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October 23, 2014

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School District again taking heat for unequal achievement

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Leila Navidi

Students at the Rainbow Dreams Academy charter school’s summer enrichment program sit during their morning “Harambee” session in Las Vegas Monday, July 20, 2009.

Rainbow Dreams Academy

Nilah Pierce, from left, watches as Avianna Chappel hugs project director LaShelle Whitmore during the Rainbow Dreams Academy charter school's summer enrichment program in Las Vegas Monday, July 20, 2009. Launch slideshow »

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At the time, it seemed like the solution to a problem perplexing a nation: how to extend the same educational opportunities to black students as white students.

It was the early 1990s, and the Clark County School District was dismantling what had been a federally mandated desegregation program, one that for years had bused black students from West Las Vegas to campuses in outlying areas as a means of maintaining racial diversity.

At the same time, white students were bused into West Las Vegas for one year to attend “sixth grade centers.”

In response to lawsuits and civil rights complaints filed by parents and educators, who argued that black students had as much right as their white peers to attend school close to home, district officials and West Las Vegas residents sat down to devise a possible solution.

The answer: Give students a choice. They could be bused to other schools, stay at their neighborhood schools, or apply to attend a new magnet school with premier programs.

The offer would be extended to students of six elementary schools in West Las Vegas, and the options became known as the Prime Six plan.

To school officials, the plan made sense because it embraced the recognized means of shrinking the achievement gap for at-risk students, promoting diversity and avoiding racial isolation.

But the Prime Six plan, which extended additional resources to the campuses, was left largely untended for years, getting only cursory attention.

Until now.

A recent review of the plan, by UCLA researchers hired by the district, points to its failure. The researchers found that almost without exception, the Prime Six schools are mired in lackluster achievement that lags far behind the districtwide average. The students are isolated by ethnicity, poverty and, in increasing numbers, language.

The review left many district officials “disappointed and disheartened,” School Board President Terri Janison said at a meeting Thursday. It’s also fueled the fury of those who say there are no surprises in the data, only confirmation that the district has fallen far short of its legal and moral obligation to provide equitable education to all students.

“Our children have taken the burden of being bused into outlying areas for the last 50 years,” Marzette Lewis, a longtime community activist and one of the district’s sharpest critics, told the Sun. “Now it’s 2009. We have a black president of the United States. These kids deserve to be able to walk to their neighborhood school and get a fair and decent education. Enough is enough.”

Research has shown that at-risk students perform better when they are in a diverse learning environment, rather than relegated to an isolated population. A small number of top-performing schools nationwide serves high-poverty and minority populations. But none of Clark County’s Prime Six campuses is “among those rare break-the-mold schools,” said Professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which conducted the review.

What isn’t known is why the enrollment patterns are playing out the way they are.

Do families prefer the convenience and perceived safety of a neighborhood schools to putting their children on buses for crosstown journeys to higher-achieving schools? Has the district not done enough to inform parents about the potential benefits to their children of the magnet schools, which all boast higher academic achievement than the Prime Six campuses?

Are the schools performing poorly because of the inferior quality of the instruction or campus leadership?

The review does not make recommendations or draw conclusions because the findings are based solely on statistical data, with no independent research or visits to the Prime Six schools, Orfield said. However, the review lays out “extremely troubling” statistical patterns and explains the possible implications for students and the district as a whole, Orfield said.

Carolyn Edwards, the School Board’s vice president, said she was disappointed the review didn’t come with advice on what should come next. But she also knows that isn’t what the district requested — or paid for. Orfield told the Sun the district paid about $12,000 to have the data analyzed, and that the three researchers assigned to the project donated many hours of their own time to the job. Orfield said he received about $3,000 to write the final review.

So, where does the district go from here? At Thursday’s meeting, Superintendent Walt Rulffes said there might be grant money available to pay for a team of experts to help guide the process.

“There is urgency here,” Edwards interjected. “Pursuing grant money and taking two years to figure this out is not acceptable.”

There is no reason why the district can’t take immediate action, Richard Boulware, a federal public defender and lifelong resident of Las Vegas, said at the School Board meeting. He suggested experts be hired to return this fall to conduct a full-scale investigation and return to the School Board with suggestions. The cost of waiting, in terms of “misallocated resources and lost children,” is too great, Boulware said.

Clark County is hardly alone in struggling with such issues. Dozens of public school systems are under federal desegregation orders. After decades of busing black students to outlying suburbs, Boston’s mayor wants them to return to neighborhood schools. But the community is resisting because parents don’t want to lose the options that came with busing, Orfield said.

In North Carolina, two of the state’s largest districts have been studying whether it’s better to bus minority students or pour money into magnet programs to promote voluntary diversity. Orfield’s team is working with a number of districts on revised desegregation plans, including Tucson.

The roots of the Prime Six plan are in a 1968 class action lawsuit filed against the Clark County School Board, alleging it was operating a segregated district in violation of federal law. Two years later a U.S. District Court ruled Clark County’s West Las Vegas elementary schools were intentionally segregated, while the district was appropriately integrated at the high school level.

Facing a court order, the district created “sixth grade centers” in West and North Las Vegas, with white students bused in for one academic year. Black students attended their neighborhood schools for kindergarten and sixth grade, and were sent to predominantly white schools every other year of their academic careers.

The federal monitoring of the district’s desegregation plan ended in 1977, but the sixth-grade centers didn’t begin to be phased out until the early 1990s after residents — especially Lewis’ group WAAK-UP (a well-intended but tortured acronym for an alliance representing what was then called the West Side) — complained. The Prime Six plan was endorsed by an advisory committee formed in the wake of the uproar, because it would give parents of West Las Vegas students the option of continuing to participate in the busing program, or sending their children to their neighborhood schools.

Prime Six went into effect in 1994. But in the 15 years since, much has changed.

West Las Vegas’ black population has been steadily declining, replaced by Hispanics. The school enrollment demographics reflect a similar shift.

The problem for the district is that the Prime Six schools all have empty seats — sometimes hundreds of them — despite the apparent preference of West Las Vegas parents for those campuses. Empty seats don’t help the district make the case to taxpayers that money is needed for new construction. The district is considering a $249 million bond measure that would be used largely for renovation and construction. West Las Vegas residents want some of those dollars to go to building them their own high school. The closest they have now is West Prep, a K-12 program that has nearly outgrown the former Charles I. West Middle School.

West Prep has dozens of portable classrooms, mostly to house the younger grades that have been added over the past few years. Under the leadership of Principal Mike Barton, and with significant support from the district’s educational services division, West Prep has evolved from one of the worst-performing schools in the state to meeting the federal requirements for adequate yearly progress.

District officials say they are committed to the success of West Prep, noting that adjacent land has been purchased with an eye toward expansion.

But it’s not the building or the neighborhood that makes or breaks the school, if Booker Elementary is any proof. It is the exception among the Prime Six campuses.

On paper, it seems typical of the others. All students receive free or reduced-price meals. For the 2008-09 academic year, all but 18 of the more than 500 students lived in West Las Vegas. The school’s enrollment is about 47 percent Hispanic and 46 percent black. About a third of the students in the Prime Six schools are English language learners. Like the other Prime Six schools, just 3 percent of the students are white.

When Booker was being rebuilt in 2006, the school temporarily relocated to portable classrooms on the campus of nearby Wendell P. Williams Elementary.

That year, Booker was rated as high achieving under the federal No Child Left Behind requirements. When Booker returned to its brand-new campus, student achievement rose to “exemplary” status, the top ranking.

What distinguishes Booker is Principal Beverly Mathis and a loyal cadre of teachers, administrators and support employees. Family involvement isn’t just welcomed, it’s expected. Volunteers are a regular campus presence. The school’s redesign became a communitywide effort, with the district allowing a greater degree of input and involvement than with the standard prototype design. In 2008 Booker became one of the district’s “empowerment” schools, which allows Mathis greater control over daily operations in exchange for extra funding and stricter accountability.

When the district closed schools in December for a rare snow day, Booker students showed up for class, having spotted Mathis parking her car in its usual spot.

“When you have a strong leader who empowers their teachers and allows them to be professionals, when you engage your community and your parents, when you have culturally relevant instruction, those are the keys that are missing,” said Sonya Horsford, assistant professor of educational leadership at UNLV and executive director of the Freedom Schools enrichment program in North Las Vegas, a national model developed by the Children’s Defense Fund. “We can do report after report and study after study, but until we’re ready to accept these facts, the problems will continue to exist.”

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