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September 30, 2014

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The Turnaround:

At tarnished Mojave High School, seniors eye new direction with optimism

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Leila Navidi

For me, looking from the inside out, I can see that this school is something that the world, that Las Vegas doesn’t see.” - Caleb Dawkins, 17, a senior at Mojave High School.

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

Mojave High School is one of the Clark County School District’s most troubled schools, with among the lowest test scores and graduation rates in a system that already ranks among the nation’s lowest-performing.

The 15-year-old North Las Vegas high school has also seen its fair share of problems – gang violence, vandalism and fights – which have been exacerbated by one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history.

Last year, only half of the school’s seniors graduated – a devastating statistic that prompted the hiring of a new principal and administration and the turnover of about 80 percent of teachers and support staff. We spoke with 12 seniors at the “new Mojave” about their feelings about the turnaround process, their goals for the school year and their plans for the future. Audio clips and quotes have been edited for clarity.

Ashley Dooley, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Ashley Dooley, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Ashley Dooley, 17

“My goals this year are to pass all my classes, pass my math proficiency and graduate. I want to be a medical examiner. I want to go to University of Austin, Texas, and play volleyball for them, too.

“This year, we don’t have as many problems. I think people take more pride in the school because it’s like a better place to be. We have a lot more school spirit.”

Taylor Morris, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Taylor Morris, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Taylor Morris, 17

“At first, I didn’t think I was going to like (the turnaround). I was like, ‘They’re getting rid of all my favorite teachers,’ but I do like what they did with the school. The teachers this year seem like they care a lot more. The bathrooms are clean. At lunchtime, you see janitors just walking around, cleaning up. Usually, you would see trash that was left from last week still sitting in the corner somewhere. The new teachers I have seem really enthusiastic; I learn better. Before, I wasn’t really learning anything, I was just coasting, but this year, I’m actually learning stuff and I’m trying.

“The way I see it, they’re really serious about turning this around and making us the new Mojave. I think it’s going to work.

“One day, I’m going to open my own practice. I want to be a pediatrician or a child psychologist.”

Sandra Estrada, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Sandra Estrada, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Sandra Estrada, 17

“My goals are to pass my proficiencies — my two last ones that I need — finish up my classes and graduate. I know if I study hard, (if) I try, I will succeed and I will graduate.

“My motivation is just my parents and my sister. My parents didn’t really go to school because they come from a small town (in Mexico). Every day they tell me that school’s a big thing for you, that you need it to succeed in life. That’s why they came here. Nowadays, if you don’t even have a high school diploma, you can’t get a really good job. My parents, they don’t have high school diplomas and they have done so many things to have a good job. My mom is a cook and my dad is a manager. I hope to have a better life, to have more things that I want, to find happiness in life. In order for that, you have to get a good education.”

Jayla Lewis, 18, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Jayla Lewis, 18, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Jayla Lewis, 18

“I’m worried about the proficiencies because I don’t really understand math well. I have to pass the math, science and writing (proficiencies). We have to pass all proficiencies; without passing the proficiencies, you won’t be able to walk.

“After I graduate, I’m planning on going straight to college. I wanted to do sports and medicine, but many colleges don’t train for that, so if I had to choose, it’d be a pharmacist.

“Last year, it seemed like most teachers weren’t really organized and this year, they are. They already know what they’re going to do. It’s planned out. This year, we have advisory (period), which is cool because it helps most seniors to graduate on time. I’ve been here since my freshman year and I’ve seen a big change. This year, it’s actually awesome. It’s neat, it’s perfect, clean. There’s nothing wrong with Mojave High School.”

Kiana Spengler, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Kiana Spengler, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Kiana Spengler, 17

“A lot of people say we’re the ghetto school and that we’re all just bad kids, but we’re really not. People saw us as that because we didn’t have control. Now we’re under control and I think it’ll be better. Ever since the first day of school, I already could tell it will be a better year. Kids always talk about, ‘Oh, I like how it is this year.’ I think if kids like their teachers and like how things are going, then they’re going to behave a better way. They’re not going to just slack around.

“This year, I plan to do really (well) on my SATs and ACTs. Another goal is to achieve a 4.0 (GPA). My biggest downfall has always been math. That’s always been my problem, but I’m trying to fix that.”

Jermario Farr, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Jermario Farr, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Jermario Farr, 17

“It was kind of hectic last year. There were a bunch of fights after school. It was crazy, like, everybody doing their own thing. Not paying attention in school basically. The teachers and staff are more strict. But that’s a good thing because everybody is getting to class on time, doing the right thing. People are happy to come to Mojave now, so that’s a good process I guess.

“I’m planning to go to college for four years and I was hoping to play football in college. My backup plan is to be a lawyer but that’s kind of hard so I was just going to go to the police academy and join the SWAT team. They do a lot of moving and running around and I kind of like running around.”

Travis Cunningham, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Travis Cunningham, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Travis Cunningham, 17

“It’s way better than last year. We only had one bathroom unlocked last year. Now all the bathrooms are unlocked. The hallways are much cleaner. Teachers are willing to stay after to help you. The staff is nice. It’s just all around better.

“I want to graduate, and just succeed in life. I’ll probably join the military, and then find out what I want to do after that – either become something in law enforcement or a fireman.”

David Laurel, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

David Laurel, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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David Laurel, 17

“I heard it was a really bad school the years before, but it’s like a new school. I guess it’s pretty good because there’s some new rules. You could use your iPod before, like just walk out of class anytime, basically do whatever you want and now you can’t do that. You can’t be listening to music while you’re in class. You can’t be sagging your pants. They’re pretty strict now.

“My hope this year is to graduate high school and maybe go to college. I want to be a car mechanic. The math proficiencies are pretty hard but I’m trying to do my best on them. All my teachers are helping me the way they’re supposed to be helping me. So yeah, it’s pretty good being here.”

Bryant Lewis, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Bryant Lewis, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Bryant Lewis, 17

“Football has been like my life ever since like third grade. I want to see if I can make something out of it. If football (doesn’t) work out, I’m going to try to major in mechanical engineering or have a business major, probably health and fitness. This year, I hope we have a more successful sports program. I hope to get my GPA up a little higher. Right now I’m at a weighted 3.5, hopefully try to get it up to a 3.8, somewhere around there.

“I’m going to go to college. I’m still trying to work out my scholarship for sports and hopefully I can try to get an academic scholarship as well. Right now, I’m looking toward University of Washington, Arizona or Colorado. I have to work on taking my SATs and ACTs again, trying to get my scores a little bit better.

“Teachers take more of an interest toward students. I see that. They have lower tolerance for a lot of stuff. I think (the turnaround) will be successful because it’s bringing a lot of positive attention.”

"For me, looking from the inside out, I can see that this school is something that the world, that Las Vegas doesn't see." - Caleb Dawkins, 17, a senior at Mojave High School.

"For me, looking from the inside out, I can see that this school is something that the world, that Las Vegas doesn't see." - Caleb Dawkins, 17, a senior at Mojave High School.

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Caleb Dawkins, 17

“This school in the media has been looked down upon. For me, looking from the inside out, I can see that this school is something that the world, that Las Vegas doesn’t see. We have intelligent students. They want to be successful. It’s just that we didn’t have the push and the drive. Now that we have this turnaround school, this push and this drive is going to be great and surprising.

“My principal is great. Mr. Rael, he is one of the coolest principals I have ever met. The way he interacts with the students is amazing. Like, he shakes my hand, he knows me as an individual and that’s what we really didn’t get last year. It’s really wonderful. It’s really a turnaround school now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mojave is one of the top schools in the future.

“I want to be the salutatorian of my class. I’m trying to keep a 4.0 (GPA) this year. Pretty much I want to get into a nice college. I’m looking at USC, majoring in music production or business and finance.”

Denise Matias, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Denise Matias, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Denise Matias, 17

“My main goal this year is to graduate with my advanced honors diploma. I’m taking four AP classes — it’s very stressful. It’s a lot of work to do for the classes and there’s not as much time as I wish there would be to finish all my homework for all my classes. I’m pushing myself because for my family, I’m the first that’s going to graduate. I’m the oldest out of four, so I also want to set an example for them that they have to strive for the best that they can do.

“My parents have always told me to never give up on what I want. My dad, he works in construction. He’s been doing construction for about 20 years. My mom, she used to be a stay-at-home mom, but then as times got harder, she decided she also had to go out and work to help my dad with the payments. My mom works making store bags at a factory.

“I want my siblings to see that we can be the first generation to graduate and go off and do better things. I want to go off to college and have a career. I’ve always wanted to be a pediatrician. It’s going to be another long career of education. I’d have to be a full-time student and that would take another 12 years. Right now, I’m trying to help my parents with everything at home, helping raise my siblings and stuff. If I don’t (become a pediatrician), I’ve thought about becoming an accountant, working as a teller at a bank. That’d also be a good option for me.”

Alejandra Renteria, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

Alejandra Renteria, 17, a senior at Mojave High School in North Las Vegas Thursday, September 29, 2011.

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Alejandra Renderia, 17

“My sister dropped out, so I’m trying to be the good example now. I’m the first one in my family to get this far, so I’m planning on graduating. I’m planning on going to culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu. Me and my sister are both trying to open up our own bakery. I’m trying not to slack off anymore.

“I’m happy that they’re doing this whole new program here. I can see a big change, especially in the students. They may think they don’t like it and it’s not helping but I can see it.”

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  1. "Last year, only half of Mojave High school's seniors graduated -- a devastating statistic that prompted the hiring of a new principal and administration and the turnover of about 80 percent of teachers and support staff."
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    I did time in Rancho HS before graduating from Bonanza HS in 1984, the thought of half the seniors of a Las Vegas HS graduating class not getting a diploma back then would of been unbelievable.. :-(

  2. I ve been out of Las Vegas for years Bob, but whenever i get back, i will go to my old High Schools and see for myself whats going 27 years after i became a Las Vegas HS graduate.

  3. In that one student's picture- Her ear is not "gauged", right? Please tell me that's just an earring I'm seeing and that she hasn't deformed her ear for life with one of those damned things?

    Best of luck to these young people. They are coming of age in a tough economy. Get the most out of your education, kids!

  4. My class had 156. Everyone graduated. Granted this was many years ago and on the east coast, but I can't even relate to or comprehend the stuff that goes on in the Las Vegas school system. 50% graduation rate? It's really unconscionable.

    I think I can say that it isn't the teachers, isn't money, isn't the principal. It comes down to the parents. I'm sure there are some teachers that need to be weeded out, but every school system in the country has some bad teachers and administrators. Show me involved, caring, disciplined parents (yes, parents, not parent) and I'll show you a kid that will graduate. The mindset of the importance of education begins in the home. Some of these kids have the mindset of "why do I need an education when I can valet cars at the Bellagio and make $50,000". Those days are over. Finish high school, go to trade school, go to college...find a marketable skill. It's the first line of defense against a life of poverty. Working hard helps too..

  5. I am in disagreement. The standards have not been lowered. Go to https://bighorn.doe.nv.gov/sites/CommonC... and take a look. These standards are the same for all but 7 states. It is a an initiative by the states, not the federal government. We are fully teaching to these standards in grades K-2 with a three year roll out program for grades 3-12. Read them! You may be pleasantly surprised!

  6. Good to see the student's perspective. But we need more substance with these stories.

    I get the feeling these articles are intended to garner an emotional response with little focus on substance.

    For example: At Mojave high school, students who are having difficulty with a math class are given the option/switched into a second math class in place of an elective.

    I think this is a great idea. The downsize to this option? The student's exposure to other subjects is hindered, since the extra math class will count as an elective.

    The benefit outweighs the cost of an elective class.

    Of course when you have 45 students in ONE math class, there is no question students will perform less satisfactory than a math class with 18 students.

    Hopefully more resources are allocated to additional Math classes - schools like Mojave, with larger student populations, need to have the resources necessary to prevent 45:1 student:teacher ratio in a math class. There will be little if any learning in a class with such a ratio.

    The additional math class is a great idea to address this issue. I know Mojave would prefer students diversify their course curriculum but with the lack of resources and limited budget this is a viable option.

    More substance less emotional commentary please. We know the history of Mojave, now lets focus on what we can do to change it.

  7. "More substance less emotional commentary please. We know the history of Mojave, now lets focus on what we can do to change it."
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    Agreed..

  8. I just moved back to my home town to teach after two years of teaching in Las Vegas. Looking back, I can't believe how difficult it is to be a teacher in Las Vegas compared to here, which is a fairly major metropolitan area. I grew accustomed to teaching in Vegas while I was there, but now it's like cake, and I'm teaching in what's considered one of the rougher schools. I laugh when I hear teachers talk about tough classes here. My hat goes off to anyone who teaches in Vegas and stays for a long time. I kiss the ground you walk on. I hope these turnarounds work and give the Vegas kids more opportunity. All kids who want it deserve it.

  9. This school is in North Las Vegas....wonder what the graduation rate is in Compton, CA? or the Bronx? It's not unusual to see dropout rates this high in low income cities.