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July 28, 2014

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Under principal’s guidance, Valley sports a scholarly look

Principal rewarded with national recognition for leading turnaround

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Steve Marcus

Ron Montoya, who as principal of Valley High School has guided a “high-achieving turnaround,” is one of four finalists for the national “Principal of the Year” award.

Map of Valley High School

Valley High School

2839 S. Burnham, Las Vegas

When he was in high school, Ron Montoya considered himself a big-time jock and saw himself becoming a Division I college basketball coach. But instead, 35 years ago, he became an elementary school teacher.

It proved a good calling.

In May, Montoya was named “Principal of the Year” by the Secondary School Principals Association of Nevada. Next week, the National Association of Secondary School Principals will announce six finalists (three from middle schools and three from high schools) for the MetLife/NASSP Principal of the Year Program, and Montoya is expected to be among them.

His staff isn’t surprised that he may land the big one.

“He looks to do what works, not what’s necessarily traditional,” said Amy Stepinski, dean of curriculum at Valley High. “He gives people the authority to do a good job, sets high standards, and we rise to the occasion.”

In 2009, Valley was designated a “high-achieving turnaround” school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That distinction is reserved for schools that had failed to meet the law’s academic requirements for at least three years before demonstrating significant improvement and meeting performance benchmarks for two consecutive years. Valley is the first Clark County campus to earn that title. Next month, when the district announces the results of the latest standardized tests as required by the federal law, Valley is expected to have made adequate progress for a third consecutive year.

More than 60 percent of Valley’s student body is Hispanic, and close to half qualifies for free and reduced-price meals — subgroups that typically struggle to meet academic demands.

Valley’s accomplishment is all the more noteworthy given that the benchmarks for student achievement were bumped up this year, making it more difficult for schools to meet the mark. Indeed, the district is predicting the number of schools that make adequate progress will drop significantly from last year.

What led to Valley’s turnaround?

There were a couple of significant factors. Up until 2007, I used to tell children, “You’re the best.” But then I started telling them “You’re smart.” For some children, it was the first time anyone had ever said that to them, and it took time for them to believe it. But once they did, their attitudes changed, and so did the results. This was about working on changing our collective mind-set on a daily basis.

I also started asking teachers what was holding kids back. They said our students weren’t good enough readers. We have about 500 children who come in every year reading anywhere from a beginner’s level to what you would expect from a fifth-grader.

So, what did you do about it?

To bring up their skills, we added a program called Read 180, which is daily, intensive literacy instruction for everyone. To succeed in high school and pass the proficiency exams, they have to be reading at a minimum of 11th-grade level. Look, let’s be honest here — the math proficiency test is a reading test. The science proficiency test is a reading test, and the reading test is a reading test. If a kid can’t read, that’s it — it’s all over.

And you’ve seen measurable results?

The target this year for reading and writing under No Child Left Behind was to have 82.3 percent of students demonstrating proficiency. At Valley, we had nearly 90 percent of our Hispanic students hit the mark — it was 94 percent for white students and black students. That’s compared to our schoolwide average of 54 percent in 2004.

How has the staff responded to your shift in direction?

I don’t lose teachers anymore. Four or five years ago, I probably lost 40 out of 150 teachers every year. This year we’re losing three — two to retirement and one to another school. When you have that kind of staff stability, the expectations are part of the culture. They know me, I know them and we have a good time.

How have you changed as a principal over the years?

I’m more comfortable with myself now. Looking back at my early years in the district, I probably should have been calmer. People wrote me off as a “jock” principal, and said I wasn’t focused enough on the academics. But on the other hand, that’s what people like about me, that I’m so passionate about my work.

You were appointed to Gov. Jim Gibbons’ blue-ribbon panel, which put together Nevada’s application for the federal “Race to the Top” grant competition, which could mean hundreds of millions of dollars for education reform and innovation. What did you learn from the experience?

The general business community does not understand how hard it is to be a principal. They don’t understand our challenges. They think anybody can be trained to be a principal or a teacher and all of our problems will go away. But they have no real concept of what we go through every day, or the daily struggles our students have before they even set foot on campus.

The “Race to the Top” application sets a goal of raising Nevada’s graduation rate to 85 percent, which is lofty given that it currently stands anywhere from 50 to 64 percent, depending on how it’s calculated. Do you think the goal is realistic?

The only way I can answer that is if I’m here, I’m going to get it done. It’s the duty of the principal to figure out how to do it. Right now Valley’s graduation rate is 60 percent, and it was 42 percent four years ago. Our dropout rate is 5.5 percent, down from 11.5 in 2003. That’s good growth, but it’s not enough.

We have to do a better job tracking our children. Every fall we lose about 125 freshmen, and I know they aren’t all dropping out of school. Some of them transfer to other schools in town and never request their records, while others have left the state. But until we get a handle on what’s happening to them, they’re going to be counted against us as dropouts.

The “Principal of the Year” award will be handed out in October. Whom would you thank in your acceptance speech?

I owe the students. Despite the struggles they have at home and in their personal lives, they come to school. We have a 95 percent average daily attendance rate. They don’t just show up — they pay attention, study and do their work. They buy into my telling them they’re smart, and they trust me. We need to give our students more credit for what they do.

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