding is one of the critical issues effecting K-12 education. The funding plan still in place was formed in 1967, according to Pat Skorkowsky, superintendent of CCSD. He said there needs to be a shift to a weighted funding formula, where dollars follow students to districts.
An interim study done between the 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions determined that English as a Second Language (ESL) students, those dealing with poverty, special education as well as gifted and talented students each cost more to educate than other students. In the past CCSD has diverted general fund dollars to ensure those students are successful. Senate Bill 178 addresses changing the way funding is weighted to address those costs.
In the long run, issues are not just about funding; they’re about the economic necessity of educating the next generation of workforce.
Educating Our Workforce
Education has a direct effect on workforce. It impacts the workforce we can have with the students we graduate, as well as the workforce we already have, and whether that workforce has the skill sets sufficient to attract the industries Nevada’s economic development leaders want to attract.
The business community in Southern Nevada has sent a clear message about the need for improvements in the K-12 system.
“Our ability to diversify Nevada’s economy is absolutely tied to the improvements we make in educational outcomes, student proficiencies, higher graduation rates and expansion of workforce training,” said John Guedry, CEO, Bank of Nevada and founder of the Be Engaged summit, a conglomerate of like-minded business executives whose goal is to improve education.
“Looking at some of the challenges that exist today in being able to fill today’s workforce needs, it’s not too hard to fathom that we’re going to continue to struggle with the human capital piece of that plan,” added Guedry.
Educators in Nevada struggle to match education to workforce, while educating students in traditional basics.
“I think the long-term problems we have to fix [are in part because] historically our state may not have valued higher education because of [the availability of] jobs they could make a decent salary at without a college education or certification,” said Davis.
In light of reports on Nevada’s economy by the Brookings Institute, commissioned by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) and Nevada economic development authorities, Nevada began bringing in new industries to diversify the economy. Many of those new industries require a workforce with higher education degrees or certificates.
“The charge the Governor gave higher education basically said, ‘Thirty percent of Nevadans have the educational skill level to meet the needs of tomorrow’s industry that’s growing in Nevada and that really needs to be 60 percent of young people aged 25 to 34 that are entering the workforce. That 60 percent need to have a higher education certificate or degree,’” said Marc Johnson, president, University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).
Now Nevada universities are stepping up to meet that challenge with academics, faculty and capacity.
At UNR, that means hiring another 400 faculty positions, 80 percent of which will be on tenure track. Tenure track means research in addition to teaching; research means connections between the University and the business community. To date, UNR has hired 167 new faculty. With funds anticipated after the 2017 legislative session, and an increase in student fees, they’ll be able to search out another 50 within the next year.
At University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), which is now at well over 29,000 students, they’re running out of dorm room. Dorms can only hold about 1,800 students so the University purchased an outdated apartment complex on the northern edge of campus to develop into new campus housing.
That’s a creative solution to a housing problem. For creative solutions to funding problems, a partnership between UNLV and MGM resulted in the creation of the MGM Public Policy Institute, a think tank co-chaired by Senators Harry Reid and John Boehner, which will seek non-partisan solutions to public policy issues.
“That’s how things are done right now,” said Len Jessup, president, UNLV. “You asked about what are the issues [with education]. The issues revolve around funding. It’s about finding the fuel that you need and so you’ve got to turn to these creative partnerships in order to get things done.”
That economic issues affect education and educational institutions is obvious. The economy is in recovery and, as a result, UNR is hiring faculty to replace positions left empty during the economic downturn. At UNLV, the new UNLV School of Medicine is providing jobs in construction as new buildings go up, and will be bringing more doctors into a state that has a severe shortage.
But there’s another affect on the economy from UNLV. When the Governor requested, during the current legislative session, that a project be put together to help push the University into the Carnegie Top Tier, the top 100 research universities according to Carnegie Foundation, UNLV responded by putting together a proposal called Healthy Nevada.
“That asks for faculty, grad students and post docs, and other support staff, all as human health to be synergistic with the medical school,” said Jessup. “So we’d like to be able to hire students in areas like biomedical engineering or healthcare administration, just to give an example. The Governor included that in his budget for a few million dollars.”
If funding is approved, that would impact the hiring of those students in those kinds of high demand areas, with a definite economic effect.
Nevada’s future workforce needs Nevadans with post-secondary degrees. Short of making higher education compulsory, however, in a state where this hasn’t been a priority, how does the Governor’s charge get met?
Part of what needs to be done is to bring students to higher education and to encourage that direction with students as far back as elementary school.
“As we start looking at ourselves differently, as a state that values higher education, we will see more opportunities for partnership in that space,” said Davis.
According to Johnson, recruitment efforts start in middle and high schools to, “build the notion in a larger proportion of the young population that, if they’re really going to prepare themselves for tomorrow’s industries, they’re going to need to put themselves on a college track.”
In support of training students for tomorrow’s industries, UNR has created new programs to match the new Nevada economy. The College of Business offers an entrepreneurship minor. Minors in engineering now include emphases on unmanned autonomous systems (drones), cybersecurity, batteries and energy storage, neuroscience and education.
By supporting startups and established businesses in the community the University creates partnerships like the Nevada Reno Innevation Center powered by Switch. State-of-the-art equipment and 3D printers allow businesses to create prototypes for marketing.
“Switch provided a high speed telecommunications link between their SUPERNAP data center and our supercomputer, and then they convinced Intel to put a state-of-the-art computer at SUPERNAP for us to have access to,” said Jessup. “That led to us having a research partnership with the Cleveland Clinic and being part of an NIH (National Institutes of Health) grant with them. That one simple step that [Switch Founder and CEO] Rob Roy took snowballed into that great relationship where we’re doing research on brain disease with the Cleveland Clinic.”
Bursting at the Seams
In November, voters in Washoe County voted in WC-1, which provides funding for WCSD capital projects. It’s an opportunity to build new schools and do maintenance on existing schools.
“We have plans to build three new high schools, three new middle schools, and nine new elementary schools … over the next five years,” said Davis. One of the elementary and two of the middle schools will break ground in 2017.
As a temporary measure, WCSD may resort to year-round or multi-track schools, but with the opportunity to build new schools, the measure would be short-lived. For CCSD, class sizes are always an issue.
“We have balanced our budget on the backs of the numbers of students in the classroom in the past several years, since 2008. It is important we try to find additional funds through the legislative process to reduce those class sizes,” said Skorkowsky.
The WC-1 initiative came at a time when WCSD is facing a $40 million budget deficit. Historically, according to Davis, the school district has struggled with deficit, and has been since at least 2008. Steps are being taken to minimize the impact on academics as the county makes cuts.
Public/private partnerships go a long way to aid public education. WCSD has partnerships with every major medical center in Reno for students interested in healthcare careers.
For students interested in tech careers, maybe in the battery/energy storage industry, or into the construction industry, both burgeoning industries in Northern Nevada, partnership opportunities can start students along those paths.
“We have extensive partnerships across the District,” said Skorkowsky. “Three specific types with elementary schools, some middle school and high schools called reinvent schools.”
There’s also partnerships between CCSD and the City of Las Vegas, one between Peterson Elementary and the Wynn Corporation, and a partnership between Paradise Elementary School and UNLV.
“We have many other partnerships in alignment with career and tech ed academies, and our career tech education programs series which we do with LVGEA (Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance), FutureReady which brings businesses and industries into our schools to see what students are doing,” said Skorkowsky. The program gives business owners a chance to find students they want to recruit upon graduation from high school.
Most of the Northern and Southern Nevada business/education partnerships are a way to allow students to do hands-on work in a field of interest, and/or to earn college credits before leaving high school.
Catching student interest early is important, especially in high demand fields desperate for new people. Teachers are in high demand, especially in Nevada, and the pipeline is shrinking. Enrollment in teaching programs is down 35 percent nationwide. Clark County in particular has a hard time recruiting and retaining; teachers brought in from other states don’t tend to stay.
“We’ve known for some time we really need to grow the number of teachers right here,” said Bart Patterson, president, Nevada State College. It makes sense to look for potential teachers who already live in Nevada and like living in Nevada, students who are interested in going into education as a career.
“The concept behind the Teacher’s Academy program at Nevada State College is to early identify students who are interested in going into teaching to fill the workforce development gap,” said Patterson.
The program targets high school juniors and seniors with the opportunity to take college credit course work while in high school, graduating with as much as 18 to 24 credit hours. Students may work as teaching assistants and observe at area elementary and middle schools within walking distance of their high schools.
Also supporting Southern Nevada schools, the Be Engaged Summit came together because area business leaders who will employ tomorrow’s workforce share an interest in improving Nevada’s K-12 system. It was designed to present an understanding of challenges facing the school district, to find and assist the non-profit organizations that can actually affect change, and then set up public/private partnerships to help them do just that.
One of the initiatives the group is interested in is AB 394, an act that would change CCSD from a very central bureaucratic model to an empowerment model, putting decision making into the hands of principles of district schools.
Even if a workforce has the requisite skills and post-secondary education certifications or degrees, when a new business moves in, like Tesla in Northern Nevada, individuals still need training.
Universities and colleges work with employers to create employee training programs. So do training companies. New Horizons Learning Group has been in Nevada since 1987; the state is one of its 300 locations in 70 countries. New Horizons does IT training for individuals or groups, and provides training by industry or company specifics. While Nevada colleges and universities can do the same, the difference is timing.
“We have a boot camp style of education, so students come into our center for five straight days and walk away with certification or the knowledge to get back into their job or career with the skills they learned in one course,” said Sean McKesson, Las Vegas center director, New Horizons Learning Group.
The other way New Horizons differs from a college or university is they often work developing staff members who are unemployed or newly unemployed, training them for the workforce.
“We often find ourselves having these conversations after somebody is employed and having a much more specific conversation about more niche technologies or the trainee’s curriculum,” said McKesson.
“I am hopeful if I am sitting in this chair in 2020 the goal for Washoe County is 90 percent [graduation rate],” said Davis. “While many people think that is a lofty goal, I think we should have high expectations for every kid. If, in 2020, we get to 90 I’ll say job well done to all 8,000 employees who made it happen for children in Washoe every day.” If the rate’s at 87 percent, it’ll still be better than it’s ever been, said Davis; they’ll continue to improve.
In the next year Skorkowsky said he’d like to see steps taken in implementing the weighted formula for CCSD funding, and the base funding increased to support students in CCSD schools regardless of any special needs they may have.
“I would like to see an opportunity to work with some of our stipulations and reorganization to ensure we’re doing this in a way that’s going to support our schools and maintain a certain level of service to them at all times,” Skorkowsky said.
“University of Nevada, Reno recognizes itself as a partner with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and our regional economic development authorities,” said Johnson.
In order to continue as a partner in the development of Nevada, there’s a need for UNR to stay in close communication with economic development authorities. “That way the University can provide more workforce, more research output, and a research output that works with industry through commercialization and technical assistance. So we can be real partners with the growth of Nevada and not just an ivory tower on the hill.”
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