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October 21, 2014

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Private firm’s record keeping snags school that principal says is making progress

In an office of the campus once known as West-Edison Middle School, stacks of blue three-ring binders spill out of cartons and onto the floor, telling quite a story.

Principal Mike Barton grabs one and flips to a page that is supposed to show how many students attended class one day a couple of years ago.

There is page after page of poorly kept records and incomplete forms. There's no telling whether the students were at school that day - or on any number of days, as he flips through the pages.

Barton says that although the school was managed for five years by a private company, not enough attention was paid to keeping accurate student attendance records.

And because of shoddy record-keeping, the school - now under his control - couldn't prove it had satisfied the attendance requirements of federal law.

As a result, the school has failed for the sixth consecutive year to make "adequate yearly progress," a goal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

And because of that poor showing, the state is authorized to take over the school's operations and replace key staff, usually starting with the principal.

That would be Barton.

But for five of those six years, the school was operated by Edison Schools Inc., a private company hired to manage it and six elementary schools on behalf of the Clark County School District. The company lobbied heavily for business in the nation's fifth-largest school district, promising better scores and pledging $1.4 million in philanthropic funds to the seven campuses. The seven schools all serve large populations of minority students from low-income families.

So far the state hasn't expressed an interest in a takeover of West, and Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes said he is sticking by Barton, who was put in charge of the campus in April 2006 when Edison's contract at the campus was not renewed.

Under Barton, the school showed uneven achievement in math and reading this year, with the strongest gains among students who had been at the school for the entire academic year.

At the same time, Barton is appealing West's "needs improvement" status, arguing that shoddy record-keeping by the school's prior managers is haunting the campus.

West was added to the list because it fell short on a key indicator - average daily attendance. Barton believes once he is able to correct the school's attendance figures, his students' proficiency and participation results will meet the federal standards.

Those blue binders are Exhibit A in the case Barton is building. He also has thousands of daily attendance sheets filled out by classroom teachers that were supposed to be scanned by office staff into the central database. Those sheets were apparently tossed into boxes and left untouched, Barton said. And many of the attendance records have raised suspicions, such as the seventh grade English class that somehow held 50 students - when the school limit was 22. Some sheets show entire weeks without one student marked absent.

There's no financial gain for a Nevada school to artificially boost its average daily attendance. School funding is based on the attendance on a particular day in late September. The state audits those figures regularly. But daily attendance records are rarely subjected to scrutiny, and district officials say they have little way of determining whether Edison fell down on the job at West.

Barton is frustrated because much is at stake. Attendance figures for the first 100 days of the academic year determine whether a campus has met the requirements of the federal law. A school must show its average daily attendance was at least 90 percent, or had improved over the prior year. West had 89.7 percent daily attendance this year under Barton, compared with the 90.4 percent reported by Edison the previous year. Barton's gut tells him that Edison's attendance figures for the school were inflated because it was the only one in the district that showed an increase in average daily attendance during the year. To Barton, it doesn't pass the smell test.

Sue Daellenbach, testing director for the Clark County School District, said she sympathizes with Barton but there is no remedy she can offer him.

"There's no way for me to prove or disprove how well they took attendance at the school," Daellenbach said. "All we have is what they reported."

Barton has asked Edison to turn over its database and records. An Edison vice president said she would assist in meeting Barton's request.

Because of its status as a "needs improvement" school, the state Education Department dispatched a support team to West. The team's leader, former Clark County Assistant Region Superintendent Marjorie Conner, said she believes the attendance records kept by Edison are inaccurate.

Conner supports Barton's appeal, which is being considered by state education officials.

"Why would we hold a school's feet to the fire based on data that don't add up, when there's other data we can use?" Conner said Friday. "West should not be held accountable for the inaccuracies in data they did not help to produce."

This year West's participation rate on the standardized tests was almost 100 percent, compared with 83 percent last year. That speaks volumes, Conner said, of improvements at the middle school.

At each of the six elementary schools where Edison still operates, adequate progress was achieved this year for the first time since the company took over operations in 2001.

One of the Edison schools, Lincoln-Edison Elementary School, was rated "high achieving" based on significant improvement by students scoring in the lowest bracket.

But at West, Edison has struggled to recover. When given the option to have their children transferred to more successful campuses, parents did so by the hundreds. Teachers also fled in droves, and the school had three principals in as many years.

Last year the district agreed to another five-year contract with Edison to continue managing the six elementary schools, but added no new campuses to the Edison contract. Additionally, the district resumed oversight of West, reconstituting the campus and replacing nearly all the staff.

With Barton's arrival 16 months ago, the struggling school was given a new identity: West Preparatory Academy at Charles I. West Hall, a name almost as lengthy as the list of expectations being heaped upon it.

The school received additional funding for programs and personnel. More instructional minutes were added to the school day. And Barton also teamed up with Nevada Partners, a North Las Vegas job training center, for a mentoring program that has been, by all accounts, hugely successful.

Barton and his staff have done their best to lure students back, even going door to door to introduce themselves and the "new" West to families. He added a ninth grade class last year, allowing at-risk eighth graders to remain in a sheltered, smaller setting rather than moving on to a large comprehensive high school. This year 70 students - nearly all of last year's ninth graders - will return to West for 10th grade.

On Friday there was a steady stream of parents bringing in their children to register for the upcoming academic year, including younger students who will be part of the new elementary program. Parents said they like the idea that all of their children, regardless of grade level, will start the day at 8 a.m. and finish at 3:30 p.m.

"We are turning this into a true community school," Barton said.

The "needs improvement" designation has become a stigma of sorts, and one Barton said West can't afford to carry.

"As a staff we've done everything right," Barton said. "How can we convince people that things are so much better when they slap us with a label that says we're failing?"

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