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December 20, 2014

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Rulffes has rough draft of fix for Prime Six

Proposal outlines course of action for improving schools in West Las Vegas

Walt Rulffes

Walt Rulffes

The recent assessment of a 15-year effort to improve education at six elementary schools serving West Las Vegas offered a bracing, unflattering conclusion: Rather than help the students, the program appears to have backfired, resulting in campuses largely isolated by race, poverty and low achievement.

Community leaders and residents urged a swift, sweeping response.

Today, Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes will suggest to the School Board the beginning of a fix. It falls far short of a specific blueprint that some people say is long overdue in addressing the struggles of the Prime Six schools. But from Rulffes’ point of view, it’s the beginning of a conversation.

A more detailed strategy to address the shortfalls of the school system in West Las Vegas, he says, will have to include input from School Board members, teachers, parents and community leaders.

And when something is crafted in detail, Rulffes says, it may well help improve all the schools in the district, not just the ones most under siege.

“I think we have the same obligations to all of our students,” Rulffes said. “The Prime Six campuses require special attention, but we need to have a plan of action that would lend itself to any other school that’s underachieving in the district.”

The tentativeness of Rulffes’ plan is evidenced by its title: “Prime Six Schools: Theory of Action.”

Among its key points:

• Staff quality: The district will look at ways to provide incentives to encourage top teachers to work in Prime Six schools, and to remove barriers to effective instruction and administration.

• School choice: To encourage more diversity at the Prime Six campuses, the district will look at expanding the range of educational opportunities for families, including gifted and talented programs and dual-language instruction.

• Collaboration: The district will consider new partnerships with community agencies and other service providers to provide the specialized health and social services needed by many West Las Vegas students and families.

• Parent education: Classes and workshops aimed at adults might help parents do a better job supervising their own children’s schooling, district officials say.

The outlined expectations for the Prime Six campuses — top-notch teachers, programs and services tailored to student needs, a challenging curriculum and opportunities for parental involvement — are the goal of every good school, something the report itself acknowledges.

Clark County School Board Vice President Carolyn Edwards said she had been hoping for more specifics than she found in the preliminary proposal although she said she understood the superintendent’s cautious approach.

“Maybe I’m looking for more than they could do in that short period of time,” Edwards said, referring to the month that’s passed since the School Board asked for a more specific response to the outside researchers’ report. “I don’t think the new path is clearly evident.”

One of the key criticisms of the original consultants’ report was that it didn’t include specific recommendations for the district to follow to remedy the inequities. The researchers said such recommendations were beyond the review’s intended scope. Additionally, the review was based only on data provided by the district, with no “on the ground” research at individual schools, said the report’s lead author, UCLA professor Gary Orfield.

The proposal includes plans to seek a $250,000 federal grant that would be used to help implement some of the preliminary recommendations. However, Rulffes noted that the Prime Six schools receive significant additional federal money intended for campuses serving large populations of students from low-income households. Two of the Prime Six schools also receive extra per-pupil funding through the district’s “empowerment” program, which grants principals more control over daily operations in exchange for stricter accountability.

Nearly all of the Prime Six schools “are performing below district average and expectations,” Rulffes said. “We should be getting a better return on the investment.”

Starting in 1994, the district has assigned students at the Prime Six schools to more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse schools in the valley, and provided the transportation to get them there. Almost without exception, the assigned schools have stronger records of academic achievement than the Prime Six campuses. Test scores of students at the majority of the Prime Six schools are significantly lower than those of their peers who attend the better-performing schools, and are below the districtwide average.

The overwhelming majority of families have chosen to keep their children in the neighborhood Prime Six schools. As a result, those campuses have become “extremely disadvantaged and isolated student bodies,” according to a review by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA that was requested by Rulffes.

School Board President Terri Janison said the superintendent’s preliminary proposal “is a very good start.” However, she added, it’s a start that’s long overdue.

“This situation didn’t arise just in the four years that I’ve been on the board,” Janison said. “But if we’re the ones that take the heat in order to get it fixed, then so be it.”

If the district wants to improve family involvement in the schools, hiring parents as classroom aides would be a good start, said Marzette Lewis, a longtime West Las Vegas community activist.

She didn’t like the idea of having to “bribe” teachers with extra pay to work in the Prime Six schools, but said for the sake of the students she would support it.

“We need to get the top teachers in here, instead of the ones no one else wants,” Lewis said. “If they’re not good enough for the schools in the outlying areas, they’re not good enough for us.”

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