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September 1, 2014

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School built in boom must adapt in bust

Foreclosures have shrunk Liberty High’s enrollment, forcing cuts in jobs, programs

Budget cuts at Liberty High School

Marlon Magsaysay, a student in the AVID program, makes his way through a hallway at Liberty High School Wednesday, April 15, 2009. The budget cuts are hitting hard at Liberty High. The school will lose 14 teachers, the popular block schedule and the AVID tutoring program. Principal Rosalind Gibson said the school expected to lose a few teachers because of enrollment declines since the campus was built to serve neighborhoods that either never got built or are now largely vacant. But she wasn't prepared for just how deep the cuts would go. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Map of Liberty

Liberty

3700 Liberty Heights Ave., Henderson

At a Liberty High School staff meeting in February, Principal Rosalind Gibson delivered the bad news: Budget cuts would eliminate nine teaching positions at the school, one from each department.

The final decision wouldn’t be made until April, but Gibson wanted to give teachers as much notice as possible. If you’re considering a move to another school, now’s the time to let me know, Gibson told her staff.

The staff cuts, the second round this school year at Liberty, cap a challenging year for the school, which like other Clark County campuses has faced budget shortfalls. But as a school serving a once-growing neighborhood, Liberty has been hit harder than most by the downturn.

Opened in 2003, Liberty was the district’s response to the southwest valley’s housing boom. Today, those neighborhoods are sprinkled with “For Sale” signs, foreclosure notices and abandoned properties with dying landscaping. Some builders simply quit midstream, leaving behind three or four finished model homes where 30 to 40 had been planned.

In neighborhoods immediately surrounding the school, Gibson has tracked more than 400 foreclosures.

Fall enrollment was well below projections, 1,850 students on a campus built for 2,600. As a result, Gibson had to let seven teachers go.

“This is unknown territory for me,” said Gibson, in her 38th year in education, 19 of them in Clark County.

The district’s budget shortfall left less money for instructional supplies. Some elective classes were dropped, including wood shop and early childhood development. Forensics went from a regular class to an after-school activity.

The 2009-10 academic year will bring more cuts.

Getting the ax is block scheduling, which allowed students to take eight classes instead of the traditional six, leaving more room in their schedules for electives or to make up missing credits without taking summer school. Block scheduling, offered at 17 of the district’s 35 high schools, costs the district $11 million a year.

Gibson said she called her staff meeting as soon as she heard block scheduling would be cut because she didn’t want her teachers to miss any opportunities to find a spot at another school.

“These are people’s lives we’re dealing with here,” Gibson said. “I wanted to lay everything on the table.”

As of this week, eight Liberty teachers had found positions at other schools through the early transfer process, Gibson said. Teachers whose positions are being eliminated, or who want to move to a different school, have until the end of the month to find a new assignment. After that, the district will place them in vacant spots. If there aren’t enough jobs to go around, teachers with less seniority will face layoffs.

Liberty senior Marlon Magsaysay said students have closely watched the effects of the budget cuts.

One of his favorite teachers left at the beginning of the school year because of the downsizing. Students were warned they would, in some cases, have to share handouts because there wasn’t enough copier paper. In March his tutoring ended when the district cut Advancement Via Individualized Determination, or AVID, a trademarked program that teaches middle and high school students time management and study skills and provides intensive mentoring and tutoring.

Magsaysay said he met with tutors nearly every day and credits them with improving his study skills. Before AVID, he had a C average. He now earns A’s and B’s.

“AVID boosted me up,” said Magsaysay, who plans to study criminal justice in college in preparation for a career as a police officer. “It gets you motivated to graduate high school and say, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do with my life.’ ”

There are AVID programs at 32 middle and high schools serving about 2,500 students, including about 80 at Liberty. Dropping AVID — the district is working to develop a similar, and more affordable program of its own — will save the district about $2 million annually in teacher training and program support costs.

The decision to drop AVID was both understandable and frustrating, said Jeff Leach, an assistant principal at Liberty.

“We put a lot of time and energy into AVID,” Leach said. “It’s tough to let go of something that’s so great for our kids.”

In an ideal world, Liberty’s enrollment would increase in the fall and Gibson would get the chance to hire back some teachers, she said.

That appears unlikely. Liberty has never come close to reaching its enrollment capacity. Its enrollment topped out at 2,200 two years ago, after 350 students were placed at Liberty instead of overcrowded Sierra Vista High School. But Liberty’s enrollment dropped sharply the following fall, when nearly all of the reassigned students chose to attend the new Desert Oasis High School.

In March the School Board voted to take about 300 students from overcrowded Coronado High School and rezone them for Liberty. The decision angered some students and families.

Gibson has worked to win over her potential new students, meeting individually with parents and hosting an open house to show off Liberty.

As a “classical” school, Liberty offers Latin, mythology and folklore, as well as logic and rhetoric. There are no plans to cut the fine and performing arts, or the sports teams, Gibson said, and the smaller enrollment means less crowded hallways and classrooms.

Liberty’s staff will continue to try to minimize the effects of the budget crisis on students, many of whom are already experiencing the fallout of the slumping economy at home, she said.

“The kids need to know this is a temporary thing and we all need to keep planning for our future,” Gibson said. “That has to be the message.”

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