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July 31, 2014

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The Turnaround:

Tough love bringing tranquility back to Chaparral

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Leila Navidi

Dean Scott Littlefield talks with a student who was sent to the dean’s office for walking out of class during a test at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011.

Student Conduct at Chaparral High School

Dean Scott Littlefield employs a loudspeaker between classes to help move students at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. Launch slideshow »

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This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking Clark County School District’s efforts to turn around five failing schools.

A year ago Chaparral High School was a tough environment to be a young adult, so tough that 16-year-old Patricia Soto developed the demeanor of a woman a decade older. She had the attitude, the body language, ditched classes and hung out with kids who were expelled for drinking, fighting and doing drugs.

Fights erupted in bathrooms regularly. Drug deals were conducted on school grounds. Students aimlessly wandered the campus during class or walked away altogether from the school grounds, while others sat in classrooms texting and talking on cellphones.

That dynamic has been mostly eliminated with the adoption of strict rules and procedures that have virtually eliminated behavior problems on the Chaparral campus. Now, Patricia has a very different sense of herself. “I can be more of a kid in school and not an adult that has to watch my back every two seconds,” she says. “Last year there were problems everywhere — arguments, drama. This year there is no drama. And if there is, a teacher stops it right away. It doesn’t last.”

Chaparral Principal Dave Wilson and his staff implemented a series of practices starting on the first day of school. They include teachers and support staff monitoring the school’s hallways during class changes, urging students to move quickly to their next subject. Three hall monitors — one, a retired Los Angeles police officer — ride about in golf carts, reinforcing the message. The dean of students, Scott Littlefield, walks around with a red and white bullhorn urging students to “keep moving” and “get to class.” Students call him, “The Warden,” a brawny 41-year-old weight lifter who is up at 3:45 a.m. daily to go to the gym, where he routinely benches 345 pounds — enough to intimidate the toughest of teens.

“I really feel like we don’t need to do anything but push them in the right direction,” says Littlefield. “There’s not a kid on this campus who we need to be scared of.” Four assistant principals and Wilson reinforce the message, and a look of urgency can be found on the faces of many students. There is a no-tolerance policy toward tardies unless accompanied by a note from the front office.

A first violation results in a warning, the second leads to a conference with a student’s parents, and a third sparks a two-day suspension. “Ninety-nine percent never get to the suspension. They don’t push us any further,” said Littlefield, a former Chaparral dean who returned to the school after working last year at a middle school.

He points to numbers showing a dramatic decline in the number of school fights, student expulsions and suspensions. “For me it’s all about the security of the school and discipline,” Littlefield says. “There are the rules and we’re going to follow them. First off, if I don’t do that I’m not making the school safe. Last year the school was crazy, fights all the time, threats.”

To be sure, longtime Chaparral teachers are especially sensitive to news stories that portray the school poorly. They argue that coverage has been overly critical of last year’s staff and then-Principal Kevin McPartlin, who was popular among students, teachers and parents. Half of the Chaparral teaching and support staff, and the bulk of the administrative staff, are new this year, moves forced by low graduation rates and poor standardized test scores, and the acceptance of a multimillion-dollar federal grant designed to aid struggling schools. Yet, veteran Chaparral teachers are grateful for the newly enforced rules, noting that it has made it easier for them to reach students.

Dave Winkler, a longtime Chaparral English teacher, has noticed the changes, saying that students have adapted nicely to the new rules. “There’s been little if any pushback from students, and everything seems calmer,” he says, citing a sentiment spoken by many of his colleagues.

Key strategic changes saw a thorough cleaning of the boys and girls bathrooms, which were scarred by graffiti and unusable toilets. Doors have been removed from the boy’s restrooms, the better to prevent fights and drug deals. Hall monitors, teachers and school administrators visit the boys and girls bathrooms several times every hour to prevent trouble.

A year ago there were two lunch periods during the heart of the school day. Today there’s just one, and it’s scheduled for the end of the day. Administrators concluded that much of the trouble occurred during the two extended lunches, and senior Kevin Morgan agrees, noting some kids would take two lunches, skipping classes, causing trouble. “You can’t ditch to lunch,” he says. “Certain deans would pick up on that. Late lunch gets a lot of the negative off campus. You’re going to have it at any school. But you can tell that a lot of the kids at lunch are eating now. There’s less fighting, less jostling, less drug dealing.”

Patricia Soto again feels and acts likes a teen. She’s closing in on a 3.0 grade-point average, her highest ever. She’s thinking of becoming a pediatrician, and is no longer afraid to act her age.

“Kids are so much more focused in class. All of these classes are so much more structured,” she says, “and the teachers are doing such a good job of teaching.”

Littlefield, the dean, smiles as he discusses Patricia’s evolution as a student. He recalls what she was like during his first stint at the school two years ago, and considers what she’s become. “It’s like when you plant a seed and you come back and it’s a beautiful tree,” he says. “Man, she’s doing great.”

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  1. Very good. Tough love can work. Kudos to Scott Littlefield.

  2. Attention parents: Are you listening? Tough love works...it's not easy, and it takes a lot time and effort, but it does work.
    If more parents practiced tough love, disrespect and disruptions at school would decrease. In turn, teachers could spend more time on educating kids and less time on classroom discipline.
    Hey mom and dad, next time you want to blame the schools for your kid's poor behavior, ask yourself how much effort you've made to teach him or her that the world does not, in fact, revolve around them.