Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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Students are the ones often encouraged to “reach for the stars,” but now that mantra will also apply to Las Vegas schools after the Clark County School Board unanimously adopted a new school ranking system Thursday night.
Unveiled with great fanfare with educators taking flight on the Fremont Street zip line, the school rating system — called the School Performance Framework — seeks to measure student achievement among the district’s 217 elementary schools and 59 middle schools.
An announcement of high school rankings is expected in April, with alternative and special education schools following in August.
With Thursday’s announcement, Clark County becomes the first school district in Nevada to implement a school ranking system. Las Vegas’ new rankings follow other major urban school districts with school rankings: New York City, Los Angeles, Denver and Miami-Dade.
Gov. Brian Sandoval applauded the School District’s new ranking system on Thursday, calling it a “significant step forward.”
“The School Performance Framework will provide parents with important information about their child’s education and hold educators, administrators and the public accountable,” he said in a prepared statement.
“I applaud the state’s largest school district for implementing this level of transparency and I look forward to continuing to work with stakeholders to improve our state’s education system,” Sandoval said.
The new framework, which has been in the works since the fall, ranks schools in five tiers, from five stars for the highest-performing schools to one star for the lowest-performing schools.
Five-star schools will be placed in a special “autonomous” school zone, where they will be given more flexibility over curriculum, budget, staffing and day-to-day operations. These schools will be treated similarly to the district’s empowerment schools, which are given more autonomy in exchange for greater accountability.
Of the 357 schools in the district, 37 schools achieved the five-star status this school year. These high-performing schools will serve as models for lower-performing schools to aspire to, according to the School District.
The rationale is that by identifying the top-performing schools, the district can better focus on improving lower-performing schools by giving them additional support, such as first preference in new teacher hiring and additional professional development training for teachers.
Further, principals and teachers from lower-performing schools can learn from the best practices in place at the five-star schools, said Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones.
“This is about learning,” he said. “This isn’t designed to punish (low-performing schools).”
Some teachers, who first learned about the new school-ranking system during their professional development day on Tuesday, did not see eye to eye with Jones.
About 100 teachers gathered at the Edward Greer Education Center on Thursday night to urge a resolution to their contract talks and protest the new School Performance Framework. Some even handed in signed petitions to the School Board opposing the new school rankings and proposed teacher evaluation system being developed at the state level.
“It encourages winners and losers,” said teachers union President Ruben Murillo, of the new ranking system. “This is absolutely a competition between schools.”
Murillo sat on a 36-member special advisory panel — made up of seven teachers, six principals, two parents and other community members — that has met monthly since the fall to develop the new school rankings.
Murillo said he supports the new framework in general, but there is too much emphasis on testing.
Under the new ranking system, schools are assigned a numerical score out of 100 points, based on how well they did on various categories, such as academic performance, student growth and school climate. The numerical scores — which were not made public — determine how many stars a school receives.
The majority of the points a school can earn — 80 percent — is based on the percentage of students who are proficient in core subject areas and how much they’ve improved year over year on standardized tests. Some teachers say this definition of a good school is too narrow.
“There are amazing things happening at every school, no matter how many stars they have,” said Theo Small, an 18-year veteran fifth-grade teacher at Sandy Miller Elementary School in the eastern Las Vegas Valley. Miller — which showed a 12 percent improvement in reading and writing last year but had a 2 percent decline in math — received a three-star rating.
Small said when members of his staff learned about their school’s ranking on Tuesday, they were “crestfallen.” Sandy Miller teachers were adamant they were an “exceptional school,” he said.
“Our teachers work 12-hour days, spending their vacations grading assignments. We can’t work any harder,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like being at a one-star school. Our morale took a huge hit.”
The rankings will not be used to evaluate school administrators or teachers this school year, officials said. However, they were developed to comply with a new state law mandating academic achievement be used in teacher evaluations, which goes into effect in July 2013.
Schools dissatisfied with their ranking have from March 15 to April 15 to appeal. They will be given an opportunity to challenge the way their numerical scores were calculated and share mitigating factors with the School District.
The rankings will continue to be tweaked, but Jones said he expected improvements from low-performing schools. Should schools continue to be among the district’s lowest performers, the School District might institute the “turnaround model,” he said.
Currently, five schools have replaced more than half of their staffs, some including the principal. The Las Vegas Sun has been tracking the results of the turnaround process at Chaparral, Mojave and Western high schools and Elizondo and Hancock elementary schools this school year.
“If schools can’t get better, we should look at all options to turn that school around,” Jones said. “Every child should have the opportunity to attend a high-quality school.”
School Board members all heralded the new ranking system at their bimonthly meeting Thursday night. The new school rankings proposal passed 6-0, with School Board member Lorraine Alderman absent.
“I’m encouraged,” School Board President Linda Young said of the reforms taking place in the district. “If we’re going to do things differently, we’ve got to think outside of the box. We’re moving in the right direction.”