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December 22, 2014

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Ken Ward: Special ed bomb set to explode?

CLARK County School District lawyers should be careful what they wish for ... and what they promise.

CCSD officials trumpeted their willingness to release fresh details of the special education division audit. Alas, administrators said, consultants Ed Sontag and David Rostetter hadn't been forthcoming with the documents.

It was yet another high-stakes gambit by an administration demonstrating propensity to smear the reputations of messengers bearing bad news.

Well, the tables have turned. Having received no instructions from the district or its lawyers, the consultants began shipping their documentation to Las Vegas last week.

By the middle of this week, CCSD administrators will have three crates of material that itemize 13 areas of violation in the special ed department.

"The original 15 deleted paragraphs are tame compared to this stuff," Sontag says. "There's no amount of white-out that can be used this time."

The latest report alleges document destruction by top-level administrators, illegally drafted individual education plans, violations of placement policies, improper counseling programs and a boondoggle in adaptive physical education.

Also under fire is CCSD's "aversive behavior management," which authorizes personnel to force restless pupils onto treadmills and strap weights to their ankles to limit their motion.

Sontag and Rostetter name names and, thus, their work is a hot potato. Despite the district's pledge to divulge all material, it cannot do so without violating the privacy of the identified administrators and students.

But that's not the consultants' problem. They have done their job. They have substantiated their report. The next move belongs to the district.

Will changes be forthcoming? Will heads roll? We'll see.

But in the event that the administration tries to stonewall or deep-six the findings, Sontag and Rostetter are keeping copies.

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This fall, Clark County families will be receiving booklets that outline what their children are supposed to be learning.

The "Curriculum Overviews" are designed to help parents better understand scholastic expectations. And in this respect, they are quite helpful.

For example:

n Third-graders in their geometry lessons are expected to describe and sketch models of plane figures (point, line, line segment, ray and angle).

n Eighth-graders will recognize the elements of literature, including conflict, climax, point of view, protagonist and antagonist.

n High school students taking chemistry will be able to discuss the process of polymerization of hydrocarbons.

Occasionally, the benchmarks seem squishy. As when seventh-graders are asked to "expand their knowledge of a wide range of literature." In other instances the guidelines are so basic that they lose meaning. Try this one: "Follow oral directions." And what does it say about the state of senior English that students are asked to "apply the rules of spelling"?

But these are quibbles. Overall, the overviews are a commendable effort to inform and involve parents. This kind of communication is too often lacking, and that raises frustration levels at home and at school.

Along with new "expectancy" standards being distributed to schools, the district is attempting to focus its academic programs. This may bruise the sensitivities of some turf-minded instructors. But Superintendent Brian Cram is pressing ahead, while clamping down on such alternative assessments as gradeless report cards.

The key in all this will be to ensure that students master the skills that are enumerated. And everyone should have a stake in that.

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Class-size reduction is creating a job boom for teachers in California.

Gov. Pete Wilson is offering to pay districts $650 per student if they improve their pupil-teacher ratios to 20-to-1. The program, like Nevada's, affects first and second grades.

Now school systems across the Golden State are scrambling to hire 5,000 qualified instructors to teach those additional classes. Recruiters might find a few takers in Clark County, as California is one of the few Western states that pays its teachers more than Nevada.

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And, speaking of California, this concludes my series of columns on education. After serving as assistant managing editor at the SUN for 6 1/2 years, I have accepted the position of business editor at the Los Angeles Daily News.

I have enjoyed Las Vegas, my friends and my colleagues. And I hope that in some small way this weekly column has furthered the discussion of educational issues here. I know I will miss the interaction with readers who care passionately about the public schools in this valley.

It's been a great ride, but it's time to head back home and take on new challenges. Happy trails.

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