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September 1, 2014

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LOOKING IN ON: EDUCATION:

Sought: More schools like West Prep

Steps local school took for turnaround are the kind feds are now encouraging

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Tiffany Brown

Highest headmaster: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan signs an autograph for fifth grader Faylen Lopez, second from left, Wednesday at Harley Harmon Elementary School, where the Cabinet official announced an incentive program for struggling schools that commit to making drastic changes in staff or approach.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan holds a press conference with Sen. Harry Reid and Congresswoman Dina Titus at Harley Harmon Elementary School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009. Launch slideshow »

One of the more recent success stories in the Clark County School District is West Prep, which in its previous incarnation had the worst academic performance in the state.

Turning around the West Las Vegas campus, formerly a middle school, required a new principal and a new staff. All 70 teachers were required to reapply for their jobs. Fewer than 20 were hired back.

West expanded to include a high school and later added an elementary program. Summer school became mandatory. The instructional day was lengthened. And student achievement has soared.

This kind of dramatic turnaround, triggered by drastic actions, fits nicely with what the federal government is now encouraging districts to do.

The U.S. Education Department is offering the worst schools in the nation $546 million — about $25 million would go to Nevada — if they commit to dramatic turnaround measures, similar to what West Prep did.

The improvement-incentive program was announced Wednesday by Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a visit to Clark County.

Once the states identify their worst schools, school districts will have four options for what to do with the money: replace key staff — including the principal and at least 50 percent of the teachers; close the school and reopen it with a private operator in charge; develop an entirely different approach to how the campus is used; or close a school outright and use the federal money to help transfer the students to more successful campuses.

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Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said he is looking forward to seeing the fine print of the new grant program.

As for one option involving reconstituting at least half the staff, Murillo said the teachers union “isn’t afraid of reform,” pointing to the union’s support of empowerment schools.

“It’s a shame that because the Legislature doesn’t fund Nevada properly that the federal government has to come and step in,” Murillo said. “And when that happens, there are always strings attached.”

Each state will be allowed to decide what measurements to use in identifying the lowest-performing schools.

Districts might have more leeway in reconstituting schools if the list of lowest performers includes those that have been labeled chronic failures under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Districts are supposed to restructure campuses after five years of failing to make adequate yearly progress.

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If there hadn’t been an affordable public university in Southern Nevada 40 years ago, Rep. Shelley Berkley says, it’s unlikely she would have become the first person in her family to go to college.

Shelley Berkley

Shelley Berkley

And without the opportunities and quality education that she was able to access, “I guarantee you I wouldn’t be standing here before you today,” Berkley told a standing-room-only crowd at UNLV’s Tam Alumni Center on Wednesday. “In the 11 years I’ve been in Congress, no one has outworked me or out-debated me … and that’s because I’m an alum of UNLV.”

The occasion was the official announcement of a $14 million gift from the Lincy Foundation, created by billionaire businessman Kirk Kerkorian, to establish an institute dedicated to quality-of-life issues in Southern Nevada.

The Lincy Institute will combine research and development in three major areas — health care, education and social systems. Community partners will be able to get help with grant writing, in the hopes of boosting Nevada’s last-place standing in federal dollars received for programs and services.

In his remarks to the audience, James Dean Leavitt, chairman of the university system’s Board of Regents, jokingly took issue with Berkley’s giving credit to UNLV for developing her work ethic and debating skills.

Wasn’t it really her tenure as a regent that paved the way for her congressional accomplishments? Leavitt said.

With barely a pause, Berkley answered “No,” her dry tone drawing laughter and applause.

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