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October 23, 2014

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The Turnaround:

Western High taking steps to rebuild school pride, spirit

Image

Paul Takahashi

From left: Western High School seniors Samantha Lauer, 17, and Drew Limas, 17, discuss the schedule with Student Council advisor Jessica Wall, 30. Western held its first pep rally of the year on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011.

Western Pep Rally

Western High School student body president Drew Limas, a 17-year-old senior, prepares the schools for its first pep rally of the year on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011. Launch slideshow »

One by one, the teams rushed into the cavernous gymnasium packed with screaming students.

Football, soccer, volleyball — the players huddled in the middle of the gym, chanting “go Warriors.” Cheerleaders with their blue and red pom-poms echoed them, as they kicked in the air: “Listen to the sound of the Warriors.”

This is what a pep rally looks like at the worst-performing high school in the Clark County School District.

By most accounts, students at Western High School shouldn’t have any school pride.

Their football team hasn’t posted a winning season in years.

Academically, Western has some of the lowest test scores among the district’s 49 high schools. And the school has the sorry distinction of having the lowest graduation rate in the valley: just 43 percent.

Things have gone so far downhill that Western was designated a turnaround school by the School District earlier this year. As a result, half of its staff was replaced and new teaching programs were implemented, all in an effort to secure federal grant money to help dig out the buried school.

This doesn’t seem to faze Western’s Student Council, however. The 30-member organization has met every day after school for the past several weeks to prepare for the school’s first pep rally on Friday. The annual event capped a Spirit Week that promoted pride at a school where many find little to be prideful about.

Western has gotten a tough reputation over the years, bred by incidents of neighborhood gang violence, school fights and graffiti.

“When I was in eighth grade, I was told I was going to get shot or stabbed when I came to Western,” said senior Kole Yanez, 17. “That might have been true 15 years ago, but now, you don’t see that here.”

Drew Limas is on a mission to change perceptions about the school. As Western’s student body president, the 17-year-old is adamant about calling attention to all the changes taking place at his school.

“I feel good. This is a whole new beginning,” Limas said, his red-dyed hair poking out from underneath his paper “seniors” crown. “We’re trying to break the cycle of having no school spirit.”

Click to enlarge photo

Western High School students prepare for the school's first pep rally of the year on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011.

•••

Just three weeks into the new school year, the immediate changes are the superficial ones: fresh coats of paint, a new shade structure in the quad and squeaky-clean floors.

But these are the small changes that snowball into systemic, cultural transformations, Principal Neddy Alvarez said.

Alvarez and the other turnaround principals attended a weeklong seminar at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Management this summer to learn how to turn around a struggling high school. As part of the program, they had to draft a 90-day action plan.

The first month of the plan is all about establishing “quick wins,” a rapid but lasting transformation that grabs the attention of students, staff and parents. It’s the big reckoning — change is coming.

“It’s very important to establish a school culture, so kids have ownership over their school,” Alvarez said. “Everyone has to be on the same boat.”

At Western, the quick wins were about maintaining order and building a sense of community, Alvarez said.

Dress codes are strictly enforced. Sagging pants are not tolerated, and a few cell phones were confiscated after students were caught using them in class, she said.

Etched mirrors were taken out of the boy’s bathroom. There are no plans to replace them, lest they are vandalized again.

Classrooms were reassigned so each grade level occupies its own floor. Freshmen no longer have to push through throngs of seniors to get to their next class. The thought is class unity could flourish under this reorganization.

To encourage school spirit, display cases are filled with Western artifacts: yearbooks, sports memorabilia and articles dating back to the school’s founding in 1961. Alvarez plans to highlight famous Western alumni in the coming months, establishing a sense of history, tradition and pride among students.

“It’s like building a house. You need a strong foundation,” Alvarez said. “You need those strong relationships. When kids know we care about them, the learning will take place.”

•••

Click to enlarge photo

Western High School held its first pep rally of the year on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011.

Western’s Student Council is vying this year to win a Silver Star Award from the Nevada Association of Student Councils, which recognizes exemplary leadership in building student achievement, involvement and pride in a school.

The council hasn’t won the award since 2009. New advisers Jessica Wall and Jennifer Wood hope to change that.

Under the guidance of the two English teachers, the Student Council started the year by decorating the school with signs bearing the slogan: “Warrior Pride.” In addition to organizing the pep rally, the group pulled off a well-attended freshman orientation and is working on hosting homecoming next month and a slew of other events throughout the year.

It’s a full time commitment for the students and advisers, who began meeting a week before school began. Wall and Wood have volunteered their time and donated their own money at times to ensure successful school events.

They do it because Western needs to rebuild its community and sense of pride. It’s especially important at Western, which has the highest dropout rate in the valley, about 8 percent.

Raising test scores is paramount, but teachers can’t teach unless students come to school, said Wall, who wore a red Western shirt. Building school spirit — whether it’s through sports, clubs or a sense of belonging — is one way Western is trying to keep students engaged, Wall said.

“Hopefully we can give them a reason to stay in school,” she said. “School spirit, it makes them feel like a part of something, part of a community. They need to believe that education is important.”

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  1. Good luck, Western!

  2. This is the right thing to do. Student supporting change for the better. Chapparal High School dissenters should take note of what Western High School students are doing.

    The learning environment must change for all students to learn, not just the gifted, the talented, or teachers favorites. This change was long over due! Our graduation rate is at the bottom, scaping it in many areas. The students must be responsibile, respect the rules, respect authority, and parents must support this change.

  3. All hail Western High School, to our alma mater Hail! To Warriors courageous and standards that never fail us! You go kids! Make us all proud!

  4. Good luck Western High School! We know you guys can do it! All it takes is WILL! A will to do it!