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April 20, 2014

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Education:

Six questions with Pedro Martinez, departing Clark County School District deputy superintendent

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Paul Takahashi

Clark County Schools Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Pedro Martinez answers questions about reforms to the struggling Prime Six schools in the historically disadvantaged neighborhood of West Las Vegas during a community input session on Tuesday, July 19. 2011.

Pedro Martinez, the former deputy superintendent of Clark County schools, started his new position Wednesday as superintendent of the Washoe County School District.

Before Martinez left, the Sun spoke with him about his year working in the Clark County School District and plans for the future of education in Nevada.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You were a popular choice for superintendent, having been tapped as a candidate for both Reno and Philadelphia schools. What was the deciding factor in your choice to go to Washoe?

I was never really looking. It was more opportunities that came. For me and my family, it became a decision of whether we were ready to leave Nevada. We decided we wanted to build some roots here. Washoe is a great opportunity because it’s a district where I had started that work and to be able to go back to a district where you know 80 to 90 percent of the principals, you know 80 to 90 percent of the community leaders and the work that you started and how to continue it. For Dwight (Jones, Clark County Schools superintendent), he was happy he and I could partner even though I wouldn’t be here in Clark.

Why did you decide to stay in Nevada? What do you hope to accomplish statewide?

Nevada is not like other states. In other states, I think some of the education systems have been broken for so many years, it takes a long time to rebuild that trust level. Here in Nevada, we have a certain work ethic that allows us to put things in place that you can’t do in other states. I think Nevada, because we grew so fast in the past two decades, we are becoming a very strong community, but we don’t have some of the challenges that other communities have had because they’ve been dealing with these issues for decades. I think here in Nevada, we’re still open to new people, new ideas, and, frankly, when people start seeing the results, I think people want to be a part of it. I saw that here.

You’ve been credited with helping to raise graduation rates in Washoe and Clark counties during your three years in Nevada. What efforts do you credit for these improvements?

All of us were tired of seeing the rankings of Nevada being last in our country. Dwight and I came in saying we’re going to be transparent, tell everyone how we’re doing, good or bad. We’re going to look at kids, so we’re not going to get stuck on percentages and graduation methods. We were able to mobilize our principals and our teachers and develop our graduation initiative. We had a plan for every child and interventions for all nonperforming children. We put so many changes in place last year, and very quickly: the growth model, the school performance framework, being more transparent about our results, the graduation initiative, our proficiency academies. The message we were sending our schools is we’re never going to give up hope on our kids, we’re going to align our resources and we’re not going to be afraid to be held accountable.

Despite these gains, recent reports found Nevada and Las Vegas’ education systems to be among the lowest performing in the country. Why is that and what has to change?

It’s an opportunity for us to get out there and start letting people know about what we’re doing. The data will continue to come out, and it might show us in the lower ranks because the data is 1 or 2 years old. My perspective is, let’s not reflect on that. Let’s not dwell on that. If anything, because we know the types of gains we’re seeing, let’s use them and celebrate them, but also use them to push us even farther. I really believe when you get the type of buy-in from both the community and the business leaders here statewide, I really feel there’s no limit. We’re going to continue to focus on our underserved populations. It’s not only the Latino and African-American populations but also our high-poverty populations. We have several communities here that have just gone through cycles of poverty and who need just as much support. When we have the final graduation rates by the end of August, don’t be surprised when we’re standing all together, hand in hand with some of the other districts, touting the fact for the first time that we’re no longer last. Not only are we not last, but we could be at the national average.

With the upcoming Legislative session, your close working relationship with Jones is expected to bring about changes to education in Nevada. What can we expect?

We know right now that our remediation rates are so high in both Northern and Southern Nevada. I think from a policy perspective, now is a good time to look at: How do we make sure we are focusing our energy on our staff so that we achieve the right vision? Because right now, we have 10 out of every 100 high school graduates getting a bachelor’s degree in the state of Nevada. That’s half the national average. Also, now that the economy is starting to stabilize, I want to work together with the Legislature to start looking at education as an investment. I think for the last three years, our state has gone through the most difficult recessions of any state in the country. We’ve taken some of the largest cuts as a percentage of any state in the country in education. I think we’re ready now to build. My hope is that the era of cutting is over and we can now have a conversation about where we make the right investments, whether it’s more preschool, more full-day kindergarten programs, looking at how we serve children living in poverty, children with language barriers.

What do you hope for the future?

I’ve loved every minute being here. I’ve developed a passion for this community. It has really given me the true landscape of what education looks like in Nevada, and it shows me the potential more than anything else. I see how strong our staff is, the amazing support from our community and parents, for me, it’s given me a new level of excitement about where the state could go. When you hear about the top states in education, we want Nevada to be one of those states on people’s minds. That’s what our dream is. I believe we’re going to get there. I really do. Both Dwight and I will partner to get the state to the next level. I’m going to stay connected to this community because I have a vested interest. I want to make sure the success continues. I want to make sure all of our children who have been underserved in the past are served properly. This hopefully won’t be the last you’ll see of me.

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