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January 28, 2015

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j. patrick coolican:

Academy in Las Vegas stands tall in a troubled school district

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming of sadness and woe, incompetence and corruption to bring you some good news: a story of achievement and hope for our valley.

I walk into Advanced Technologies Academy in the heart of Las Vegas and meet its “ambassadors” Daniel Waqar, Vivian Lee, Alexandrea Washington, Jesus Espinoza and Nasko Balaktchiev.

Their university wish lists include Georgetown, George Washington, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Cal Poly and, thankfully, UNLV, as well. Given the school’s history, it’s likely the students will be accepted and succeed once they go.

For Advanced Tech, where nearly all graduates go on to college, this is a typical batch of high-achieving students at a high-achieving school. For the second time, A-Tech, as its known, received a Blue Ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education, ranking it among the 71 top performing schools.

Yes, it’s in the Clark County School District.

This isn’t the “tech” school you remember growing up. It’s a college-prep academy where students can specialize in career areas they hope to pursue, such as architecture, information technology, engineering and law. They take rigorous math, history, science and English courses and electives in their concentration of choice.

Balaktchiev, who was born in Bulgaria, is enrolled in the school’s architecture program. I ask for some architecture talk in Bulgarian, and he says he admires Frank Lloyd Wright’s horizontal lines.

When I visit a school, I look for a simple but I believe revealing detail: How clean is it? Considering they’re still just kids, this place is clean, with just a single M&M’s wrapper in a hallway.

Our first stop is the classroom of architectural design teacher Richard Knoeppell, who says students will work on applied geometry and learn how to use software their first and second years, and then they will actually complete mock projects their junior and senior years.

Kyle Kithas, who was an A-Tech valedictorian last year, is a freshman at Cal Poly and home on holiday break. He’s here to say hello to Knoeppell. His first semester grade-point average at Cal Poly: 4.0

A-Tech students clearly want to be here, or their parents want them here anyway. The school holds a lottery — 1,200 eighth-graders apply for 300 slots. They ride buses for up to 90 minutes to and from school.

Although there are plenty of extracurricular activities at A-Tech, there are no sports teams. “It makes it more academically focused,” one of my guides says.

(Students may play sports at another school in the district.)

Scott Underwood is teaching underclassmen some engineering basics. His students will make a solar cooker, learn robotics and rocketry, build a truss system and design a simple engine.

History teacher Dave La Shomb taught in Minnesota for decades before retiring here, until he was drawn back to teaching by A-Tech.

“It was an incredible experience because the priority is education,” he says. Now, he’s a key reason students are burning Advanced Placement classes — these are rigorous courses that culminate in an exam, which allows students to earn college credits. The school offers more than a dozen AP courses, and many students will go to college having passed as many as 10 AP tests — that’s an entire year of college and a big savings for students and their parents.

We wander into a classroom where the English faculty is eating lunch together, as they do every day to swap ideas.

Kellie Guild credits A-Tech parents for their support but notes that many students come from tough backgrounds and are lifted by their classmates.

Stephanie Hill says the school lowered its admission requirements some years ago to allow a more diverse group of students to apply. After a difficult transition, achievement has continued apace. “And now something magical happens,” she says.

A lottery to go to a good school. What a sad and appropriate metaphor.

We shouldn’t be satisfied until all our schools are like this.

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  1. I went to a high school that had a "realistic curriculum" and "useful vocational opportunities" -- a school which carefully taught us that only the best of the best might -- might -- be able to go the the local junior college. While this has always been attractive because it is inexpensive and excuses failure, it is not the best for the country -- unless we want to develop failure as a national future.

  2. As a proud A-Tech Alumni ('06) I really appreciate you writing this article. Undoubtedly the best school in the State. The classes at A-Tech made college classes look really easy. Students here actually WANT to learn, unlike most CCSD schools where its just babysitting. It always has been and will continue to be a shame that so many qualfied students get turned down on a basis of a lottery.

  3. "A-Tech students clearly want to be here, or their parents want them here anyway. The school holds a lottery -- 1,200 eighth-graders apply for 300 slots. They ride buses for up to 90 minutes to and from school."

    This is the key to the school's success; students and parents want to be there.

    After watching the documentary "Waiting for Superman" on the success of their charter schools, I'm a believer in charter schools. As long as they have a lottery system that does not discriminate. The lottery system means the schools only have students with active parents involved in their education. That makes a huge difference.

  4. I agree with LynnJohnson's comments above but would like to add one teachers union here to protect lazy and incompetent teachers.

  5. RebFurLife.......I stand corrected. You are right, the teachers are part of the union.

    I thought Charter Schools were non-union.

    Please forgive my ignorance.

  6. A-Tech is an amazing school. Many of the magnet schools in Clark County offer superb educations within the Clark County School District. These are public schools, with specialized programs. These are not charter schools.

  7. All CCSD schools offer AP classes and a strong curriculum, but sometime there is no one or only very few take advantage of it. I've heard many students say they hate and don't take AP classes because they have to work really hard. They'd rather stare at the screen of their cellphones texting and facebooking - way easier and more fun.

    Students AND PARENTS of A-Tech students WANT to be there and to STAY there.

    Many children AND parents in many CCSD schools do not have that drive.

    Yes. A teacher makes so much difference, but that job has become harder and harder with each new generation of children having children. Add to that the dearth of quality school leaders and the public and government apathy toward school and teachers, then you got a formula for American Education.

    If you wished for your child's bright future, advocate for you child - no one else will.

  8. As both a parent and a teacher, the true key to educational success, "...means the schools only have students with active parents involved in their education. That makes a huge difference."

    And, might I include, "If you wished for your child's bright future, then ADVOCATE for your child- no one else will."

    It really takes this kind of commitment by the parent and family. When education is nurtured and promoted in the home, it transfers in all aspects of a child's life, lifelong.

    Sadly, public schools cannot have a say nor have any control in a child's homelife. Public schools cannot turn away those students who lack the drive and support to succeed. By law, public schools MUST take every child that is enrolled (exception are those who are expelled from the district-they have alternative education school instead).

    So most every public school teacher is faced in having in their classroom, students who underperform for a host of reasons, mostly pointing to their home support, or lack thereof. It is NOT a problem with having "Highly Qualified" teachers in the public classroom, but a problem with having parents and students with great commitment towards academic success.

    A privately held school would exclude low performing students from enrollment. They have a learning environment that is conducive to learning and high academic achievement. All students are held to a high standard or they are asked to leave. Magnet Schools in the public school system are afforded the luxury of embracing such standards and are given the authority to enforce such standards.

    For all you teacher haters and union haters out there, this article is about the fierce commitment that parents, students, and educators have about excellence in education.

    Blessings and Peace,