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Whitney principal wants after-school program patterned after first lady’s

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Justin M. Bowen

Whitney Elementary School Principal Sherrie Gahn (right) takes First Lady Kathleen Sandoval on a tour of her school Thursday, March 10, 2011. Gahn wants to create an after-school program similar to Sandoval’s nonprofit, Children’s Cabinet in Reno.

Nev. First Lady Sandoval Takes Tour

Clark County School District superintendent Dwight D. Jones talks as First Lady Kathleen Sandoval listens during a tour of Whitney Elementary School Thursday, March 10, 2011.  The school wants to create an after-school program similar to Sandoval's nonprofit, Children's Cabinet in Reno. Launch slideshow »

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    For information about helping homeless students in the Clark County School District, call the outreach office at 855-6682. Whitney Elementary School can be reached at 799-7790.

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Whitney

5005 Keenan Ave., Las Vegas

Since the day Principal Sherrie Gahn first set foot in Whitney Elementary nearly a decade ago, she has slowly transformed the struggling school.

After witnessing neighborhood hardships, Gahn turned the eastern valley school into a full social service organization, providing food, clothing, health care and job opportunities for students and their families.

Her efforts have paid off. Whitney still has a long way to go, but its academic performance and transiency rate have improved, Clark County School District officials say. In 2009, CNN featured Gahn and Whitney Elementary, sparking a flurry of media attention on the turnaround school.

But after seeing her students drop out of middle and high school once they graduate from Whitney, Gahn became concerned her efforts weren’t enough.

Now, to keep her children off the streets and in the classroom, Gahn wants to open an after-school program, one of the first of its kind in Las Vegas, according to school officials. The program would be modeled after Children’s Cabinet in Reno, where Nevada first lady Kathleen Sandoval is the nonprofit group’s program director.

“I’m going to do my darnedest to help these children,” Gahn said. “We’re going to do whatever it takes.”

Whitney is located on the proverbial wrong side of town.

Of its 610 students, 85 percent are on the free or reduced-price lunch program, and many are classified by the state as being homeless.

Students know more than they should about drugs, prostitution and violence. Four gangs roam the streets surrounding Whitney, and officials blame them for killing three parents last year.

Gahn knows firsthand about the life of poverty her students face at home. She grew up in the projects in Buffalo, N.Y., and credits her mother for pushing her to go to school and toward a better life.

But that’s not the case with many of her students, Gahn said. Once they move on to Cortney Middle School, Whitney students often fall prey to the temptations of gang life or the welfare check.

“People will gravitate toward gangs to get acceptance,” Gahn said. “These children also live in a culture where they see welfare and ways to get around the system. We need to give them a different value.”

Children’s Cabinet helps more than 60,000 disadvantaged youths in Washoe County. As its program director, Sandoval, wife of Gov. Brian Sandoval, oversees a $4.5 million budget for the group’s 27 programs providing anti-truancy, gang prevention and family violence prevention services for 1,500 families a year.

From 3 to 8 p.m., middle and high school students who visit Children’s Cabinet create T-shirts and art projects, and are mentored by one of 78 staff members. A local art company sells the students’ work and proceeds go back into the program.

“Most of the children had nothing to do after school, so we wanted to give them something to do,” Sandoval said. “Through these art projects, children can take ownership of their work.”

Gahn thinks the concept is a perfect fit for Whitney.

“This gives them someplace to go where they feel they are productive, where they can actually produce something and do something useful,” she said. “Hopefully, that will lead them to a job or staying in school.”

Whitney’s program is still in the planning stages, but Gahn hopes it will serve students from third grade through high school when it opens in the fall. Instead of T-shirts, Gahn is looking at having her students create candies, cards and photographs to sell.

To get Whitney’s program started, Gahn solicited help from Kathleen Sandoval. During the governor’s visit to Whitney last year, Gahn mentioned her plans for an after-school program, and Sandoval put Gahn in touch with his wife.

After months of e-mails and phone calls, Gahn arranged a tour of Whitney with Kathleen Sandoval. Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones and then-School Board President Terri Janison were present.

As Gahn led Sandoval around campus, she talked excitedly about the myriad services Whitney offers students, from free haircuts and glasses to school supplies and clothing – socks, underwear and shoes.

“I think this has a huge potential here … and Sherrie has a great central base to build off,” Sandoval said. “What Sherrie is talking about is following the children. That’s important because if we do everything here and they go to another (school) and they don’t have that same kind of support, we’re not doing them service.”

After the tour, Sandoval and Gahn discussed how to fund the program.

“I wouldn’t count on any state dollars at this point,” Sandoval said. “As a nonprofit, (Children’s Cabinet) never relied on state funds because you want to make sure you can sustain it. You have to be really creative.”

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Whitney Elementary School Principal Sherrie Gahn (right) takes First Lady Kathleen Sandoval on a tour of her school Thursday, March 10, 2011. Gahn wants to create an after-school program similar to Sandoval's nonprofit, Children's Cabinet in Reno.

Gahn agreed.

“I’ve never looked to the state,” she said. “I’ve shied away from that because I need to sustain (the program) in the long haul. With budgets the way they are, I didn’t know if they would.”

Sandoval urged Gahn to partner with nonprofit groups and apply for grants to purchase a modular building for the program. Sandoval, who has helped secure 93 grants for Children’s Cabinet, offered to help Gahn write initial applications.

Janison, now part of the Sandoval administration, said she sees potential for nonprofit groups to work with schools “to help, especially during these hard times.”

“We don’t seem to have as many nonprofit service providers in the south as they do in the north,” Janison said, adding that Gov. Sandoval said he would like to see nonprofit groups step up. “We see a need for the state to pull in nonprofits and see how we can work closely together.”

Children’s Cabinet is considering opening a branch office in Las Vegas, Sandoval added, hinting the two programs could work together.

“I would be happy to work on a Children’s Cabinet,” Gahn said. “I already do so many of the services (Sandoval) provides, so to start out with a smaller Children’s Cabinet here would be awesome.”

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