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April 24, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: EDUCATION:

Few parents emerge to help solve dropout crisis

District calls community meeting in hunt for ideas

Walt Rulffes

Walt Rulffes

Given that just one person showed up for a recent forum to gather the public’s input on the search for a new superintendent, Clark County School Board member Deanna Wright was setting a low bar for Wednesday’s community meeting to address the district’s dropout crisis.

“I’m hoping for 25 people,” Wright said, as a modest crowd filtered into Del Sol High School’s cafeteria. “It’s summer, it’s 5:30 on a weeknight and just before a holiday weekend. We have to be realistic.”

By the time the doors closed for the 90-minute session, there were about 35 civilians in the room, and an equal number of district staff — including Superintendent Walt Rulffes. That was a good enough turnout for several administrators to flash each other a thumbs-up.

•••

Outside the campus’ main entrance, members of Del Sol’s girls basketball team were selling hot dogs, chips and bottled water.

When it came to estimating turnout, coach Devin Pines had been more optimistic than Wright. There were six large bags of hot-dog buns (144 total), and two cases of snack chips, each with 50 individual bags.

The good news was the supplies had been donated, so the girls could keep the profits.

The bad news was by 7 p.m., the team had sold only eight hot dogs. Most of the $70 take came from bottled water sales.

“Thank goodness for Vegas weather,” said Jasmine Louis, who plays center and will be a senior next school year.

The community meeting probably won’t make much difference, said Louis, since the parents and students who need to hear the messages most probably aren’t inside. Jasmine, a standout honor student, said too many parents and children “just don’t care enough — why bother going to school if you can go and get a good job in a casino without a diploma?”

Pines, who also teaches Advanced Placement social studies, confirmed that it’s sometimes an uphill battle. He’s responsible for as many 160 students. On open house nights, Pines said he’s lucky if a couple of parents trickle in.

•••

In the cafeteria were Josefina Medina and her 15-year-old daughter Oty, who will be a junior at Chaparral High School next school year. The district sent out an automated phone call to parents letting them know about the meeting, and Medina was one of the few to answer the invitation.

When asked what most concerned her about the state of public education in Clark County, Medina paused for a moment.

“Oh, there’s so many things,” she said. “I think peer pressure is one of the big ones. Kids do what their friends think is cool, not what’s the right thing for themselves.”

And that in turn can lead to a host of wider issues, such as poor school attendance.

Oty said she occasionally skips class, but it’s not for the reason most people might think. She’ll sometimes skip a class in a subject where she knows she has a good grasp of the material, because it’s the only time another teacher is available for extra help in a subject where Oty is struggling.

Oty said she sees her classmates get frustrated when they don’t understand the material. Some teachers are better than others at coming up with another way of explaining things if a student doesn’t understand the first time around.

“We need more good teachers who can teach in more than one way,” Oty said.

She plans on being a doctor or a teacher. She signed up for Chaparral’s free summer school to help get ahead. The first session was terrific, with the teacher combining the history of the Mayans with the required English curriculum. But the second-session geometry class, which was supposed to start this week, was abruptly canceled after funding for the program fell through. Oty said she was disappointed. The district’s fee-based summer program isn’t an option for her, so she’s facing two empty months until the next school year starts.

“There should be more opportunities for children who want to improve,” Oty said. “Not just for the children who are failing.”

•••

School Board members Wright and Chris Garvey lead a PowerPoint presentation, outlining some of the hard facts about dropouts and what programs are in place districtwide to address the issue.

In 2009, the district asked dropouts why they had quit, and the main reason was that they lacked the credits to graduate. The second most common answer was they didn’t like school. Clark County’s dropout rate has been on a downward trend, and stood at 4.6 percent last year. Minority students are more likely to drop out than their white classmates.

Then came the pop quiz.

Dale Erquiaga, the district’s executive director of community outreach, passed out 30 hand-held electronic voting devices. Questions based on the material in the presentation flashed onto the overhead screen.

Just 35 percent of the audience recalled that the district’s graduation rate had been 63.5 percent in 2006 — it’s reported at 68 percent this year, a figure that is expected to drop at least 12 percentage points when a new nationwide formula is used.

The majority of the audience — 60 percent — remembered the key components to dropout prevention programs: adult advocates, rigorous academic expectations, relationships and tracking students using data systems.

And when asked how much more a high school graduate is likely to earn over a lifetime compared with a dropout, 72 percent knew the answer: $322,000.

“Just for fun,” Erquiaga asked attendees to try their hand at three math questions from the state’s high school proficiency exam.

Let’s just say statistical measures, algebra and geometry better go on the review list.

•••

As district staff passed out large blank sheets of paper and colored markers, the audience broke into small groups for a brainstorming session. How might the district, parents and the wider community help reduce the dropout rate?

Sandra Harrison, who came to the meeting with her husband, B.J., served as her table’s stenographer. Their son, Brandon, is a junior at Coronado High School.

She carefully wrote out her tablemates’ suggestions: Smaller class sizes. More remedial programs. Partnerships with local businesses. Early identification of struggling students, so they can get help before the frustration sets in and they give up.

The Harrisons got the automated phone call. They also received an electronic message via the school’s ParentLink system, as well as a letter in the mail.

This is new territory for B.J. Harrison. He was an active participant in his son’s academic life when Brandon was at Henderson International School, a private campus that recently announced it would be closing.

“This is our first time dealing with public school,” said Harrison, who is retired from the Marine Corps. “We want to get as much information as we can, and be involved.”

Asked her opinion of the event’s turnout, Medina, with a worried glance toward her daughter, was succinct.

“This room,” she said, looking around at the many empty tables, “should be packed.”

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