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July 31, 2014

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I am a reformer’: New schools chief Skorkowsky shares plans for district’s future

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Steve Marcus

Pat Skorkowsky, Clark County School District superintendent, responds to a question during an editorial board meeting at the Las Vegas Sun offices in Henderson June 11, 2013.

Pat Skorkowsky at Editorial Board Meeting

Pat Skorkowsky, Clark County School District superintendent, listens to a question during an editorial board meeting at the Las  Vegas Sun offices in Henderson June 11, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Pat Skorkowsky has big plans to move the Clark County School District forward.

The new superintendent sat down with the Sun's editorial board on Tuesday to share his vision for the nation's fifth largest school district.

The Oklahoma native and 25-year veteran of the district touched upon a myriad of topics, from English-language learner support and teacher evaluation systems to reform efforts and discipline issues.

Here's what he had to say, condensed for clarity and brevity:

    • On education reform:

      I am a reformer. When former superintendent Dwight Jones came to the district and began changing the face of the district, I was fortunate enough to be at the table with him. Many of the initiatives that were brought forward were conceptual at the superintendent and deputy superintendent levels. I was given the task of implementation on a lot of these reform efforts. Working in the district during that time period gave me that opportunity to push forward that reform effort.

      One of the challenges Dwight had was not knowing the system well. He was a great man and he was able to learn quickly, but he had to rely on others around him to navigate some of the pieces or to break down the walls within the system. I already have that piece in place.

      We're doing an analysis over the summer of senior data to determine if the money we've put into these reform efforts have given us the achievement that we expected. If not, we need to rethink and refocus that money into something that is going to give us better results. I'm not ready to share them yet, but there are some reforms we've put into place that I'm not sure we're seeing the achievement bumps that we were expecting. We've got to look at return on investment every step of the way.

    • On English-language learner students:

      What our classrooms looked like 25 years ago when I started is very different now. We see a higher percentage of second-language students who aren't graduating anywhere near where they need to be.

      They don't have access to the curriculum because they don't have access to the language. But we know that language isn't a barrier to intelligence. With some of the money that the governor and the Legislature gave us this last session, we've got to focus in on our second-language population. That has to be a priority No. 1.

      Approximately 15 schools are going to be identified as "zoom schools," which is the governor's and the Legislature's effort to meet the needs of English-language learners. We're going to go in and basically kickstart those schools.

      We're going to add pre-kindergarten programs to our schools that don't have them and full-day kindergarten. We're going to reduce class sizes in kindergarten to third grades to ensure that our students get individualized instruction so that language development can take place. We're going to focus in on reading development centers through a partnership with UNLV. We'll focus in on summer school. But we can't stop there since it's only in 15 schools.

    • On the development of a new teacher evaluation system coming 2014-15:

      I support the new state evaluation system 100 percent. I was heavily involved with the Teachers and Leaders Council (a state-level education committee) in its development.

      Is it going to be easy to implement? No. When you look at any state or district out there who has put accountability into their teacher evaluation system, there have been challenges, both legal and within the employee groups and the system itself.

      We're focusing in on the professional practices of our teachers in the classroom and administrators. We have to teach our teachers and administrators the new rubric, what the standards look like and how to ensure the consistency for administrators because that's one of the challenges we've had for years.

      We have to ensure that our teachers have quality feedback on instruction. And it's not about a piece of paper with an evaluation. It's about that ongoing feedback throughout the year. So it's supervision, not just evaluation.

    • On Nevada's new law that increases teachers' probationary period before gaining tenure from one year to three years:

      Every student and every family deserves the best quality teacher in their classroom. We have the expectation that every student will see a minimum of a year's academic growth underneath that teacher's care.

      Going to a three-year probationary period was huge. At any point in three years, they can be removed from teaching. So that gives us a little more leverage.

      If teachers are unsatisfactory, then we're able to work through a system where we are monitoring and ensuring that they are meeting the standards. If they are not meeting the standards, then we're providing assistance to them. If they're not successful by the third year, the new law allows us to counsel them that this isn't the best career for you at this time. We need that ability.

      Nobody wants to have their student go through a year of bad instruction. No one wants their student to fall further and further behind.

    • On working with the union on the new teacher evaluation system:

      We have been working closely with the Clark County Education Association this past year on this whole piece. We have to work with our teachers on this process. It has to be a joint process.

      We're working with the Teachers and Leaders Council to ensure that we have the best quality standards in place and the best training for our teachers and administrators so that we're able to do that in a fair and equitable manner without all of the challenges that other states and districts have seen.

      You have to be able to work with the union, but not be afraid to say this is not the teacher you would want your child in their classroom. It is a challenge always to tell somebody that they're not cutting it. But you do it a professional manner so that you're not attacking the person, you're attacking the performance.

      But we have to make tough decisions. We've got to be more aggressive when it comes to an evaluation system. We can't afford to let these teachers come back if they're not getting the best results from their students.

    • On education funding in Nevada:

      We have asked and asked and asked for money in the past. Sometimes it's come through. Sometimes it hasn't.

      We got about $38 million for English-language learners and we got class size reduction for kindergarten on top of that. We got a little bump in per-pupil funding, but it's not significant. It's not going to make a difference. We still have to do more with less and we've had to do that for years and years.

      We have to be careful in lobbying for more state funding. We're not out to hurt the rural counties or any other county. What we are out to do is get our fair share. With over 70 percent of Nevada's student population here, getting this amount of funding per pupil is not right. It's not fair. We're not getting it.

      If we had the ability to tax through the legislative system, it would be great. Right now we currently don't. But I'm never going to ask for more money without putting a system of accountability into it and determining the return on investment.

    • On his biggest worry:

      Our class sizes are larger than they've ever been. We staff at 38 student to 1 teacher in secondary schools and we staff at 34 to 1 in our fourth and fifth grade and 30 to 1 in elementary. It's ridiculous.

      When we staff at 38, that doesn't mean our class sizes are at 38. It means that some of our classes get extensively larger. I've had high schools that have put English classes into lecture halls within their building and teaching it like a college class. That's not going to help our students get better. I think our teachers get burned out and exhausted when we add more students to classrooms.

    • On the disproportionate impact of expulsions of black students:

      If you're an African-American male, the Office of Civil Rights came out with a report that said you're three times more likely to be suspended or expelled. We can't tolerate that.

      So we're looking at major reform efforts within our schools to keep those kids in schools and not have them go out to behavioral schools or continuation schools unless they have committed extreme acts that deserve an expulsion.

      The minute we recommend a child or student to go outside of the district, the chances are significantly increased that they will become a dropout. They say the school has disassociated with me, so I'm disassociating with education.

      We have to break this cycle. If we can get a student reading by third grade, the chances of discipline decreases significantly. We have to find better strategies to get reading levels up districtwide. High school principals will tell me that if students come in reading at grade level, then they can teach them and get them to graduate.

    • On Teach for America:

      We all see the value of Teach for America. It takes students who have graduated from top colleges to come at education from a social justice perspective, that every child deserves the best and the brightest.

      Some of our toughest schools are moving toward being fully staffed in years because we are using Teach for America teachers in those hard-to-fill areas.

      Our biggest fear is that they won't stay with us because oftentimes, they become phenomenal teachers but they don't stay with us after that two-year commitment. We have to keep them because we can't invest so much time and money and effort into these teachers to have them go away after two years.

    • On charter schools:

      I think charter schools obviously have a place. It's an essential piece of the educational environment right now.

      We have seven district-approved charter schools and we work very closely with them to ensure that they have that opportunity for success. Their teachers are provided opportunities for professional development. So are their administrators. We have to see charter schools as a partnership because they teach our kids.

      I think there are opportunities for other charter schools in the future. I'm just not sure how they are going to fit in with our system of reforms.

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    1. Start reforming by breaking up the Teachers Union and getting that money into the classrooms for our kids.

      Wait----can't do that. That would actually improve education.

    2. "I'm not ready to share them yet, but there are some reforms we've put into place that I'm not sure we're seeing the achievement bumps that we were expecting"

      How about some transparency here? What's the benefit of not sharing?

      Which reforms are bearing fruit?

      Any reforms down the pike in response to workplace climate surveys?

      More specifics and fewer platitudes, please.

    3. @lovinglife. The only money that the Teachers Union gets is from the dues paid by members. Those dues are taken by payroll deduction from the salaries of the teachers. How is that taking money from the classroom? I have looked at the Education budget and haven't been able to find a line item that says Teachers Union. If you have found one, please share it.

    4. This just sounds like more of the same. The problem with education is that it's run by the government. Education should be run by the private sector. Schools should have to compete for money or else they have no incentive to perform well.

    5. CHANGE is the only certainty in the educational institution, and some refer to change as "reform". Clark County is so very fortunate to have a man in the superintendent position who has: gone the distance within the school district, knows its underpinnings, had the opportunity to closely work with the former superintendent, is a familiar face to the community, businesses, and Lawmakers, has actually taught in CCSD classrooms, has a working knowledge of employee associations and unions, and already knows where schools within the district stand. There is no having to train him for the job, nor give him a learning curve to get familiar with the organization. He hit the road running even as an interim superintendent!

      Readers need to understand that education is never static, it constantly changes, and with that change, people within an organization need the input of standardized information, time to analyze it, time to discuss results, and strategically plan. It is a process, that gets unwieldy at times when citizens demand transparency and immediate results.

      WHY transparency is difficult: Before school ended, students took a battery of assessments as: the CRTs, Discovery Launch, AIMSWEB, Voyager, Core Phonics, and more. Results for the CRTs had not been disclosed, or simply were not in, before and up to last Monday when I last looked. After school ended, Launch results were released, but no teachers were at work to analyze results as they are on summer break.

      Also, the workplace climate surveys were extended in May, so results from those are probably being carefully screened for any written in comments by those who participated in the survey. That does take time, analyzing, discussion, planning, and resolve to change things in any needed area (notification of affected parties). It is a process, it is a type of "living document" than relies on subjective reporting. Not everyone elects to participate taking this survey for various reasons---one reason being the reporter fearful of reprisal, which is a common concern, valid or not. Results are shared with administration, employee associations or unions, academic area and zone managers, school principals, and school staff. It is a process.

      Superintendent Skorkowsky brought up several points of which I would like to address in my next post. Ultimately, he brings common sense, stability, and transparency to the table at school district that has experienced turbulent and insurmountable challenges in the last two decades.

      Blessings and Peace,
      Star

    6. What's Skorkowsky's new salary?

      Maybe he could donate a portion of that to the education system for a year or two to help his most needy schools.

    7. And where does he mention parental responsibility in all these talking points?

      Not a word.

      It's all doomed until parents make a full effort to instill the value of an education in their children.

    8. I'd like to see higher core subject standards with more focus on STEML subjects in all the grades, longer school days & school years, options where 10-12 graders could sign up for CSN courses if they've met the pre-requisites along with an available "apprentice" OJT program. Given the diversity of home languages here in the valley, I also think after-school "language lab" courses for english should be available to both students and adults. I'd also suggest academic requirements for teachers be changed -- HS teachers should have a degree or experience in the subject to be taught, with educational degrees only required for administrative positions; ES teachers should have an AA degree in early childhood education and pass a basic reading-math-science competency exam, but that's it. Incentives would be provided for student achievement (based on standardized testing results) and after-school support (before & after student monitoring/mentoring, "language lab" support, after school activities management (sports, academic and social clubs)). And finally, I'd like to see a more aggressive effort to recruit parents and other adults in the community to volunteer in the schools and more opportunities for them to do so (especially the before & after school programs). Might as well have the school grounds, lunchroom and library open from 7-5 daily if volunteers can be found to support -- some kids could use the opportunity, and many of them are there being fed or hanging out somewhere waiting anyway.

    9. It's a sinking ship until they change the mindset of those producing these kids. I'll almost guarantee the majority of the 40% drop-outs are from broken families, non educated themselves, grandma raising the kid, no values being taught, some type of parental addiction or jail and a dysfunctional mindset of right and wrong.

      How are any of these changes being put forward by the CCSD going to fix that?

    10. He isn't a reformer. A reformer would have the GUTS to have the educational paradigm on the table.

      He wants nothing more than union teachers to continue working for the government in taxpayer built buildings.

      Where is the education reform?

    11. Showed me a parent involved and active in his child's education goals and I'll show you a child that will succeed through the education system....I don't care if it's Las Vegas or Greenwich, Connecticut.