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Sandoval touts ‘Zoom’ program in visit to Las Vegas school

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Leila Navidi

Governor Brian Sandoval talks with kindergartener Odalis Ayala Montano while touring Manuel Cortez Elementary School in Las Vegas on Friday, September 13, 2013.

Updated Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 | 7:08 p.m.

Sandoval Visits Cortez ES

Governor Brian Sandoval talks to a fifth grade class while touring Manuel Cortez Elementary School in Las Vegas on Friday, September 13, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Gov. Brian Sandoval visited a Las Vegas elementary school today to see how his signature education program serving non-English-speaking students was coming along.

Sandoval, flanked by Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky and district officials, toured several classrooms and spoke with administrators, teachers and students about the immediate effects of his “Zoom to Literacy” initiative.

Several months ago, Sandoval approved a bipartisan bill that funneled an unprecedented $50 million in state funding to help English-language learner students catch up to their literate peers. Nevada has more than 55,000 non-English-speaking students, who have among the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the state.

The Clark County School District received the bulk of the new state money: $39.4 million over the next two years. It went to 14 elementary schools serving poor and Hispanic students most at risk of dropping out of school later in life.

Cortez, located in the northeast valley, is one of the so-called “Zoom” schools receiving an influx of new funding to boost its lagging student performance.

The two-star rated school counts 80 percent of its students as Hispanic. All of the students receive federally subsidized school meals and 70 percent of the students are considered limited-English proficient.

The School District overhauled the staff at Cortez, installing a new principal and several new teachers, including a team of language and literacy coaches. Using the new “Zoom” funding, the district implemented several new programs designed to help English-language learners.

Cortez now offers two pre-kindergarten classes, free of charge to parents, and a special reading center through a partnership with UNLV to help students hone their language skills.

Moreover, Cortez has additional tuition-free, full-day kindergarten classes, each capped at 21 students in a district where 30- or 40-student kindergarten classes are the norm.

The school also has a longer school year — 15 additional days — and is looking at instituting a summer academy or a year-round schedule to help students maintain their English skills over the summer vacation.

As Sandoval toured Cortez, he marveled at the new education reforms being undertaken at the struggling school. At each classroom stop, Sandoval asked teachers how many students they had in their classrooms.

The answers: 25, 23, 27.

“(The lower class sizes) will have a positive effect on our students,” Principal Patty Rosales said, remarking that class sizes last year were well over 30 students. “Our students have quicker and more access to their teachers.”

Sandoval nodded and smiled as he looked around a classroom full of second-grade students, diligently working. Although some of the students are reading at grade level, others are well behind, struggling to grasp simple sentences, teacher Elena Davidson said.

Sandoval knows that if these students can’t read by third grade, they are more likely to fail, more likely to drop out.

Sandoval, who toured two similar “Zoom” schools in Reno last week, said it will be his goal to visit all of the “Zoom” schools to see how they are doing. A lot of time, money and political capital is at stake, and these “Zoom” schools will be closely monitored.

Lawmakers will want to see positive results before approving more money next legislative session.

“We’ve made a real commitment. It’s important for me to come and see the program for myself,” Sandoval said. “This is an incredible opportunity for these kids. At the end of the day, we want to see growth in these kids. There’s no doubt it’s going to be a great, great success.”

Toward the end of his tour, Sandoval visited a first-grade classroom with 27 students.

As he met with the students — all boys — Sandoval was approached by 6-year-old Kyler Smith. He handed the gray-suited governor a pencil drawing of his school.

Sandoval smiled at the boy.

“I’m very impressed,” he told Kyler, who beamed. “I’m going to put this on my refrigerator at the governor’s mansion so I can think of you and your school every day.”

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