Photo by Christopher DeVargas // Illustration by Jeff Adamson
Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012 | 2 a.m.
What is a turnaround school?
The Clark County School District implemented the "turnaround" model at five of its worst-performing schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Four schools – Chaparral, Mojave and Western high schools and Hancock elementary school — received a piece of $8.7 million in federal School Improvement Grant money to improve test scores and for the high schools, graduation rates. As part of the turnaround model, the principal and at least half of the staff were replaced at each school, and schools were required to implement new programs and teaching methods to improve student achievement.
This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking efforts by the Clark County School District to improve student performance at five struggling schools.
Long, glum faces stare back at Todde Webb as he begins lecturing 44 Mojave High School students about good character and leadership.
The five-year veteran teacher knows it’s hard to engage students, especially early on a Saturday morning. His teenage students could be sleeping, playing video games, shooting hoops.
But they’re not. They’re stuck in Mojave’s new Saturday detention hall in a scene reminiscent of the iconic teen movie “The Breakfast Club.”
Welcome to School on Saturday, otherwise known as Solutions Other than Suspension. The S.O.S. program – overseen by its director, Webb – was started in early December at Mojave to discipline misbehaving students, help them make up work and pass their proficiency exams.
Webb wills himself to engage with his students. He too, could be enjoying breakfast at home with his preteen children.
But he’s not. Webb and two other Mojave teachers have given up three hours of their weekend to help students learn about the consequences of their actions: being late or cutting class, talking back to a teacher, breaking the school dress code.
In the past, students with these more minor offenses would get a 20-minute after-school detention, and repeat offenders would be suspended temporarily from school. However, the new administration at Mojave – which came in as a result of a multimillion-dollar federal grant to turn around failing schools – found that students were being let off too easily with after-school detentions that were too short.
Suspensions were worse. Instead of learning in class, suspended students were sent home to do whatever they wanted. It was akin to rewarding students for their misbehavior, said Principal Antonio Rael, who is in his first year at Mojave.
Saturday school was a way to keep students in class during the week and have them come on their own time to serve in detention.
“We need students in school every day, so the consequence for bad behavior is Saturday school, spending three more hours with teachers,” he said. “We feel this intervention is going to go a long way in helping our students become successful.”
Each hour of Saturday school — which goes from 9 a.m. to noon — is devoted to one of three components: character education, academic arbitration and school beautification.
During the first hour, Webb — who is a special education teacher during the week — discusses with his students what it means to be a good student (ask questions in class), how to control one’s temper (“play dead” with your emotions, as if you were confronting a bear), and the importance of being on time (it’s just the professional thing to do).
To help developing youths learn more about themselves, Webb hands out a personality test for each student to fill out. The results seem to spark life into the sleepy-looking group.
“Who’s inventive?” Webb asks his students. “Who’s outgoing?”
A cackle of laughter follows. Webb is reminded that all students – even those in detention – seek positive reinforcement.
“Everyone has something to offer to this world,” he tells his students. “You all have a gift, a talent. We have enough brainpower in this room to change the world. We can really make a difference.”
These aren’t just platitudes or false encouragement, Webb says later. Schools need to win the hearts of all students – especially their misbehaving ones. Otherwise, they are the ones who fall through the cracks, he says.
Webb knows this all too well, growing up as an orphan in an impoverished neighborhood of Detroit. Webb was diagnosed with a learning disorder and was on the verge of dropping out of high school before he found the will to graduate and get his master’s degrees in education, he said.
After the economy tanked in Detroit, Webb and his wife, Sahran, moved to Las Vegas. They took to teaching students at Green Valley, one of the top-performing high schools in Clark County. However, when the School District began the process of replacing the staff at Mojave last spring as a result of the turnaround, the Webbs jumped at the challenge of working at an at-risk high school.
By sharing his story, Webb says he hopes his students will break the cycle of low achievement at Mojave, which has a 50 percent graduation rate and the lowest test scores in the valley.
“If I can do it, these kids can too,” Webb said. “They just need some extra encouragement. If they can relate to you, you can get kids to do anything in life.”
The second hour of Saturday school rolls around; this one is devoted to academics.
During the week, Webb and his staff collect from teachers incomplete assignments of students scheduled to attend Saturday school. That way, students – especially those who missed class as a result of playing hooky or being late – can catch up on assignments at Saturday school.
Mojave students with chronic absences are automatically sent to Saturday school to make up work – and class time. Many of these students are passing classes but are at risk of becoming credit deficient because they have 10 or more absences. With Saturday school, these students have a second chance at making up classroom time, Webb said.
Upperclassmen in the program are encouraged to attend a concurrent Saturday test preparation class in math, reading and science. As a kind of academic boot camp, these classes were started years ago to help more students pass the state standardized High School Proficiency Exam, said math teacher Toni Zinsli.
In a classroom next door to Webb’s Saturday school, Zinsli is explaining statistics to her students. The six-year veteran at Mojave acknowledges that math skills are sorely lacking among her students. District officials say Mojave students haven’t been exposed to the kind of rigor required to meet today’s testing standards. The test prep class is trying to make up for lost time, Zinsli said.
“Do you know what a standard normal curve is?” she asks her class, some with quizzical looks on their faces. “This is the bell-shaped curve.”
After explaining a basic statistical concept, Zinsli offers some test-taking tips: Stop skimming, read questions thoroughly, don’t cheat.
The turnaround process at Mojave, as well as the new Saturday school, has renewed interest in Saturday proficiency boot camps. Sparsely attended in previous years, the boot camps now are drawing upwards of 60 students each Saturday, Zinsli said.
“They want to pass, and they want to graduate,” Zinsli said. “They’ve always had it in them, but they never had the chance to show it.”
The proficiency boot camp is especially helpful for students like Mojave sophomore Micah Romero, 15. Although Mojave offers test prep classes after school, Romero can’t attend because of cheerleading practice. Romero said she appreciated that Mojave opened its doors on Saturday.
“It’s better to go for tutoring on Saturday than be blindsided on the test,” she said, adding she feels nervous about proficiency.
Mojave junior Tracy Willie, 17, attended the Saturday test prep class on recent morning because he wants to pass his math proficiencies this year so he can focus solely on basketball and track next year. The Saturday programs demonstrate Mojave’s renewed commitment to its students as a result of the turnaround process, he said.
“Last year, (the school) showed us they don’t care, so we didn’t care,” he said. “Now, this year, they care, so we care.”
Back at the S.O.S. program, Webb is wrapping up the academic portion of the day. After a quick snack break of water and granola bars, he sends his students across the campus to dust cabinets and sweep floors.
The students make their way through the parking lot, the tennis and basketball courts and the quad and outdoor track. They sweep litter into dustbins and pick up soda cans with gloved hands.
There is some grumbling, but Webb is quick to dismiss it.
After all, students in detention should have some kind of real consequence, Webb says. Further, by having students give back to Mojave, Webb hopes his students will feel school pride again.
“We’re here six to seven hours every day, let’s make it beautiful,” Webb tells a boy, who is carrying a trash bag.
Webb credits his Saturday school for helping to reduce incidents of graffiti and vandalism on campus.
“Picking up trash will make them think twice about throwing trash on the ground,” he said. “They’re less likely to tag it with graffiti when they have to push some energy into (the campus).”
Mojave freshman Ledarious Hatcher, 15, was sent to Saturday school for being tardy to class and missing an after-school detention. The tall, muscular teen spent an hour clearing the outdoor track of debris.
“It’s real good,” he said of the community service. “It makes you not want to come back (next Saturday).”
So far, about 100 Mojave students and 15 misbehaving students from Johnston and Findlay Middle Schools have passed through Webb’s Saturday school program. For the majority, once is enough to get the message, Webb said.
“As much as we’re happy to see them today, we don’t want to see them next Saturday.”